During my time as an aid worker, I learned that not every donation was welcome. In theory, as a humanitarian aid agency, free donations of supplies should be gratefully accepted by its workers and passed on to needy beneficiaries, but things were not always so black and white.
Good Donations and Bad Donations
I fondly recall the chaos caused in remote parts of the former Soviet Union, as excess American military supplies were offloaded as aid; while there was no doubt that much of the donated goods were useful and provided a nutritional or practical benefit, one had to question the distribution of depilatory cream in Tajikistan, 4kg tins of tomato ketchup in Kyrgyzstan and X-ray holders dating back to 1957 in Uzbekistan. While I had worked under a much larger team in Russia, my current position as Project Manager for a Seeds and Tools distribution in eastern Rwanda involved a lot more responsibility, including dealing with potentially the largest shipment of vegetable seeds Africa had ever known.
Our director, a tall forthright Brit who had been my boss in Moscow, called me into his office to give me the news.
“Good news. I think,” he started (that initial hesitation should have given me a clue). “We have received a free donation of vegetable seeds from a large multinational. Suspect it is a tax write-off, but there is probably some good stuff in there. Can you liaise with Francois and then contact the Ministry of Agriculture to see how they want to play it?”
Having spent the last few months looking at fields of beans and maize, I thought the addition of some other useful crops would be embraced, allowing a variation in the diet. I voiced my approval and enthusiasm.
“Only thing is, the shipment is 20 metric tonnes. While I am not a seeds expert, I have been told that that is enough vegetable seed for the whole of Africa. Which could be a challenge as we are in one of the smallest countries. Anyway, here is the waybill with more info.” I glanced at the documentation, and a sudden panic emerged within.
“It says the shipment contains 1.4 million sachets of seeds. Do you have a breakdown of which seeds are included.”
“Ah,” smirked the director, “that is why I said I thought it was good news. Alas that is all the paperwork we have. That is, of course, until you have done a thorough physical count and listed each item. We can then go and see the ministry.”
“You must be kidding. You want me to physically count and sort 1.4 million sachets? That will take months.”
“Am sure a resourceful chap such as yourself will cope. Buy you a beer later, but must dash to a UN coordination meeting.” And off he dashed leaving me alone with my waybill.
Counting 1.4 Million Sachets without English
The good news was that the sachets were very light, the type you find in the supermarket. Although labelled in English, they had helpful photos of the finished article, so language would not be a pre-requisite. The bad news was there were 1.4 million of them. I took on some temporary staff to work under my warehouse manager, fifteen locals proficient in Kinyarwanda and with a smattering of French. All they had to do was sort the pictures, how hard could it be?
I had little time to supervise things over the three weeks it took to sort the sachets, as we were in the middle of an intensive distribution cycle - seeds, hoes and food to the returning refugees and internally displaced from the horrendous genocide a few months before. My warehouse manager brought me a report every couple of days, with a list of seeds counted. There were plenty of useful items – tomatoes, onions and beans – as well as some surreal ones, such as 8,000 sachets of catnip, the ultimate seed of choice for post-genocidal reconstruction.
There were plenty of carrots too, or so the list told me. I went to the warehouse one day to show my face and thank the team for their efforts, when I stood there in bemusement as the first worker was nonchalantly tossing the parsnips in with the carrots. When I asked him what he was doing, he pointed at the pictures of each vegetable, which were remarkably similar apart from the colour. He had just assumed it was the same vegetable. I told him to carry on – this was taking too long as it was.
Catnip to Solve the World’s Hunger
While the main beneficiary of the pak choi was the Thai wife of one of my colleagues, and while we queried what an emergency aid distribution site was going to do with ornamental gourd seeds, I became obsessed by the catnip. It seemed almost as though I was being directly challenged – someone had sent 8,000 sachets of catnip into the aftermath of one of the world’s greatest manmade catastrophes, and it had landed on my desk.
It became my main conversation topic in the pub to anyone who would listen, as I brainstormed with colleagues as to the best use for the catnip. There were some good suggestions, the best of which was from an Australian nurse, who suggested we work with the orphanages, grow the catnip and have the orphans make toys for cats, which could then be distributed through her medical and dental network in Australia. This toy was made by an orphan from Rwanda, please give generously – that kind of thing.
Discussing Vegetables with the Minister
A topic to discuss with the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as figuring out what they wanted to do with all the seeds. At least I had a list now and, while we had our own ideas, the ultimate decisions would be made by local authorities. I brought my list and some samples to give the minister an idea, and we sat down with juice in the hot afternoon sun and got to work.
I have never discussed vegetables with a minister before or since, and just as I was impressed at his vision of creating some model farms to test which seeds would adapt to Rwanda’s hilly terrain, so too I was amused by the little boy in the sweet shop. To be honest, there were some vegetables in there that I had never seen or heard of before, so his most common question –
“What does this one do and taste like?” - was perfectly understandable.
“And tell me about this one,” he said in French. “The brussel sprout. It comes from Belgium, yes?”
The brussel sprout. A shiver went through my spine as my mind flashed back 25 years to Sunday lunches in Manchester. There was no escaping those disgusting green balls, no matter how hard you tried. Mother tried to avoid giving them, but Father was insistent. Two each per child and there had better be gone by the end of the meal. Attempts to hide them in the mashed potato and claim to have eaten them got short shrift. They were always last to go down, cold, and after many tears. It was the least I could do to spare future generations of Rwandese kids from the same fate.
“Sprouts? No I wouldn’t bother with those. Am not sure if they are from Belgium, but possibly, as they thrive in damp coastal areas. Totally inappropriate for here.”
We moved on to other toys as the sprouts were discarded. I left Rwanda soon after, one large sadness being that the catnip project never got off the ground. I am sure there are 8,000 sachet of catnip in a warehouse somewhere in Kigali still, along with pak choi and ornamental gourds, if anyone is feeling creative.