By Molly Feltner, Musanze, Rwanda
As a sector veterinarian practicing near Rwanda's Volcano National Park, Immaculée Mukamusoni used to walk as many as 22 kilometers a day to visit her patients, mostly sheep, goats, and cattle. The petite vet looks after some 1,700 farms in her region, Mulinga Sector of Nyabihu District, giving council to farmers, vaccinating and treating sick or injured animals, and performing artificial insemination on cattle. With so many animals to attend to, she could work up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, hauling 12 kilos of equipment around the hilly countryside. Often it was impossible for her to see all the livestock that needed her help because the distance between farms was too great. Sometimes she was forced to choose one patient over another, and animals might suffer or even die as a result.
However, Mukamusoni hasn't had to make such tough decisions lately. Things changed the a day a bright green and yellow bicycle was brought to her home, a gift from a group of women living 15,000 kilometers away in Las Vegas.
"When I was asked if I would accept a bike, I thought it was an impossible dream, but when I saw it being delivered I knew it was real," said Mukamusoni. "Transportation was one of my biggest challenges as a sector vet, but now that I can ride a bike between farms it's much easier to do my job."
The bicycle, a specially designed mountain bike with a sturdy, elongated frame and a large rear rack for carrying heavy loads, was supplied by Project Rwanda. Based in Musanze, Rwanda, the American-operated charity strives to further the economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bicycle as a tool.
Most of Rwanda's 11 million citizens are too poor to afford transportation of their own and so travel everywhere on foot. With 87 percent of the population living in rural areas far from urban centers and markets, Rwandans typically spend hours each day walking. With nearly all of the rural population involved in raising crops or livestock, hours spent walking translates to lost productivity and income.
With access to a bicycle, however, a person can regain much lost time. It's no surprise then that bicycles are a hot commodity in Rwanda. And the Project Rwanda cargo bikes, which, unlike local bikes, have brakes, extremely low gears for climbing hills, and the ability to carry up to 200 kilos, are particularly desirable.
"We believe our cargo bicycles can have a significant positive impact on rural economies," says Kim Coats, Project Manager of Project Rwanda. "The organization initially started out giving cargo bikes to coffee farmers so they could haul their crop to central locations, but now we're trying to reach others in rural communities who must also travel long distances to do their jobs. After consulting with our partners at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Musanze, we decided that sector veterinarians, who cover so much ground to take care of their animal patients, would be perfect candidates to receive cargo bikes."
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), which provides medical care to the wild mountain gorillas living in Volcanoes National Park, also works with sector veterinarians to improve the health of the local livestock. MGVP partners with the Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which employees a "One Health" approach to wild animal healthcare that takes into consideration the health of nearby human and domestic animal populations.
"MGVP's goal is to ensure the good health of mountain gorillas, but it's impossible to achieve this when the domestic animals living near the gorillas are unhealthy," said John Huston, MGVP's Agriculture Project Coordinator. Huston, a Gelbvieh breeder from New Carlisle, Ohio, is also a member of the American Gelbvieh Association Board of Directors.
“There's a real threat of disease transfer between humans and domestic animals and gorillas, so it's essential we have good local veterinary services," added Huston.
Last year, Huston, along with a team of students from ISAE – Busogo, conducted an extensive cattle survey in the four districts surrounding the national park using sector veterinarians as guides to locate families who participated in Rwanda's "One Cow per Poor Family" program.
"Spending days out with the sector vets, climbing up and down hills from early in the morning until dusk, I realized how difficult it is for the vets do their jobs," says Huston. "Transportation is their number one challenge."
After this realization, Huston contacted Coats and together MGVP and Project Rwanda decided to coordinate cargo bike donations to sector vets. Immaculée Mukamusoni was the first cargo bike recipient, which was donated by Coats' book club in the U.S.
Thanks to a donation by Coats' younger sister, Danielle Strelkauskas, an emergency room doctor with the U.S. Navy in San Diego, three more bikes were given to sector officers in Burera District. Etienne Niyonzima of Ruhunde Sector, J. Népo Werabe of Gahunga Sector, and Clarisse Manishimwe of Kagogo Sector, all vets who worked with Huston, will have use of the bicycles for their jobs.
MGVP and Project Rwanda are currently working to match more sector vets with donors. A donation of $300, made through www.projectrwanda.org, covers the cost of a cargo bike and its delivery.
Mukamusoni has reported that her cargo bike has not only transformed her job, it has made life easier for her patients and their owners: "I want to tell all the people that helped me get this bike that their donation is not helping just one individual, but a whole community and their livestock."