Stories from Rwanda

Theophile Nkundibirama (Theo)

They call him “organic man.” Theophile Nkundibirama is known around Kageyo as a man on a mission. At just 28 years old, Theophile (Theo) already left a previous life behind. He got a degree in finance and worked as a banker for a few years, but he gave that up to learn more about organic gardening. He always felt it was his calling to work with the poor, and he believes organic gardening is a useful tool for transforming lives. “Many communities don’t have food security,” he explained. “Many communities eat food but overcook it, and the nutrients get lost. There are other ways of preventing diseases when you teach about sanitation, water purification and hygiene. Gardens help communities to transform their lives and their health.”

His parents were surprised; working in agriculture wasn’t what they had planned for their son. But they are glad that he and his brother, who both work in gardening for community development, are making a difference. Born in Congo to a Rwandan family, Theo first came to Rwanda in 2004. After quitting banking, he enrolled in a year of intensive training in organic gardening in Kenya and came back to Rwanda to partner with Africa New Life to start the Kageyo Garden Project. Kageyo was the most logical place to start because hunger daily affects the population, which is mostly made up of resettled refugees. “We had the problem of malnutrition,” explained Pastor Sam Gahigana of New Life Church. “I remember in 2010, one child in Kageyo died because of hunger.”

Theo started by planting several demonstration keyhole gardens at the New Life School that multiplied into a half-hectare (1.2 acre) organic farm where he hosts community trainings. The gravity-fed drip irrigation and all organic implements have made a beautiful, productive garden that is pretty unique. All the produce from this farm goes into the school lunches and feeds 659 students. “It’s a big beginning,” said Pastor Sam. “If you could see how much these vegetables have helped the children; there’s a big change in their lives. We have seen with one year of using vegetables the change in the children.” After participants attend classes at the large garden, Theo helps them install keyhole gardens and in-ground beds at home. “I like keyhole gardens because they are easy to maintain,” said Theo of the African-designed round beds. “They also help to hold water because the soil is not compact.” The classes ensure that every gardener has a fundamental understanding of how and why organic gardening is important. The curriculum includes the basics of bio-intensive farming, construction of keyhole gardens and how to prevent and treat diseases through proper nutrition and medicinal plants. Much of this is completely new information to community members, so with just a little education and start-up costs for home gardens, the program is making a big impact. Families are able to plant roots, both literal and metaphorical, for their futures.

Theo has big dreams for gardens. As he walked the red dirt streets of Kageyo with a palmful of seeds, he pointed out houses that he knows need gardens and gardens he is proud to have built. He has trained fifty people so far, but his goal is a garden for every house in Kageyo. “If I train more people,” he explained, “they can be experts and be in charge of expanding. We have only been here for one year, and we have a big garden and fifty homes. If we have other people trained in organics here, we can move.” His energy is contagious in this small community. He rarely sits still, and when he does, it’s to pour over garden books that were given to him. “We thank God for Theo,” said Pastor Sam. “He’s a man who loves his work. He’s a young man and he’s not married. He doesn’t go out with friends for fun, he goes to the garden. What he does is flow; it’s not mechanical. It’s something he does out of his life.” Theo has found his calling, and, thankfully, it is changing the lives of many through the Kageyo Garden Project. “Organic man” won’t stop until there is a garden in every house in Kageyo. And even then, Theo said he has plans to expand to nearby villages. “I am planting the seeds for healthy communities,” he said in his way of delivering profound truths casually, walking hurriedly ahead towards the next garden he promised to build.

Written by Constance Dykhuizen and photo credit to Esther Havens