The Poop On How Rwanda Turned Prison Feces Into Energy

Overrun with prisoners sentenced for their roles in the country's 1994 genocide, Rwanda had to find a way to deal with its massive prison waste and reduce energy costs. It managed both with a biogas system.

Rehabilitating inmates
Rehabilitating inmates
Pierre Lepidi

RWAMAGANA â€" They’re sitting on the floor in close ranks, facing the door. There’s about a hundred of them. In their orange uniforms, most of them barefooted, the convicts are waiting under a scorching sun, waiting to be counted and re-counted before entering Rwamagana's penitentiary, the biggest prison in Rwanda.

Among the 8,597 prisoners crammed inside its high walls, more than half are still being imprisoned for crimes they committed during the genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, most of them Tutsi, between April and July 1994. During the commemorations that will officially end on July 4 but also on billboards and on television, the word kwibua, or "remember," is everywhere.

As soon as it emerged from its genocidal hell, Rwanda had to manage an unprecedented influx of prisoners. Between 2001 and 2012, the 12,100 gacaca â€" popular jurisdictions inspired by ancient assemblies where wise men of the village would solve disputes â€" judged more than two million people. According to government figures, 65% of them were sentenced to prison or community service.

Although several penitentiaries were expanded or renovated, all rapidly reached their limit. “The smell of feces was unbearable inside the walls, and even around the prison,” recalls Vincent, a convict in his sixties. "There have been more than 12,000 of us here. Since the septic tanks were often full, we would suffocate. Visitors used to come with a mask."

In the late 1990s, the Rwandan government launched a significant investment plan in renewable energies, including biogas (producing gases from the breakdown of organic matter) for large schools and, most importantly, for prisons. Of the 14 penitentiaries across Rwanda, 13 are now equipped with organic waste breakdown systems where waste is turned into energy.

In the city of Rwamagana, located about 50 kilometers west of the capital Kigali, the system began operating in 2010. "It enabled us to sanitize the buildings, to get rid of the putrid smells and to save money since electricity costs for cooking dropped 85%," says prison warden Moise Ntawiheba. "On top of that, the forest is thankful."

Before the system was in place, the prison needed 35 cubic meters of wood every month to heat the water and the food. Now, it needs just seven. Environmental protection is a major issue in Rwanda, where not a piece of paper or cigarette butt litters the streets, where energy-saving light bulbs are commonplace, and where plastic bags have been banned since 2006.

The biogas system is buried opposite from the door to the facility’s main building. On the outer wall, pipes connect the latrines to a tank. Excrement feeds 12 digesters of 100 cubic meters each. That’s where the fermentation process takes place, producing 500 cubic meters of gas every day, 60% of it methane, that is then transported to the kitchens' gas burners. At the other end of the system, a cavity allows for the collection of the odorless organic residue that is used as fertilizer for the crops.

The Rwamagana prison spreads over 415 acres, beyond the first hills we see around it. On about 20% of the property, 274 convicts â€" 164 have been sentenced to life, including 157 for their roles in the genocide â€" are allowed to work in the fields, where they grow beans, soy, potatoes and more. Vincent, who is serving a 30-year sentence, is one of them. He also takes care of the biogas system and participated in its realization. "Thanks to this energy, we've saved a lot of time for cooking," he says. "And as far as maintenance goes, we just need to check the pipes aren’t leaking."

In the kitchens are huge cooking pots filled with uncooked corn. Some 30 convicts are moving about the burners fed with the biogas. "We're preparing the second meal, our last one of the day," one of them says. He shows the corn they harvested in a field outside the prison. It will be served to the prisoners and will end up, as in an endless circle, fertilizing other crops.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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