A mission to Rwanda with the true disciples of Cameron

Lucy Kinder joined the Tory volunteers on their annual mission to Africa – and found a combination of compassion and careerism

The sound of polished British accents jarred amid the bustle of Kigali airport. A group of suited men stood around the luggage carousel, looking like they had just stepped off the 7.30 to Euston. Nearby, a gaggle of scruffy 19-year-olds with similar well-to-do pitches were taking in the chaotic sub-Saharan scene.

These were not your usual clutch of businessmen, NGO workers and gap-year students for whom Rwanda has become a regular destination. Rather, they were Britain's most likely future leaders – who, complete with "Back Boris!" T-shirts, had arrived to bring compassionate conservatism to Africa.

When the House of Commons clears out for each summer recess, the party which is odds-on to be running the country after the next election sends some of its most thrusting members to Rwanda on an ambitious annual development mission.

Part social welfare programme, part political profile raiser, Project Umubano was created by the Conservative Party two years ago when David Cameron travelled to Rwanda with a group of Tory volunteers to try to spur on development in an impoverished region where the memories of genocide still loomed large.

Since then it has expanded. Last summer's volunteers included Francis Maude, shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and six other frontbench MPs. Lord Ashcroft paid to build a community centre. This year more than 100 participants – myself included – were dispersed for a fortnight throughout the country to work on a range of projects, each paying their way: £300 for country costs and £800 for flights.

Those with business expertise try to help develop the Rwandan private sector. Lawyers work at the Institute of Legal Practice, the Rwandan national university and the Ministry of Justice, while doctors train nurses and treat patients. Meanwhile I went to work with 40 volunteers on the education project.

Not a member of the Conservative Party myself, I was keen to see how a politically minded volunteer project could make a humanitarian impact.

I was posted on a teaching project in Butare, a small university town south-west of the capital. The idea that I could improve the lives of the Rwandan people sounded ambitious, considering I had no experience as an educationalist. I had only recently put my own student days behind me.

But this was not a concern for the organisers; apparently after a one-day "Teaching English as a Foreign Language" (TEFL) course, anyone can teach – even to teachers.

The Rwandan government announced last year that it was switching the language of education from French to English. I was in charge of a class of 45 teachers who were struggling to grasp even the rudiments of the language, but were already expected to teach their classes solely in English.

Undeterred, I enthusiastically handed out the glossy Project Umubano brochures, full of lengthy testimonies from previous volunteers eulogising Rwanda. My class was not impressed by the token speech I gave about the Conservative Party and its social action plan, and tried to convince me that Tony Blair was still the British Prime Minister.

The basic exercises on the "foolproof" lesson plans that I had been given fell flat. "Who is Simon?" the baffled teachers asked as I tried to play "Simon Says". "Hickory Dickory Dock" went down just as badly. However, anything religious was popular.

Progress was frustrating. The Rwandan Ministry of Education had promised all the teachers a daily allowance for food and provisions, which it then did not deliver. This only came to light on the penultimate day of the project. It explained why so many of our class had appeared unresponsive; we had been instructing teachers who were hungry, tired and disillusioned. Many had walked up to 15km just to get to school each morning.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, shadow Minister for International Development, persuaded the Minister of Education to rectify the situation. Two days later we were informed that the minister in question had been dismissed. Another senior education minister, in charge of rolling out Rwanda's new English language curriculum, was also sacked and cited in a procurement scam.

Although this might have soured my personal volunteering experience, Project Umubano has had notable successes. In the past three years, the medical team has treated over 5,000 people. The private sector has established a twinning arrangement with Harvard Business School and the Saïd Business School at Oxford. The legal team was this year supported by lawyers from Allen and Overy, a firm which recently struck its own partnership with Rwanda.

But it was not just Rwandan development that Project Umubano helps – handily, it can also benefit the political careers of the volunteers.

Our group included Andrew Mitchell, the shadow International Development Secretary, Nick Hurd, shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, and Desmond Swayne, Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron.

The volunteers seized their chance to access this Westminster bubble and capitalise on the political acumen available thousands of miles from the pressures of home.

As one floppy-haired volunteer working on the private sector project remarked: "I'm here to make contacts, to network. I'm using it as an opportunity to get closer to people who can help my company."

The number of potential and actual parliamentary candidates on the trip meant it was hardly surprising that deals were struck over dinner, and the conversation rarely strayed from politics – primarily British, rather than Rwandan. Several possible parliamentary candidates were open about their hopes that the trip would help them to boost their political profiles, both within the party and with the electorate.

One candidate had even brought a stack of autographed photographs of himself to Rwanda, perhaps forgetting that he wasn't yet campaigning.

The trip was also a revealing foray into what we can expect from a party that believes it is marching towards election victory. The dominance of several "young guns" was obvious. Heading the Umubano organisational team was Jessica Lever, a 22-year-old political researcher who in 2004 became the youngest woman to address a Tory party conference. The great niece of the economist Milton Friedman, she cited Margaret Thatcher as one of her heroines and vowed to fight for the freedom of the individual. There were many like her on the trip whose messianic zeal for the party belied their tender years.

But the real bright sparks were those who placed their loyalties squarely with the Rwandan people they had come to help. I witnessed one volunteer welling up with emotion when she realised the implications of the Ministry of Education payment error on those she was teaching. One of the trip's organisers meanwhile looked on impassively.

Such was the paradoxical nature of Project Umubano. Compassionate conservatism was displayed by many, but self-promotion was important to a few. It remains to be seen which will triumph in the wider realms of the Conservative Party.

Rwanda: State of the nation

Tiny, landlocked Rwanda specialises in first impressions. Visitors expecting echoes of the 1994 genocide find a peaceful, organised and almost obsessively tidy place, in which plastic bags are banned.

The country presents itself as a regional IT hub but agriculture is still the chief industry. The land of a thousand hills has terraced all of them and is still struggling to feed its fast-growing population.

Rwanda remains heavily dependent on foreign aid, with the UK its largest donor. Supporters point to relatively low levels of official corruption and the highest proportion of female MPs in the world. Others note its role in destabilising neighbouring Eastern Congo and the political dominance of President Paul Kagame and his Tutsi allies from the former Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Daniel Howden

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn