Community builder Lama Mugabo aims to avert famines while reshaping perceptions about Rwanda

The cofounder of Building Bridges with Rwanda hopes to leave a lasting mark on the East African country

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      Vancouver community development worker Lama Mugabo likes to say that hunger feeds his desire to find a cure for malnutrition.

      That’s because after his family fled from Rwanda to Burundi as refugees, he experienced pangs in his stomach on a regular basis due to poverty.

      “My mother tried to stretch a pension cheque that she received every month to feed us,” Mugabo told the Straight by phone. “So I said that hunger has been a companion. It followed me like a shadow—an unwanted visitor who refused to go home.”

      This childhood hunger has led him to remain closely connected to Rwanda throughout much of his adult life in Canada. Mugabo is the cofounder of Building Bridges with Rwanda, which fosters connections between Rwandans and international organizations.

      In addition, he’s working with his friend, fellow Rwandan expatriate and scholar Cedric Habiyaremye, in bringing quinoa to the landlocked East African country.

      “We’re very excited to introduce this superfood to Rwandans’ diet and we hope to use it as a tool to fight malnutrition in Rwanda and propel the country into sustainable development,” Mugabo said. “I’m really delighted to be part of this experience.”

      Habiyaremye, a Washington State University research associate, was selected as an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow for 2020. Last year, he also delivered a TED Talk entitled “How quinoa can help combat hunger and malnutrition”.

      Habiyaremye explained in his presentation that beans were the only thing that kept Rwandans alive in periods of hunger and starvation. Cultivating quinoa, which is indigenous to South America, ensures there is regular rotation of crops to ward off diseases and pests.

      “While beans are considered nutritious, quinoa has far more micronutrients,” Habiyaremye said in his Ted Talk. “And with quinoa, you can make many [more] different food products and drinks than beans.”

      Video: Watch Washington State University research associate Cedric Habiyaremye's TED Talk about introducing quinoa to Rwanda.

      From refugee to community leader

      Meanwhile, Mugabo, who has a UBC master’s degree in community and regional planning, is spreading the word in Vancouver through a Zee Zee Theatre project. The Virtual Humanity initiative is designed to challenge biases about differences and features more than 30 people speaking on the theatre’s platform.

      So how does he feel about becoming a virtual human?

      “I’ll tell you what, I’ve been described worse,” Mugabo said with a laugh.

      It’s easy for him to find humour these days. Not only is he helping people in Rwanda, he’s also the field projects manager at an SFU Pacific Water Research Centre initiative to reactivate a greenhouse and build a community garden.

      In addition, he’s been involved in community activities for many years in the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona neighbourhoods. That includes helping residents of a temporary modular housing project learn about gardening, nutrition, and wellness.

      Plus, he's on the board of the Hogan's Alley Society and has worked for the Carnegie Community Action Project.

      It’s an astonishing life path, given where he came from.

      Burundi is a francophone country, but Mugabo was keen to learn English at a very young age.

      So he joined an English-language club run by American missionaries in Bujumbura, which was then the capital city. And when the UN High Commission on Refugees offered scholarships to students to study abroad, Mugabo was an obvious candidate.

      That brought him to Pearson College in Victoria in the mid 1970s.

      “It was a unique school in the sense that it believed that bringing young people together for two years, give them an opportunity to study together and live together, and hopefully they’ll go back to their home countries and help the build a better world,” Mugabo said. “But I didn’t have a country to go back to ’cause I was a refugee.”

      When he returned to Africa, he went looking for opportunities. That led him to live in the capital of Zaire, Kinshasa, for three years before he moved to Nairobi. Canadian friends then sponsored him to come to Canada as a landed immigrant in 1981.

      After working for the United Nations Association of Canada, helping B.C. students get involved in local and global issues, he moved to Montreal and attended Concordia University.

      Just as exams were about to take place in 1994, the Rwandan genocide hit the news.

      “In 100 days, a million people were killed for no other reason than they were Tutsi,” Mugabo said. “I was really devastated.”

      After completing his master’s degree at UBC, he worked at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, where he helped organize a national campaign to raise awareness of what happened in Rwanda.

      His nongovernmental organization, Building Bridges With Rwanda, enables volunteers to go to the country to work side-by-side with Rwandans. While he was in Rwanda on an internship, he was working alongside Habiryareme, who later obtained a scholarship to Washington State University.

      “So Cedric came to Pullman, Washington, and did his master’s in agriculture and went on to do a PhD in quinoa,” Mugabo said.

      When asked about the biggest misconceptions about Africa, Mugabo said that the continent is always seen in a negative light in the West.

      "If it’s negative, they will put it out. If it’s positive, you won’t hear about it," he declared. "You don’t hear about Rwanda today because things are going well. But you heard about it in '94 because there was genocide."

      If he mentions Rwanda to anyone who's not interested in current affairs, the first thing they bring up is the 1994 massacres.

      "But if you’re interested in African issues or if you read on politics and so on, you'll inevitably come across the fact that Rwanda has become a success story," Mugabo noted. "It emerged from a basket-case situation 26 year ago and is now a model that others are emulating."