Katie McGehee: Farming and Friendship in the Heart of Rwanda

Honors poultry science and environmental, soil, and water science double major Katie McGehee formed deep connections with the employees of Ikiraro Investment’s poultry farm in Rwanda last summer while conducting research for her senior thesis project. The six-week internship gave her a first-hand look at the international poultry industry, as well as an unexpected passion for the South African lifestyle.

I first learned of a poultry project initiated and advised by Tyson Foods in Rwanda while attending Senator Pryor’s Arkansas Student Leadership Forum Fall 2010. After meeting with the actual advisors from Cobb-Vantress (a Tyson Foods subsidiary) and the chief capital investor, Tom Phillips of Memphis, I took on a three-month internship with Ikiraro Investments’s commercial egg farm in the summer of 2011. What I thought would be a stepping stone for work in developing countries like India and Bolivia or simply a once-in-a-lifetime change of perspective turned out to be the most purposeful project I’d ever taken on. Africa infected my soul, and I knew I had to go back. I returned the summer of 2012 with a six-week Cobb internship in Zimbabwe, allowing me to observe the industry throughout Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa. My goal for summer 2012 was to investigate how the poultry industry is developing in the world’s last economic frontier, determine what role I can play as a young professional, and ultimately return to the Ikiraro farm for the remaining six weeks to collect data for an undergraduate thesis project that studies the work of the people I’ve served alongside.

Ikiraro Investments focuses on hiring women (especially widows), an atypical  practice in this labor-intensive industry. Of the 24 employees I worked with, 18 are women. My thesis, entitled The Transformation of Women on a Commercial Poultry Operation in Rwanda, aims to understand the barriers and successes of these women’s personal and professional development. Ikiraro serves as a business model for other businesses throughout Eastern Africa. Soon, complete ownership will be handed over to the employees. Understanding the leadership structure and development of this project will help other businesses and organizations realize some of the human resource foundations necessary to be successful.

A female employee tends to hens in one of the Ikiraro farm houses.

The Rwandan Naming Tradition

While collecting data in Rwanda this summer, I not only observed these women’s work, but also participated in their lives. Developing the relationships I first established in 2011 was a pleasure. I was so grateful to be awarded the Honors College research grant. But the deeper bond I now have with these women has made the data analysis process in Arkansas more difficult. I miss my friends and colleagues and desire to be working on the Ikiraro farm again in Musanze. I’ve received word since I left of a development in the life of a subject of mine.

The Rwandan naming tradition is an interesting one. Babies do not receive names when they are born like in Western culture. I had heard stories before and knew of babies that my mzungu (Kinyarwanda for “white man”) friends helped name, but this summer I experienced the process first-hand.

When a child is born, the family waits until they have enough money and time to throw a party, invite the family and friends over, and then, they name the baby. Mom and Dad wait while each guest observes the child and selects a name. Finally, the parents go into the back room, make a decision, and from that day on, the baby is known by the winning name. I love this tradition. The importance of a man’s name is a decision that should be celebrated along with the new life. The child will carry that name with him forever.

The employees of the farm with their yet-to-be-named baby boy.

When I first interned at the Ikiraro Poultry Farm in the summer of 2011, I spent my first night in Musanze in a chicken house with new baby chicks and four female employees. It was definitely a bonding experience. Employee 3 was a veteran worker at that point and helped the new women of House 4 adjust to working on a commercial poultry operation. Little did I know, her partner in House 4, a male employee, would soon become her life partner. She was pregnant when I arrived in Rwanda this summer and delivered a healthy baby boy on July 27.

I left before the new parents held the naming party, but I suggested David after our technical advisor. The father laughed. I’m not sure why. “Beloved” is a wonderful meaning for a baby name. It’s not a very Rwandan name, though. Recently, I received word that the baby boy should be called Regisi. I, of course, will call him Reggie…maybe Reg or Regis. I’ll have to spend more time with him to decide on the best endearing nickname.

I am doing everything in my power to get back to Rwanda after graduation. It’s strange that I am dreaming about watching this child grow up. Two years ago, Africa wasn’t even on my radar. Now I am deciding the best ways I can contribute to families in a country that is not my own. It’s strange to choose raising chickens in Africa over friend’s weddings, real time television, dressing up, the English language, and Chick-fil-A. It’s so difficult to miss important family time, I can’t even begin to describe the pain and loneliness. But when I watch this family grow and study the dynamic lives of my co-workers, I know I’m in the right place. It’s difficult to split my heart between two continents, but it sure is a great workout.

Employee 3’s older daughters, Happy and Nice, get to know their little brother, Regisi.

This entry was posted in Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food, and Life Sciences, Environmental, Soil and Water Science, Honors College Study Abroad Grant, Poultry Science, Research, Rwanda, Study Abroad and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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