Sep 25, 2009

Finding Your Rwanda: Must We Fail… To Succeed?

Journal Entry from the Ruggerero Genocide Survivors’ Village Project

Excited to deliver the materials created by the senior graphic design class at Drexel University, I was back in Rwanda this past June. The class had worked hard to complete the assignment funded by the Sappi Foundation Grant Ideas that Matter to develop an identity and brand tools for the Sunflower Oil Cooperative in the Rugerrero Survivors Village in Rwanda.

Many ideas for an identity were distilled down to the one selected by the Cooperative members then developed into a logo, label tags for the oil bottles, posters as gifts for potential customers, table cloths to create a branded display along with banners as signs. We printed a substantial inventory of the materials.

The things we carried: 200 posters, 300 business cards, 500 bottle tags, 2 large banners and 2 branded table covers. This did not include the Solar energy materials, sock puppet workshop supplies and two games of Twister. The extra baggage charges were considerable. One of the challenges of getting stuff from the US to Africa.

This visit I also carried with me the hopes of the Drexel students. The hope that their work would capture the spirit of the cooperative and become a productive motion towards success.

There is more detail on the project in a previous blog entry.

The village is like family now. Much has changed since the first visit four years ago. There is a sense of community now. The land is bearing some food and there is more activity around education, arts, and developing skill sets to create income. People seem hopeful for a better future. But some disappointment always lies underneath.

Jean Bosco Musana Rukurando, of the Red Cross, had advised me that there are some production problems in the cooperative that I should address with the members when I visit. Within a couple of days, a meeting with the Cooperative was scheduled, but first, I checked in on old friends in the village, mostly children, then met with local politicians. The agenda included a discussion of progress, preceded by a motivational speech by the Executive Secretary of the district as usual protocal.

We gathered again in the whitewashed cinderblock hall lined with rows of blue painted benches surrounded by barred windows. About 15 villagers were there when we started the meeting. As per tradition I was asked to sit on the stage behind a table with the Rwandan Chief of Police and the Sector Executive. I waved as people trickled in smiling in recognition and welcome. Heads bowed briefly acknowledging the memories we share.

After the speeches I insisted we move our chairs to the floor and begin a more intimate conversation. I hoped to explore our success together before we discussed what has failed. About 40 people were now in the room, from elderly to infant.

My first attempt to have everyone communicate their achievements was met with silence. I wasn’t sure if Rukundo translated correctly. Again I asked if each person could describe what they feel they have achieved as a cooperative in the two years. A sense of failure pervaded. It was hard for anyone to see how far we had come through the cloud of the current challenges that they were experiencing.

Production was down. Land was not yet available to plant our own and the cost of buying seeds was expensive. Many of the people in the cooperative don’t have the physical strength to press the seeds to oil. Tending to laborious daily needs such as gathering food, water and caring for the children are priorities leaving little time in the village. Motivation varies, some stealing has occurred, and some have quit.

I know how far they have come. Our nature is to focus on the disappointments instead of our progress. We cannot move forward towards success, unless we understand the lessons learn in defeat. Alexander volunteered. He expressed his progress buy saying that he feels a part of something in the cooperative and has learned how to produce sunflower oil. Someone else said that the cooperative has provided a sense of community and camaraderie of working together towards a goal.

An elderly man tallied his participation in producing 45 liters of sunflower oil from seeds, a surprising achievement for him as he declared it. They recalled that Rwandan President Paul Kagami had made a trip to visit the cooperative, a huge honor.

We had started from scratch and had come a long way. As we focused on how far we have come, pride returned and new plans and ideas for what is next replaced failure. We must fail in order to succeed. We must feel our failure, embrace it, announce it, then move forward.

Hope is not an idea, it’s action.

As I set up the table to present the branded materials designed by the Drexel Students I recalled the word on the blackboard that we wrote in one of our early classes: Hope. What did that mean. At the time it was an expression from the students of what they imagined that their work could support in the village. That their work could create hope.

Little did they know at the time that their work would be a key to rejuvenating the cooperative towards success.

The logo, banner sign, table cloth, business cards, posters and bottle tags were received with cheers and hugs and ooo’s and ahhh’s. Yes, “oooo” and “ahhhh” are universal words. The graphic design and marketing tools tangibly and visually expressed the concept of cooperative and connected us all together in symbol and identity. They became the “COTRAPAE Amavuta Y’Ibihwagari Ruggerero Sunflower Oil”. It was as if in that moment we became a real business. Each person received business cards to fill out their names and distribute to their network. The bottle tags were tied around the bottles of Oil. Posters were taken home and hung on bare walls, given out as gifts to first time buyers of the oil and given to children to color the reverse side. The tables were set to create branded stations on the road for sales.

But time out for the photographs. I introduced the Drexel students and faculty to the cooperative with a photo we had taken together on campus. Each person received a copy. As we lined up behind the new banner for the shot, each person intuitively held up their copy of the photo.

In that moment the students of our class became part of the cooperative and found a place in the hearts of the village. They delivered Hope as they set out to do. And in return they received the gift of having made a difference.

Over the next few days in the village we worked towards the future. Goals were set. The government promised to provide some land for growing sunflower seeds. We mapped a financial business plan identifying the challenges, costs and changes that needed to happen in order to succeed. The two separate cooperatives made plans to come together as one. There is more failure ahead, but we will succeed.

Into the dark night we sat outside in a large circle, the bats guarding us from mosquitos. The new cooperative logo was reality, a sunflower heart, clrcled by hands held.

Must we fail….to succeed? I’ve come to believe like all creative endeavors, our project is a reiterative process…we get our best yields by embracing failure on the path to success.


The above posting is another in the Finding Your Rwanda Series by Alan Jacobson. To view the previous postings click here or search our blog by category: social issues/responsibility.Alan Jacobson is the President of Ex;it, a Research and Design firm with a client list that includes leading Fortune 500 companies in Healthcare and the Fine Arts.

Alan’s awards include the SEGD International Design Honor Award for the Main Line Health /Lankenau Hospital Wayfinding Program and his community-building work in Rwanda. He also chaired the SEGD 2004 National Design Conference, The Power of the Individual, and is currently chairperson for the SEGD 2010 strategic planning initiative. Alan was a featured speaker at the 2007 ICOGRADA bi-annual congress in Cuba, where spoke about improving the Human Condition through Sustainable Design.

Following his commitment to finding ways to integrate career and community work, Alan is currently Board President of the internationally recognized Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia and Board Chair of Camp Golden Slipper for Deserving Children. He is also a founding member of the Ex;it Foundation.

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