From Maple Ridge to Kinigi: A Canadian’s new life in Rwanda

A chance visit to Rwanda as a tourist in 2001 changed Cathy Emmerson's life. The former real estate agent from B.C. tells her story to Tara Heidger, reflecting on how she found a new community and built a small development organization along the way.

By: /
17 January, 2020
Kinigi, Rwanda. Tara Heidger /

I glanced down at my odometer as it slowly ticked towards three kilometres. For what felt like the tenth time, I checked my phone. “January 1st is fine… but not too early. We are located 3 kilometers from town on the road to Kinigi. See you then. Cathy.”

The three-hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, was long, but I was excited to finally meet Cathy Emmerson, a former real estate agent from British Columbia who now runs a small development organization in northwest Rwanda. The long list of projects on her website led me to believe she managed a large estate and I naively thought that there would be a sign.

Large eucalyptus trees towered over the dozens of colourfully clothed people riding bike taxis or carrying hand-woven baskets and purses filled with produce. It was New Year’s Day 2018 and people of all ages were carefully navigating the cement sidewalk planks that covered the deep drainage ditches lining both sides of the pavement.

I rolled down my window and leaned out towards a young boy tinkering with a bike. “PREFER School? Cathy?” I asked, embarrassed I didn’t know how to speak Kinyarwanda.

His eyes lit up as he yelled “Cathy!” and pointed to a dirt road tucked behind some banana trees up ahead.

I was in Rwanda to conduct research for my master’s thesis focused on rural development planning — something Rwanda does notably well. My goal in speaking with Emmerson was to learn how non-governmental organizations fit into the larger rural development plan. My limited experience with the development field had left me with the perception that most development happens through large-scale international projects. I was only familiar with Emmerson’s work through her website, and I was skeptical her organization would be effective in doing all the things it so proudly touted online.

As I pulled into the driveway, Cathy Emmerson’s tall, slim frame moved purposefully from her house to greet me. I immediately noticed her piercing blue eyes; she had cropped grey hair that I would later learn she cuts herself, and reading glasses hanging from beads around her neck. At 66, she appeared spry as she cursed at her three barking dogs to stop jumping on me and get back inside the gate.

Emmerson’s brick, four-bedroom home is surrounded by a handmade bamboo fence, with large bougainvillea flowers hanging over the arch entering the property. From the front porch I can see Volcanoes National Park, where three massive volcanoes are a visible border between Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. The park is home to the largest mountain gorilla population in the world and draws nearly 1.2 million visitors to Rwanda each year. From the end of Emmerson’s dirt road, the daily convoys of tourists in land rovers speed by on the well-maintained black pavement — shelling out nearly CAD$2,000 per person for a permit to walk alongside the large primates for a day.

It was the lure of a five-day gorilla trek that first brought Emmerson to Kinigi in 2001. What was meant to be a quick respite from her job as a real estate agent in Maple Ridge, B.C. resulted in her eventually selling all of her belongings and returning permanently to Rwanda in 2003, without any plan as to what she would do when she arrived.

Cathy Emmerson
Cathy Emmerson stands outside one of her classrooms. Tara Heidger /

“My friends didn’t know if I was middle age crazy or if I had finally found my place,” Emmerson recalls. “But I was just so darn excited about the vision President [Paul] Kagame laid out in 2003 that I wanted to be here to see it happen. I figured I would become a tour guide or something,” she said, referring to the bold social and economic plan put forward by Kagame — a leader who has garnered both support and condemnation.

Her first job was working with Rosalyn Carr, a 93-year-old American, at Imbabazi Orphanage in nearby Gisenyi. When a locally elected official, Chairman Boniface Rucago, realized Emmerson was there to stay, he asked if she would be interested in helping to raise goats. He directed her to a plot of government land and handed her a list of 60 families who would most benefit from the livestock.

Emmerson quickly bred and distributed over 200 goats. Soon, she and the chairman were hatching a plan to start a school. It had only been a decade since the Rwandan genocide and reconciliation was at the forefront of government efforts to move forward. The majority of the rural population was illiterate and primary education was needed for all ages.

On the first day of class in April 2007, Emmerson laid down two sheets of plywood, and hung the alphabet on a string between two banana trees. Twenty-five children between the ages of six and 17 showed up for class at what would become the first Poverty Reduction Education and Family Empowerment in Rwanda (PREFER) preschool in Kinigi — initially serving any member of the community who wanted to learn to read.

“Everything here happens slowly,” Emmerson tells me as we sip coffee and I run through my questions regarding her work. “It took me five years to raise enough money for the school and eight years of renting an apartment in town before there was water and electricity running this far out for me to build a home.”

I look around and take in the details of her spacious but modest living room. A large mural depicting dancers covers the wall, and the dogs lay spread out on the cool cement floors and beside Emmerson on the leather couch. I learn that she wanted extra space for visitors, mostly friends but also a dozen or so volunteers who come to donate their construction, teaching or medical expertise to PREFER each year.

Today, the PREFER school house has five classrooms and a staff of 17, who range from teachers, janitors and security officers to a bread maker and crossing guards. As school director, Emmerson draws only a small salary to offset her Canadian pension, and she spends much of her time raising money for the CAD$30,000 a year operation, mostly through donations from friends in Canada, Australia and the United States. PREFER school now has 175 students per year and serves another 150 residents through a host of projects across the community. She has a small advisory board based in B.C. and solicits her donors quarterly for tax-free donations using a menu of how much money it takes to support each of her projects: $2000 to build a home, $100 for a solar panel for one family, $20 for a bag of cement to put towards the planned expansion of a fourth through sixth grade in 2021 or $40 to buy a goat — of which she has now raised and distributed over 3000.

Our conversation is soon interrupted by loud music and singing from across the field. “It’s that flippin’ church again! I’m calling the executive secretary…nobody wants to hear all that damned clapping and yelling all the time,” she says as she stands up to look for her cell phone. I laugh, and it becomes apparent that my perception of Emmerson as a visitor in this country is misguided.

The traditional method is effective, but it misses the details.

Traditional international development work is based on the principle of “do no harm,” which recognizes the power and resource imbalance between short-term development and aid workers in the often conflict-affected or poor communities where they work. But Emmerson isn’t a traditional aid or development worker, and she isn’t padding a resume or gaining “field experience” by living here. Yes, she is a white woman who grew up in Canada — an identity that should beg critique across the development field given the inherent power and privilege that accompanies whiteness. But she is also now a resident of this community, a taxpayer and a dual Rwandan and Canadian citizen who also happens to do development work in her community. In this moment, I realize that Emmerson isn’t afraid to be equal parts “development professional” and “fed-up-with-all-the-noise NIMBY who lives down the road.”

A 20-minute walk away there is a cluster of 12 houses known as Cathy Umudugudu (the Kinyarwanda word for ‘village’) that Emmerson funded using a large donation from a Maple Ridge resident who had heard about PREFER from a former volunteer. Emmerson contacted the local government office, which helped her find the land to relocate 12 families who needed more permanent dwellings. Each family was asked to participate in the construction of their home, which has a small yard and solar panels for electricity.

On our walk to the umudugudu she waves to her neighbours and follows up on conversations from previous interactions using a mix of Kinyarwanda and English. The children are especially excited to see her. It was the end of a long holiday break and the dozens of younger kids were eager to show off and sing their ABCs. Emmerson clapped along as she called out each of the children individually and the small parade grew to nearly 50.

“Well, you are sure excited to show off your alphabet!” she said to one kid who ran up and joined the group.

“Nice of you to come out and play — I haven’t seen you in a while,” she said to a different kid who smiled sheepishly. Everyone was laughing and the energy Emmerson brought was contagious.

As my thesis research progressed over the following months and my understanding of Rwanda deepened, I developed an intense respect for the work Emmerson was doing. The vast majority of development workers I met in Kigali during my research were living and socializing among their Western coworkers — generally on much higher wages than the community they were serving, and only working in the country for the required one to two years before moving on to other projects. The traditional method is effective, but it misses the details. Emmerson sees those details — the cracking bamboo fence that needs weathering, or the need for a crossing guard as the kids cross a busy road on their way to school, for instance — because she lives among and socializes with her community, unsponsored by any organization or broader mission and driven only by the needs and experiences she sees and hears about in her daily life.

A few months later, in June 2018, I returned to Rwanda for a longer stay. On this trip I decided to spend a few weeks with Emmerson and do some follow-up research based out of her home.

We had kept in touch via Facebook and I was looking forward to hearing more stories about her life and the organization. It was the beginning of summer and Emmerson had spent a long winter and spring with no international visitors. Throughout the winter she had been managing PREFER and coming up with ideas to generate more income for the first and second grade classrooms she was hoping to build for the 2019 school year.

