In Rwanda…making my ignorance linear

The previous post suggested that we’re all living in the Age of Nonlinearity. One consequence is that most of us live in a nonlinear level of ignorance best described as “don’t-know, squared”… that is… we don’t know what we don’t know.

This is true for me in many aspects of life. One big area of such nonlinear ignorance is any on-the-ground feel for what day-to-day existence is like in the developing world. Take for example, the statistic that some parts of Africa could raise their effective agricultural output by as much as 25% if children had access to water that was safe to drink…and the relevant UN Millennium Development goal to halve the number of people worldwide lacking such access to potable water by the year 2015. Supposedly that goal was achieved a couple of years back…a little ahead of schedule. However, some 780 million people still lack such access to safe drinking water… where access is defined as a distance of one kilometer or less…not the few feet you and I have to go to a tap.

This week I’m getting the tiniest glimpse what that looks like in and around Kigali, Rwanda. Our church has been helping support a missionary couple, Nick and Jen Greener, who work here…primarily helping locals build roof-water-collection systems and concrete cisterns for catchment and storage of rainwater. My wife and I are here with our pastor and five others for a short on-site visit.

Operating under the auspices of Youth-with-a-Mission, Inc… YWAM (pronounced WHY-WAM… an interesting organization in and of itself)… the Greeners have lately been putting in 2-3 such systems per month, and are getting ready to expand outside Rwanda itself into the rest of eastern Africa. They’ve installed a number of systems in rural villages, and have an order book reaching out for at least six months. A few of the sites are in Kigali proper. One supplies the Kigali-based home offices of YWAM’s East Africa ministries, which here in town is providing primary and secondary education for hundreds of kids, support and services for hundreds of women with HIV-AIDS, and other good works (we’re going to participate in an AIDS conference there tomorrow). A second installation provides water for Kigali’s city government offices (built with government funding as opposed to donations). Another provides water for New Life Bible church and its associated education facilities, which include primary and secondary education as well as a Bible college… the first in eastern Africa… that opened its doors to 35 students today (modeled after the executive MBA programs that combine on-line education with bursts of on-site work that are currently so popular in the United States and other developed nations).

Each system is providing safe-water access to something like 1000 people. But the best part of this story is approach. This is not work being done for locals so much as it is work being done by and paid for by locals in partnership with outsides in such a way that everyone learns and the pace of progress can accelerate over time.

The cisterns themselves have several unique features. They are much larger than the more prevalent but smaller polystyrene counterparts. The latter are cheaper per unit and can be installed more quickly but far more expensive in terms of per-gallon cost when compared with the concrete systems, which can hold 10 times as much water. The cisterns are largely underground, which means they require far less concrete than their above-ground counterparts. A number of small innovations contribute to reducing greatly the time and cost required for building each unit.

Nonlinearity comes into play in yet another way…go down any of the roads just outside the Kigali area and you find hundreds of people ferrying empty-or-full yellow jerry cans along the road. Empty they’re not much of a burden, but brimming with water they can weigh up to 50-60 pounds. Strenuous even for the lucky few with a bicycle but a real struggle for those on foot. As our missionary friend explained, you can get a feel for the locations of the water sources by watching which directions folks are moving with full- and empty cans. It’s clear that some people are ferrying water a mile or more; in the more rural areas the distances jump up to as much as 4-5 miles. Each jerry can holds about a day’s worth of water for a typical family, so this is part of the daily routine. That doesn’t leave much time or energy for anything else, such as earning to provide for the family’s other needs, or raising the kids…or…for the kids who often happen to be the ones fetching the water… to go to school. The YWAM people are coming to use this water ministry as the foundation for much of their other outreach…the schooling, the medical care, and the help with microbusinesses.

This means that when safe drinking water comes closer to home, there’s a flowering of education. Less time and money needed for medical attention… or for economic growth and well-being.

What’s really cool? Picturing this single, small effort, multiplied by the thousands of creative people from the secular as well as the faith-based world, supplying needed water to 800 million people, and allowing them to turn their problem-solving skills from where that next glass of water is coming from to some of the world’s other ills.

Interested in a few pictures? You can find some on the Downtown Baptist Church facebook website here. More should be posted over the coming few days.

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2 Responses to In Rwanda…making my ignorance linear

  1. Donna McKinney says:

    Thanks for being our eyes and ears on the ground there in Rwands. It’s great to hear details about the work there.

  2. John Plodinec says:


    Your post underscores an inconvenient truth too often overlooked by our politicians: the importance of discretionary resources. 150 yrs ago Jacob Burkhart pointed out that the reason the Renaissance occurred was the growth of discretionary income. When people today talk about becoming more sustainable, or more resilient, or…too often they forget that this can only occur if there are discretionary revenues.

    If I’m Chinese, living in an agricultural backwater, I really don’t care about climate change – and I’m certainly not willing to pay for it until I am sure my family has enough food, water, and energy. If we are serious about these sorts of things we need to recognize that the shortest path may not be a straight line, but rather may require that we solve other problems first. Non-linear indeed!

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