Rwanda – 30 January – 5 February 2010
By Brita Fernandez Schmidt
I am on my way to Rwanda for the first time, to see the work Women for Women International does there and to join a meeting of all the country directors from the countries where Women for Women International has programmes. When we arrive, I am immediately struck by the friendliness of everyone, from the passport control to the taxi driver. My first impression is that Rwanda is an absolutely beautiful country. Rwanda is apparently the country of a thousand hills, and it looks really hilly and is very green. It must be the cleanest and nicest place I have ever been. Apparently every month the president and everyone has a cleanup operation where they clean the streets and that is what it looks like, not a single piece of rubbish anywhere. You are not allowed to bring plastic bags into the country – one of my colleagues was carrying one and had to empty it, before leaving the airport. So I think to myself: it can be done – how amazing. There is a lot we could learn from this.
Right now I cannot imagine that Rwanda is also the site of one of the worst genocides in history – there are no signs of it at first sight. Later in the evening a few of us go for walk and I wonder about security, but I am assured that Kigali is one of the safest cities in the world, and from what I could see this is true. I am wondering how this is possible? My colleague from the DRC explains that she thinks it is because Rwanda is very small country with 8 million inhabitants. Effective control is therefore easier. It is still something that baffles me.
The following day we start our meeting with all the country directors, the Global Leadership Team and Zainab. Our director from Sudan was unable to come, because the security situation in Southern Sudan is really tense – we have a security level coding system (green yellow red) for our programmes and Sudan right now is level red. This is largely due to the fact that Southern Sudan is trying to be independent and this is causing tension. Our country director from Afghanistan is also not here but that is due to visa issues.
But security is a big concern for many of our programmes. One of our offices in Northern Nigeria in Jos had to be closed because of security concerns. The house of one of our staff there was burnt down and she is now living in barracks. The South, where we also have offices are also dealing with security issues, mainly related to kidnapping and robbery – one of our director’s friend’s son is still being held hostage. Our country director from Iraq said that she never gives out her business card for fear what might happen if it ends up in the wrong hands and her name and address get known. The reality of what our country staff have to face on a daily basis is really overwhelming. Zainab puts it very clearly when she says that everything they do is against the odds, fighting against the system, it is swimming against the stream or running against the wind. It seems so important to me for all of us to always remember this. What Women for Women International does is very special, we do development in contexts where many other organisation will only do humanitarian work – but this comes at a huge risk and price that our country offices are willing to take. I am so impressed by the courage, determination and passion of the women who are leading our work in-country.
The next day we all go to the offices where women receive their Life-Skills training and we are allowed to attend one of the classes. I am in a class on reproductive health. There are about 15 women – a few are missing because they had to go to Open Day at school with their children. A few are pregnant, a few are there with their small babies. I estimate the age range to be between 18-55. When we go round and introduce each other, the majority of the women have a minimum of 4 children each. I cannot believe how young some of them are. It also really strikes me how many of them are single mothers, some have lost their husbands and others are separated. The lesson starts by going over the previous lesson, which covered the anatomy of the reproductive organs. The Life-Skills trainer has a fantastic plastic sheet with a very good and clear drawing. The women remember the last lesson well and participate actively. The content of this lessons focuses on pregnancy. Questions such as: How do you know when you are pregnant, what can you do to space your pregnancies and what contraceptive methods are available are discussed. There is a lot of giggling when the trainer shows them how a female condom works. But underneath there is a serious interest and concern. Concern about preventing HIV and AIDS, as well as having too many children. The women discuss amongst each other how to negotiate with their partners around safe sex. They share what contraception they use. The support they are giving to each other is tangible. I am really impressed by the clarity of the lesson and hope that my daughters, when they grow up, will have access to such information to keep them healthy and safe.
The trainers and staff at the office are all very friendly and committed to the work they are doing. They have created a safe haven for women, that is green and beautiful. Our country director in Rwanda talks about ‘enjoying the beauty of security’. This has stuck with me as something we simply take for granted, but security is the number one concern when you ask women in Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq. Therefore to gain security after conflict is consciously treasured.
The next day, our highlight is a visit to the newly acquired farm land in Karongi, where we run an organic commercially integrated farming initiative. The farm we are visiting is 24 hectares, which are shared among 1000 women, who graduated from our programme in 2009. We get there at lunch time and it is extremely hot. Many of the women are waiting for us. They normally work the land early in the morning and would not be there at this time. But they are excited to welcome us and show us the land that they are in the process of turning into their livelihood.
