Sister to Sister in Rwanda
The trip from Kigali to Rwamagana is a little more than an hour’s drive along a surprisingly well‑paved two-lane highway. From my open window in the van I see lush green rolling hills and red earth, small mounds of farmland, banana trees, and wetlands filled with stalks of sugar cane and squat tea trees rushing by me. Along the sides of the road many people are walking, all of them balancing something on their heads – baskets of deep red tomatoes or dusty brown sweet potatoes, plastic jerry cans filled with water, long thin branches of firewood, bundles of thick sugar cane or dark green cassava leaves – and everywhere the smoky scent of cooking fires permeates the air. The beauty of Rwanda mystifies me.
At a crossroad in Rwamagana we leave the paved highway and drive several miles on a rutted, kidney-jarring, dirt road; ten of us bouncing along in the Women for Women (WFW) International van, the local children running alongside waving at us, the women hoeing their small plots of land gaping at us as we drive by, wondering who we are and where we are going. I am traveling with the trainers from the Kigali office to enroll women from this rural area into the program – and to meet the woman I sponsor. She has no idea I am coming.
More than one hundred women wearing long dresses and headscarves in brilliant African prints and infants tucked in their laps or swaddled on their backs are waiting patiently for us on the grass under the shadows of shade trees and brightly-colored rain umbrellas. They study us curiously, especially me, the only white woman in the group. Later I would learn they had many questions about me, wanting to know if I am “a woman or a girl;” meaning, if I am married or single, among many other things.
I sit on a wooden bench next to the WFW staff in the warm April African sun as one of the trainers translates Kinyarwanda into English for me. The trainers finish telling the women about the program and then direct them into smaller groups. My sister, Marie Odette, is called out of her group to meet me. My first memory of Marie is of a young woman in a long brown print dress carrying a wooden bench for us to sit on and placing it under a shade tree. We hug each other as though we are old friends who have reunited after a very long time apart. Marie is a pretty, shy woman with a quiet demeanor, but she carries the look of sadness in her dark eyes. Through my interpreter I learn that she and one brother are the sole survivors of a family of thirteen; she lost the others to the 1994 genocide. She points to a small cemetery on the side of a hill where they are buried. She tells me she had once planned to enter the convent to become a Catholic nun, but after her family was killed she lost faith and grew frightened of living alone and wary of the soldiers who drank heavily and congregated in her village; so she took a young man as a husband for protection. She says he is a good man and tells me they make and sell banana beer to earn a living. Then she smiles and tells me proudly that she has started her own business making donuts. I ask her if her donuts are good. Her smile turns into a wide grin and she says, “Yes, they are very good.”
We pass the afternoon asking many questions about each other; Marie wanting to know where I live and what I do for my work, and if I have children. She tells me she keeps losing babies and that it makes her the subject of gossip among the other women who seem to have little problem bearing many children. We encourage her to go to the medical clinic for an examination instead of continuing to seek the advice of the traditional healer in her village; before we leave she promises she will go to the clinic and get the needed treatment.
All too soon the time passes, Marie thanks me for traveling such a long distance to meet her and is very grateful for the small gifts I have brought her; little practical things that are so commonplace to me are very special to her. And she thanks me for supporting her so that she can complete the program and grow her little donut business and someday open a small shop. And I feel it is the least I can do to help her accomplish that dream.
The groups begin to break up and the women start to leave to walk back down the dirt roads to their mud houses to resume their daily chores – planting fields and carrying water, cooking meals, washing clothing, and tending to small children. But here in the late afternoon sunlight as they cross the threshold between the grass and the red earth they appear like African geishas twirling their open umbrellas, their babies tied on their backs with wide swaths of padded cloth. They pause graciously so that I can take their photographs. Then Marie stands hand-in-hand with of one her friends and more women come to join her. As they stand arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand and smile at me with their beautiful wide-open grins and I smile back at them, at once I feel we are all connected. That we are universal sisters with the same hopes and desires, loves, and dreams, and that day by day we are changing and enriching each others lives through this connection.
I would like to thank the staffs in both the Washington, DC and Kigali offices for making the arrangements for me to meet my sister, Marie Odette in Rwamagana, Rwanda. It was truly an extraordinary experience that I never dreamed would have come true nearly two years before while I was still living in San Francisco and first started sponsoring a sister through WFW after learning about the organization by watching a 60 Minute segment by Anderson Cooper about the brutal rapes of women in the DRC. Marie is the third woman I have sponsored. Thank you to Priscilla and Sara in DC and to Peace and Berra and all the staff in the Kigali office who picked me up at my hotel, allowed me to hitch a ride to the rural villages and attend workshops at the Kigali office, and for enthusiastically translating for me. They always made me feel welcome. Thank you to my fellow Tuesday night volunteers in the DC office who enthusiastically supported my trip and wanted to hear all about it upon my return, and for their patience when I repeated the same stories to others over again. And most importantly, thank you to Zainab, for her tireless effort in raising the consciousness of people all over the world to the plight of women in war-torn countries who still live under deplorable conditions and suffer unspeakable inhumanities and indignities that no woman should ever have to endure. And to Women for Women International for improving the lives of thousands of women through their innovative sponsorship program. For in the end I do believe that if we can improve the life of at least one other woman in this world then we have truly done something significant and good with our lives.