Editor's note: This post was written by John Claude Bemis, author of the new book Flora and the Runaway Rooster, which will soon be available through Heifer International. For more information about the book and the education resources associated, visit our Read to Feed site.
I’ve had the great pleasure of writing Flora and the Runaway Rooster, an upcoming picture book based on Heifer International’s work in Rwanda. When I was first approached by Heifer International to write the story, I was excited for the opportunity to work with this wonderful organization. I had donated in the past, and their mission of eradicating hunger and poverty is one that is close to my heart. But what was most thrilling was the chance to visit Rwanda and see Heifer’s work first hand. Many surprises lay in store.
This past April, I spent 10 days in Rwanda visiting Heifer sites and interviewing families in order to get ideas for the story. Our group included three Americans and four Rwandans who work for Heifer, although we were helped behind the scenes by many others who work in Heifer’s Kigali office as well as in the U.S. We covered many miles, crisscrossing the beautiful countryside of Rwanda, visiting families high up in remote mountaintop villages and in vibrant, bustling towns, seeing schools and farms, and all the time, welcomed warmly by the generous people of this remarkable country.
Rwanda has come so far in the past twenty years since genocide and civil war tore it apart. Honestly, my only impressions of Rwanda before coming was the 1994 genocide and Dian Fossey’s research on the country’s mountain gorillas (which we were lucky enough to see).
What struck me most profoundly about my visit was how far the people of Rwanda have come. While the memories of the genocide were never far, the Rwandans I met were deeply committed to making their country a better place. I was humbled by their sense of compassion for one another, and many of the children I met shared their dream for a day when tribal and ethnic divisions no longer differentiated Hutu from Tutsi. These were a people who wanted to help one another and to lift their country up from the troubles of the past.
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While enormous progress has been made by the people of Rwanda, there is still great need. Many children are orphans. Many do not have adequate food or access to quality education. Rwanda offers free public schools, but for children to attend, families must be able to pay for uniforms and books, which is a barrier for many. The best schools are private and often across the border in Uganda. For the child who dreams of being a doctor or politician, their families must be able to pay for private boarding school. As I researched this side of life in Rwanda in our travels, I knew I wanted the story to reflect this dilemma.
In Flora and the Runaway Rooster, Flora’s family has received livestock from Heifer. They are able to send Flora’s older brother and sister to a private school. Flora is still at home, attending the local public school, doing her part to help her family, and dreaming of the day when she might join her siblings. But Flora’s friend Gideon comes from a family that does not have the means to send him even to one of the local public schools. He is delivering milk on his bicycle in order to save money simply for a uniform and books.
We met many children in similar circumstances while in Rwanda. And I was struck by what a difference receiving a Heifer gift could mean for these children and their futures. While I was aware, before my trip to Rwanda, that Heifer gave livestock to needy families, I was not fully aware of Heifer’s model of “passing on the gift.” When a family receives a cow, the family then shares the first calf with another family. In this way, a gift to Heifer is not simply a way of helping one family, but begins a cycle of giving that grows to help many families. In Flora and the Runaway Rooster, I wanted young readers to see how a gift to Heifer allows people in Rwanda—and all around the world—to help one another, a desire shared by all the Rwandans I met.
I was impressed by how much more Heifer International does beyond just giving livestock to families in need. The Rwandan staff included many veterinarians who travel across the country every day to support families and their animals. They were teaching sustainable agricultural practices. And most important, the Rwandan staff got to know the families they were working with. They cared about them. This sense of caring I hope will be evident in my story.
As a children’s book author, I feel called to create stories that will have an impact on my young readers. I feel so lucky to get to do what I do. But no experience has had quite the impact on me that my trip researching this story for Heifer International has had. I look forward to keeping up with my new Rwandan friends and learning how Heifer’s work continues to make a profound difference in the lives of these generous people.