The land has never been farmed before and there is a lot of hard work getting it ready. We see a few seedling beds of chilli, which will be one of the five key crops that will be grown. Each crop has already got a market partner, so the women who will be growing the crop know that they will be able to sell them and make a living. There are two other farms in Rwanda and also one in Sudan. We are piloting this initiative to explore the potential of farming as a sustainable form of income. It is hard work, the tools the women have are simple, the conditions are basic, but in the context of their lives, this is progress. But I think to myself how important it is to always remember how hard women have to work to stand on their own feet. And yet, even here, in the sweltering heat, in the middle of green farmland, we dance. All the women are overwhelmed to be meeting Zainab, and talk about how Women for Women International has changed their lives.
The next day we visit the genocide memorial museum in Kigali. I had been waiting for this moment. I wanted to understand more about what had happened here, see it with my own eyes, understand the tragedy and the legacy it has left. No one I had met till now had talked about the genocide. No one talks about ethnicity, it is now forbidden by law to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.
The museum takes you on a journey, from the early days where the people of Rwanda lived peacefully together to the Belgian rule, which favoured the minority Tutsi tribe and suppressed the Hutus. When the Belgian left, this turned around and the Hutus started to rule and in turn oppress the Tutsis. Of course the history is much more complex than that. In the genocide that unfolded in 1994, 1 million people died, that is something like one in every eight people of the population. 37,000 children were left orphans. There are so many photos of children, women and men who were slaughtered – it is simply unbearable. It is difficult to understand – the mass graves in the museum grounds, the deep trauma and sadness of the place are in direct juxtaposition to the beauty and order of the surroundings. I wonder whether this is perhaps the way to overcome such horror and find reconciliation? What I ask myself is how and when will we know? Someone I met on the plane, who had lived in Kigali for the past 6 years and worked on the memorial, said that the peace and control was more fragile than it seemed and that much depended on Kigame’s (the current president) re-election this year. I don’t know, but I hope, I hope that Rwanda is making history as a country that has been able to introduce such significant changes that will provide the basis for lasting peace – the people deserve this.
And on my last day we attend a graduation ceremony of 120 women who have finished their year long training. The ceremony starts with a moving speech by one of the participants. She summarises what they have achieved over the past year. 99% of the women now sleep with mosquito nets – a live saving practice in a country that suffers from malaria. Over half the women have registered their marriages – hugely important for the protection of their rights. Many women marry under communal law and do not realise that their rights are not protected in the event of separation. By formally registering their marriages, this changes. Two thirds of the women have had an HIV/AIDS test, which can be life-saving in a country where the prevalence rate of 18-30 year olds is 20%. 54% of the women have received business skills training and the majority will now form cooperatives. Several women then introduce themselves and give their testimony.
There is Christine, who is part of a group of about 20 who have called themselves ‘Advising Eachother’. She says that before she started in the Women for Women programme she was in a bad condition. She had lost her parents during the genocide and her husband passed away after the genocide and she was left on her own with her very young children. The sponsorship funds she received through the Women for Women International sponsor helped her to set up her own business and earn enough money to send her children to school.
Rebecca talks about how she was left to look after her 3 children whilst her husband was in prison. She got very sick and everyone thought it was AIDS. She had little hope until she joint Women for Women International. The first sponsorship funds she received, she used to purchase her health insurance (2000 Rwandan Franc = $2) which allows her to access hospital care. Through the health awareness training she receives, she realises that she does not have AIDS, but that she had been suffering from malaria. Since using mosquito nets, she is no longer ill.
She holds a pack of letters in her hands and shows them to us – ‘these are the letters my sister Beth has sent to me’ – every month one letter. The letters are long and have photos. Rebecca tells us, how kind these letters are and how much they mean to her. She says: ‘My older sister and brothers were killed in the genocide, my sister was called Beth and now I have my sponsor sister, and she is called Beth also, Beth has become my sister, my family, she mean everything to me.’ The connection and the importance of this relationship beyond the money she receives is clearly a huge support and motivation to her. In my heart I make a promise to my sponsor sister in Bosnia to write to her every month. Rebecca says: ‘I will always keep these letters where there is no rain.’ I am so moved, it is hard to speak. The translator, who is one of the Life Skills trainers, sums it up when she says ‘They don’t want to feel it’s just a matter of money.’
That for me is the strength of Women for Women International’s mission and vision, the connections across huge distances and divides that bring women together to create better and more peaceful societies.
I leave Rwanda with my heart filled with hope, hope that Rwanda will surprise the world as a country that managed to overcome its horrible history, hope that Rwanda will be able to continue to develop itself as a country where everyone can live together peacefully and where sustainable development for women and men becomes a reality – I know that Women for Women International’s team in Rwanda will do their utmost best to make it happen.