Monthly Archives: May 2010

Lisa Rico: Graduation Day in Rwanda

After women have been in the Women for Women International program for one year, they graduate. It’s a big deal. For many this is their first graduation ceremony. They dress in traditional garments and with bellies full of nervous butterflies they come to celebrate. I’ve attended these ceremonies before, but today was special. 
Today 680 women, the largest class yet in Rwanda, was graduating. We arrive at the “playground”–it looks more like a big field, there are so many people I can’t imagine the number. Later I’m told more than 2,000. I can hear music in the background beyond the sea of bodies and  umbrellas. Today the sun is bright and it is African hot, at least to me. We get out with hundreds watching my every move. Without any words spoken, they part and let me pass. They stare, some smile and a few reach out and touch me. I don’t really understand why at the moment. Later I will discover they have already been told a special guest from America is coming. And I  just thought I was going to observe–silly me. 
I am escorted to a tent-covered V.I.P. area. Even the simple plastic chairs are covered in white fabric.  Our country director, Berra, was speaking, or trying to. My arrival is causing a bit of a stir as people stretch to get a glimpse of this  special guest. I’m still clueless. Finally Berra gives in and introduces  me as a sponsor who has come a long way on behalf of other sponsors in America. She asks me to stand and wave. I’m overcome when the crowd  erupts into applause, waves and huge smiles. They are so happy I’m here. Okay, now I get it. 
The program continues with various talking heads, dancing and songs.  Even a skit that demonstrates what the women have learned is presented.  One of the talking heads is the vice mayor. She has much to say. The crowd loves her and is very responsive to her speech. Fortunately, sitting next to me a Women for Women International staff member is explaining what she is saying. At one point she starts to really urge the women to save some money, stay clean and make sure their children go to school. Then, much to my amazement, she talks about family planning and how important  it is. She even asks them by a show of hands who is practicing family planning. Most every hand goes up. “Good,” she says, “do not have more childrens than you have money for; this is very important.” I keep trying to imagine my mayor standing up at some big event and encouraging everyone to bathe and practice family planning. I love their raw honesty.

Berra is once again addressing the crowd. Then I realize she is talking about me. She asks if I will come forward and talk to the women on behalf of all sponsors. No pressure here. “Muraho, amakuru ki?” They love this–white woman speaks Rwandan. That’s all I know so know Berra helps me from here. I tell them, it is an honor to be here. Everyone of your sponsors are so very proud of you and each of them wishes they were here today. They are all proud of what you’ve overcome and what you are accomplishing now. They know it has not been easy for you, that it is still not easy for you but because of your hard work, it is getting better. I mention the Women for Women International slogan, Strong Women Build Strong Nations and say, “and because of your strength, you are building a strong Rwanda. Murakoze cyane.” Thank you very much.

At the end of the ceremony, some two hours later, a final celebration dance erupts. Others sitting in the V.I.P. area are invited to join in the dance including yours truly, the muzungu. When I do so another eruption of clapping and cheers. Try to picture it, under a hot African sun, in the middle of a field, hundreds of Rwandan women dressed in traditional outfits dancing around a crazy white woman who is trying desperately to dance with them. It must have been a sight. At least the film crew thought so because the next morning I’m told by hotel staff, “Hey I saw you on TV last night.” I can only hope this doesn’t make its way to You Tube.

Lisa Rico is a sponsor through Women for Women International. She is currently traveling in Rwanda.

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Lisa Rico’s Trip to Rwanda: Meeting Deborah

Today was the day for me to meet a couple of the women I sponsor through Women for Women International. It’s a rare experience for these women as few sponsors travel here. When it does happen, it’s a really big deal. As a sponsor, it’s a really big deal, too. How to describe the experience…I wish you could simply peer into my heart so you would know how it really felt.

My large green Range Rover that screams “muzungu” (white person), pulls into a small rural area where a couple dozen locals are hanging out. I scan the crowd, certain I won’t recognize my “sister” from the tiny photo I was given months ago. I was right; I didn’t recognize her at all. But I did recognize the look in her eyes. She knew who we were and moved toward us. We embrace. We embrace again. I can feel her small body shaking. She starts to cry. I offer the handful of Rwandan words I know. Then I need a translator. So good to meet you. How are you? Are you enjoying the Women for Women program? What are you learning?