We spent each night that week on the front porch as the sun set, staring at the volcanoes and sipping sweet white wine while listening to the banana leaves rustle in the fields. As soon as the sun set, the noise of screaming children and motorbikes turned to quiet whispers between families getting tucked in for the night.

Cathy Emmerson 2
Emmerson walks through the potato field she planted to raise money. Tara Heidger /

Emmerson had been intently following world politics and events through the small TV in her living room. Six months with few visitors left much space for her wanting to share her many thoughts and opinions — we discussed the immigration crisis on the US and Mexican border and the possibility of legalized cannabis in Canada.

When the conversation turned to her long-term plans she became quiet. Emmerson had spent 16 years in Rwanda and seemed undecided about when or if she planned to return to Canada. Loneliness over the years had set in and experiences of violence among neighbours and the reliance on her by the community had taken its toll on her. She had visited Canada every few years since 2003 but isn’t yet ready to go back permanently.

“I miss having someone here who…I can go have a beer or a chat with. I think my neighbours just see me as a wealthy white woman and it makes it lonely,” she says.

When I ask what makes her work different than other development projects, she thinks for a moment.

“I live here. I have the time to hold people accountable for every penny I spend and I know who to rely on. That is how I am able to accomplish all of this with just $30,000 a year,” she says as she waves her arm over her property.

I think back to my first trip and how skeptical I was of someone being able to do so much. I realize that the details required to manage and build such a large operation without support from any large donors can only be done with time and patience — two attributes that don’t often coincide with long-term and broad international development goals. In her time here, Emmerson said she has graduated over 1,000 preschool students and 500 primary school students, and has sponsored more than 100 of her brightest students for secondary school. While living in the community she was able to listen to her neighbours and help address everyday needs, too. She has regularly opened her home as a safe place for women fleeing domestic violence or children seeking burn ointment and care as a result of candle flame burns. She says she has impacted the lives of over 500 women and their families through her Healthy Family class that brings in health professionals to teach women hygiene, birth control and healthy cooking, while also offering free adult literacy classes two nights a week. She is proud of being the least expensive private school in the surrounding area, charging only $35 per term. This includes all school supplies and daily meals of sorghum porridge for the students — a far cry from the nearly $200 a school nearby charges per term, providing nothing in the way of food or supplies.

Although much of her work is quantifiable, there are so many details of her everyday life that are not. One evening I threw some excess pasta water down the drain in the kitchen. “Pasta water goes in the slop bucket for Murakatette’s pigs — it softens up the food scraps and they just love it,” she scolded me, referring to an employee who raises pigs.

And then I wondered, what else have I missed? What is the overlap between development worker and good neighbour? Would traditional development workers know who made the best bricks for the cheapest price or how much a sack of potatoes cost or that the new mother down the street needed help finding food for her pigs? Emmerson’s work is personal, to her and to her community and she doesn’t have a larger organization to fall back on if or when she makes a mistake.

Tim Allen, a professor of development anthropology at the London School of Economics, said that in these scenarios, it’s impossible to not become ingrained in the community and a strong and genuine relationship can form between the two parties where they truly care for one another. He goes on to say, “there is a danger, perhaps, in the power that comes with working outside of your own society. But if someone commits to living somewhere else and becoming a respected person, then the arrangement can be an asset to both parties.”

But this arrangement is also hard. Emmerson hasn’t made this her job; she had made it her life. A critical person would wonder if this much overlapping of life and work is sustainable, and if it is healthy for an outsider to live among those they serve — as part of the same community, for better and for worse. Emmerson’s neighbour of 13 years, William Byukusenge, acknowledged the community will always see Emmerson as a Canadian but said how extremely valuable she is. “The education and support she helps provide our community is fundamental — especially to the younger population,” he said.

Emmerson believes this method of development work is replicable. I agree — but it isn’t replicable in the way a business can be franchised. Emmerson’s development organization was built after having lived in and around Kinigi for four years. That is how long she paid attention to the needs of the community before she strung the first alphabet on a string between the banana trees. Development work generally moves forward with little input from the community, with decisions made from afar or before the first development worker arrives on the ground; but maybe, if this process slowed down and was done more closely with those whose lives it involves, the field and those it serves would all stand to benefit.

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