NOT so long ago they were the last places on Earth anyone would want to visit.
Civil wars, brutality and political turmoil made Rwanda, Uganda and the Ivory Coast among the most dangerous and unstable places in the world.
No-one, surely, in their right mind would want to quit the comforts of Edinburgh for the African nations’ blood-soaked killing fields.
Today, peace has brought fresh hope. But still it’s hard to imagine why anyone might want to exchange the easy life here for the harsh realities of living there.
Yet, for three Edinburgh women, the lure of a Saturday afternoon browsing in Harvey Nichols, afternoon tea at The Balmoral and a night on the town in George Street simply cannot compete with the sheer satisfaction of living and working in some of the most challenging environments in the world.
MARY’S home wasn’t so much a house as a rough frame consisting of four walls – no roof – a mat and an open pit for a toilet, and Deborah Livingstone gazed upon the dire vision of poverty with shock. Mary, a widow, HIV positive, sick and frail, was barely able to care for herself never mind her starving children.
The idea that one day she could be self-sufficient, healthy and, even more astonishing, running her own businesses seemed unthinkable.
Deborah, 40, had left Edinburgh behind to come to Rwanda, a country which tore itself apart in the mid-90s when rival tribes clashed. Genocide resulted in around 20 per cent of the entire population dying.
Now she was at the young widow’s pitiful home in the Musanze district of the mountainous northern province of Rwanda – the very area where the first rebel group of Tutsi rebels invaded from neighbouring Uganda – to see for herself what might be done to help.
“Mary was very sick,” recalls Deborah. “She couldn’t look after her children, her house had no roof and it rains a lot in Rwanda. She couldn’t get to hospital for the drugs she needed to help manage the infections that come with being HIV positive.
“And these are strong drugs. You have to eat well when you are on them. Without money to buy food she couldn’t have managed to even take the medicine without becoming very sick.”
The situation could have been overwhelming for the former Currie High pupil, who had left university with vague plans to become a writer. But her role in Rwanda was to bring not only hope to widows such as Mary but a chance to help them change their own lives.
Back at her base in the country’s capital Kigali, Deborah pours over page after page of government documents.
As a social development adviser in the Department for International Developments (DFID) office, she is responsible for the UK Government’s work to improve the lives of the poorest people through social protection programmes.
Among the UK-backed projects – aided by cash from British taxpayers – is the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme, which not only provides basic equipment such as water pumps to some of the poorest communities, but also offers small cash loans to help individuals like Mary claw their way out of poverty.
“It’s incredible how a small amount can help people get their head above water so they can feed their family and help children go to school,” explains Deborah, whose parents Owen and Carine still live in Currie.
“Mary’s children were suffering from malnutrition, they were either going to get sick and die or their physical and mental development would suffer.
“The money we gave her helped her get the drugs she needed from hospital. As she got better she was able to care for the children,” she adds.
“Eventually she was able to apply for a loan of around £60, which she has used to start a small business buying milk in her village which she takes to the nearest town to sell to hotels.
“Last time I saw her she had bought a cow so she could provide the milk herself.”
It is nearly two decades since Rwanda plunged into a violent crisis when Tutsi refugees clashed with the Hutu rivals. Around 800,000 people died in the civil war that made the country one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
But, while calm has descended on the country – indeed, tourism is among its emerging industries – the horrors of what happened linger just below the surface.
Today, 77 per cent of the population survive on less than 80p a day, HIV is a major health problem and families are still rebuilding lives shattered by the troubles.
“People are still feeling the effects of the genocide 18 years ago,” agrees Deborah, who first quit Edinburgh to do voluntary work in Malawi in 2001.
“It’s very present for people. It still affects what they think and feel.
“But where I live is the calmest, safest place. It’s a very clean, very safe city to live and work in. I feel safer walking around Kigali than I do in Lothian Road on a weekend night.
“There’s an internet cafe on every corner, you can visit the mountains and see gorillas. There are beautiful mountains, calm lakes.
“And there are museums and memorials to the genocide – these people will never, ever forget what happened to them here.”
FOR years Uganda was most widely known for its corruption, human rights abuses and the terrifying regime of leader Idi Amin.
State-sponsored violence created a reign of terror during the 1980s, when nearly half a milion people lost their lives. But for mum-of-two Rhona Hogg, today’s Uganda is one of the safest places she knows.
“The trouble in Uganda was a long time ago,” she insists. “Now it is probably one of the safest countries to live in. Yes, there’s a lot of corruption – it’s said to be the third most corrupt country in the world – but the streets are very safe and there’s virtually no street crime.”
Rhona and husband Bobby decided to leave the comfort of their Newington home to work in healthcare in Uganda, in spite of Bobby now being retired and Rhona admitting to being “mature”.
There, they worked with Voluntary Service Overseas, IT specialist Bobby setting up a computerised health management system to rival anything found back home in Edinburgh, and Rhona, an NHS Lothian research lead, working with an HIV/Aids project.
“With our two sons grown up and settled, and no elderly relatives, we were ready for an adventure,” says Rhona, who has now returned to her NHS role.
As well as carrying out research linked to the HIV projects, Rhona worked on a programme that provided support for the most vulnerable of Uganda’s population – its young orphans and starving babies.
“The project provided free healthcare for orphans, and support for grandparents looking after grandchildren.
“We even had a piggery which was used to teach families how to look after piglets and breed them, and a tailoring workshop so they could learn how to make school uniforms.
“Seeing how the majority of people live is life-changing,” she adds. “It made us appreciate the safety nets of our emergency, education and welfare services.”
THE streets of Yamoussoukro, the Ivory Coast capital city, were eerily quiet when Fiona Gilmore arrived.
It was the aftermath of the second Ivorian Civil War – a conflict sparked by a general election that set tribe against tribe – and she was there to help set up a medical facility for the country’s most desperately poor and needy.
But there was tension in the air. “Things there had just calmed down,” she recalls. “I arrived on the day of the inauguration of the new president. The situation was pretty tense – there were still UN soldiers on most crossroads, and armoured vehicles. There had been reports of shots the night before.”
A few years earlier, Fiona, 37, of Elgin Terrace, was manager of a small cleaning company until being made redundant. A spell in Belize with the Red Cross had given her a taste for voluntary work overseas, and with MSF she ended up in Tabu, a small coastal village where there was no running water.
“We built a pharmacy and medication started to arrive from Europe for distribution. The main problems were malaria, skin disease and diarrhoea. We employed 50 staff from the Ivory Coast, a mix of nurses, staff who could register patients, and drivers and security staff.
“We did mobile health clinics three times a day, sometimes treating up to 250 patients. It was full on and quite intense,” she adds.
A key focus was launching a malnutrition programme for children.
“Sometimes I found myself saying ‘oh gosh, this is so tough’. But then I’d see a kid ready to go home looking well and fit and happy when a few weeks earlier they were malnourished. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”