She asks if I could visit her home nearby. We pile into the vehicle and head out. Nearby is farther than I thought, down a long road that looks more like a dry creek bed. All along the way there are children looking with curious eyes and waving at our passing vehicle.

We finally arrive at her small mud home. Neat and tidy, with no windows, a low doorway, dirt floor and grass roof. There is no water or electricity. The entire house is about the size of my kitchen. Deborah lives here with her two children, age 13 and 3. Because her brother and sister-in-law were killed during the genocide, her brother’s two children, ages 11 and 13, live here as well. Add her mother and that’s six in this tiny space. I can’t imagine.

Deborah says life is better, and I believe her. But she is not one of the many Rwandan women whose big bright smiles leave you thinking, she must have been out of town during the genocide because she looks so happy. No, when you look into Deborah’s eyes you know life has been, and continues to be, a hard, rough climb.

We eventually say goodbye, and I leave knowing this is not finished. I know when I wake up in the middle of the night in the days and months to come, Deborah’s face will be there.

Lisa Rico is a sponsor through Women for Women International. She is currently traveling in Rwanda.

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Rwanda: Alison Wheeler’s Trip, January 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

We arrived into the Kigali airport at 10 p.m. My very first observations walking down the airplane stairs were: the weather (warn and balmy), trees and canopies of leaves and the smoke smell (people burn their trash here).

The small Kigali airport was clean, efficient and relatively quiet. Many people welcomed us to Rwanda and then went on their way. Our drivers picked us up. We could see twinkling lights on the surrounding hills as we drove from the airport into Kigali. Paved two-lane roads wound around to the center of the city. There was somewhat of a center of the city, surrounded by homes and hills. It was amazing to hear that 1.5 million people live in Kigali and nearly 10 million people live in this very small country.

We arrived at Hotel Milles Collines (Rwanda is know as the Land of Thousand Hills). English has recently replaced French as the official language, though most people still speak the local language–Kinyarwanda.

The Hotel Milles Collines was the hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” You enter through a big gate, and I couldn’t help visualizing what this place must of looked like when hundreds of people were trying to get through the gates during the genocide, seeking the protection on the inside. After we had checked in, we all headed to take a look at the swimming pool. It was surreal to sit there and think about what it must have been like for the people that were trapped in the hotel during the genocide—the people who stayed here actually ended up drinking the pool water when they ran out of fresh water.

I guess that is one of the things I couldn’t get out of my head the entire first day here. How did the genocide happen here? It doesn’t seem possible. Unlike Bosnia, at first you don’t see the damage of the war that took place here. The buildings weren’t really destroyed. You don’t see the machetes lying around. But it’s there. Our taxi driver, Remee, told us he lost his entire family during the genocide–mother, father, brothers and sisters. He has no family. He also showed us a machete scar on his scalp. There are other scars, he told us.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We left the hotel early Wednesday morning to visit the sustainable farming initiative about an hour from our Kigali office.

Outside the city, the countryside is a terraced series of hills that go on and on with lots of green valleys and banana trees everywhere, in addition to the potato plant and the tomato tree (like a passion fruit in look and taste). Kigali is very adeptly described as a mountain hamlet—calm and clean. Most of the country is amazingly clean; you will never see any trash. Of course, no plastic bags as these are illegal to bring into the country!

You see women walking along the roads with babies happily strapped to their backs. Everyone seems to be in motion—people seem to be everywhere all the time. Even in the winding hills of the countryside you see people walking, riding a bicycle or sitting by the side of the road waiting for a bus ride.

We reached a valley where the organic farming initiative was located. A shelter for the working women and storage area for the tools was being constructed. It was the middle of the day and it was extremely hot. I understand that most of the women work in the morning, at 6 a.m. and work until about 11 a.m. and then sit out the heat. Under the shade of corn husk roof, we saw chili plants blooming. The other crops to be planted were watermelon, tomatoes, passion fruit, beans and corn.  The WFWI-Rwanda office has done a tremendous job securing market partners to ensure the women have somewhere to sell the crops they produce. The office has partnered with the largest juicer in the country that buys watermelon and passion fruits. The office will also sell corn and beans to the World Food Program—every crop has a market partner. To me, this seemed absolutely fundamental to ensuring that the women had a sustainable income: markets.

