When I reflect on the last 15 years of our work in Rwanda, I see evidence of how God’s plans are always so much grander than our own. The story of our flock of Merino sheep is a perfect example.
In the fall of 2014, I was preparing to speak at a small church in south Texas. I had been feeling quite discouraged because, over the previous week, we had lost nine sheep to a disease that seemed to be running rampant through our small flock. We had imported our first 20 Merino sheep from Kenya three years earlier, at the cost of $300 each. The sheep had been a huge investment for the ministry, and as I was personally lamenting the week's hardship, all I could focus on was this investment that had been lost.
When I inquired about importing a few sheep to replace those that had died, I was told that it would cost less per head if we were able to import an entire truckload of 100 sheep. After that conversation, I felt even more discouraged because we couldn’t afford to replace even a few.
At that time, we had 44 women working for the ministry, and I was truly concerned with how to keep them employed when our wool supply was dwindling; it was an essential material for their job function.
Needless to say, it was difficult trying to prepare a talk about the wonderful things God was doing in Rwanda while I was feeling so discouraged. I asked God to speak through me that morning because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it through my own strength.
I stood up in front of the church, and I told them how we were advancing the development of women through the creation of yarn, and how we were on the edge of landing our first big order for wool hats from a prestigious client in New York. As I was speaking, I began opening up about the loss of the sheep and what had just transpired. I was honest about how discouraged I was feeling. I could see the great opportunities ahead of the organization, but I couldn’t see the bigger picture of what God was getting ready to do.
Suddenly, from the back of the church, a woman shouted “How much does a sheep cost?” I was surprised before stating that they would cost $200 each if we were able to purchase a truckload. Instantly, people from all over the congregation started shouting that they wanted to buy a sheep. Speaking to that congregation was the catalyst God used to help us raise $20,000 in less than one week: enough money for 100 sheep. It was a miracle and an immediate answer to our prayers.
Flashback to the Beginning
Before we imported that very first flock of 20 sheep from Kenya, we were looking for areas in Rwanda from which to source wool and other natural resources to employ the original group of women under our employ. During this search, we discovered an area in the Rutsiro District, about 4.5 hours away from our center, where a few farmers had sheep that were descendants of Merino sheep.
In this area, grassy pastures are plentiful and ideal for sheep farms, and many Merino had once been raised in the area. During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, however, most of the projects related to sheep husbandry were eradicated and destroyed. Raising sheep for wool became no longer manageable or sustainable. Since that time, the overall sheep population in Rwanda has declined.
A New Challenge
Eight years later, both our impact and our flock of Merino sheep have grown, and we face an entirely new challenge.
Currently, we employ 209 women at all stages of wool processing and product creation, and our flock has grown beyond 350 head: way too many sheep for our small farm, which is about 45 minutes away from our center in northern Rwanda. Nearby land for a good pasture is scarce, and we are constantly challenged with how to care for all of the sheep properly, all while providing enough wool for our ladies to use to create our handspun yarn.
The truth is, we never wanted to be sheep ranchers. We wanted to care for at-risk women and give them greater opportunities. High-quality wool is just what God has used to do that.
However, caring for so many sheep with little land has also come with a cost. To maintain the health of our sheep, we must purchase supplemental feed and a variety of other supplies at great expense to the ministry. Over the past several months of 2022, we have been praying through solutions to balance the weight of caring for both our flock and our staff sustainably.
Now, something amazing is happening once again!
God has opened doors that are enabling us to not only solve the challenge of our growing flock, but to also create new opportunities for the community in Rutsiro. The community that has been a vital part of our organization since the beginning.
Through a new partnership with the local government officials and the veterinarian in Rutsiro, we have begun a sheep distribution project that will ultimately create opportunity for many of the farmers in this remote area.
This week, 90 individual farmers were given one of our owned ewes to care for on their own properties in Rutsiro. The idea behind this project is that, by reducing the flock on our small farm, our remaining sheep will have more grass to graze, remain healthier, and grow higher quality wool. Meanwhile, the individual farmers, who were vetted by the local veterinarian and will now care full-time for the culled sheep, will be equipped to grow a new flock of sheep and develop an income-generating source for their families.
As part of the project agreement, the local veterinarian will manage breeding to ensure all of the sheep will maintain pure Merino genes. We will, in turn, purchase all the wool the farmers can produce. As their sheep reproduce, they will each become owners and managers of their own flocks.
We are thrilled with this exciting project and are grateful that the roots of our organization are now reaching to support 90 additional families. And we are confident it won’t stop there. We believe that God will use this project to help redeem a farming community and reinstate an industry that was all but completely lost in 1994.
Stay tuned to hear more updates on this amazing project.
Diana Wiley, Founder + Executive Director