We saw the canals that had been dug to carry water from part of the farm to another. There are three other farms like this that the organization has developed. The locations of the farms are Ngenyue, Karongi and Njagama. The idea is to teach women vocational training in farming as part of the program and then give them the opportunity to earn income, post-program. The other key objective is to have the women own the land. The majority of people that work the land around the world are women but they own a very small percentage of the land.

Alison Wheeler is the Director of Marketing at Women for Women International.


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Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: The Impact of Women For Women International’s Program in Nigeria, by Ngozi Eze

Of the estimated 149 million Nigerians, 60 percent live in rural districts. Most of them cannot access fundamental infrastructural resources, social, and healthcare services. English is the official language of Nigeria, but most of the population is not fluent. Continued regional conflicts and the prevalence of patriarchal traditions force women to care for themselves and their children in an economically and politically unstable environment. Many women are widowed at an early age, live in remote regions of the country, and are mostly illiterate. All of these factors can contribute to an unstable and uncertain social and economic future.  As Nigeria Country Director for Women for Women International, I am so proud to be making a difference for the women of my country. Here’s how it happened.
Following a visit to Nigeria by Women for Women International [WfWI] founder Zainab Salbi in 2000, WfWI initiated “sister-to-sister” relationships with 800 women from three rural communities. The initial six-month program consisted of a curriculum in leadership, rights awareness, business creation, health care and HIV/AIDS education.   
In 2001, WfWI – Nigeria began to operate as a formally registered NGO with a country office in the southeastern state of Enugu. Two years later, a satellite office in Jos, the capital of the Plateau State, opened following the cessation of violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Since women can be instrumental in bridging lines of conflict, women from both religious communities participated in the program, including in communities where there had been clashes for over ten years.  One of the participants wrote, “I gained a lot from this program because you treat each other the way you want others to treat you. Even if you see somebody on the road, he or she is your fellow brother or sister. No tribalism, no sectionalism towards others. We women have gained a lot from these teachings.”

Since inception in late 2000, Women for Women International has had a positive impact on more than 23,000 socially excluded women in more than 30 communities in Nigeria, helping women access rights awareness and leadership training, business and vocational skills training and opportunities to generate income. The program enables women to move from being victims to being active citizens. It’s our fundamental belief that stronger women build stronger nations.  Another one of our graduates said, “I use what I learn from such a gathering to educate other women, especially on social and civic issues. For example, empowerment, rights awareness, peace in the family, health issues – all of them have attracted respect for me in the community.” It’s these kinds of reflections that make me want to get up and work every day, and that’s because the impact of what we’re doing is tremendous.
For example, more than 300 women’s groups have been able to buy or lease land for their businesses, ranging from poultry farming, to processing of grains and piggeries. Our groups have also been encouraged to open bank accounts in some of the most notable banks in Nigeria, such as Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, Intercontinental Bank Plc, Zenith Bank Plc and Nigerian Agricultural Cooperative and Rural Development Bank. We’ve also been able to collaborate with other stakeholders and institutions to provide services to participants and graduates of the program – such as Annunciation Hospital, Enugu who has been providing pre- and post-counseling services for women living with HIV/AIDs and encouraging others to know their status.  In 2008, the office opened a daily clinic with laboratory services in Jos, through which, in partnership with local partners, we are able to offer prenatal/postpartum health services, as well as voluntary counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Although our main focus is on socially excluded women, Women for Women International-Nigeria was the first chapter among the other country programs in Africa to start what we call our Men’s Leadership Training. This innovative program helps educate male leaders on women’s rights and value to the economy and society, engaging them as advocates and allies throughout their communities.  These trainings provide platforms for men and women to discuss and implement ideas for stronger communities where men and women are equally respected and valued.  Topics in the training include community rebuilding and participation, HIV/ AIDs, violence against women, and education.
One woman at a time, we at Women for Women International are working toward sustainable human and economic development in Africa, and we started with our Nigeria office.  97 percent of our program participants in my country say their lives have improved economically, and with an increased sense of confidence and awareness too.  We are helping women become stronger, taking leadership roles in defining the future of their families and societies, so that they may build better lives for generations to come.
About the author: Ngozi Uchenna Eze has more than 18 years of experience working in both private and public institutions advancing the status of women and children through international development. Before coming to Women for Women International (, she worked in Nigeria with a number of NGOs and private firms, including the Ohio African Trade office, based in Lagos. 


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