Kigali, Rwanda, June 13, 2010 || Rwandans throughout the country observe 100 days of mourning to commemorate the atrocities committed during the genocide of 1994 where over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed over a 100-day period. We are visiting Kigali during this time of deep reflection and remembrance of those whose lives were cut short, which commences each year on April 6th. To pay our respects and to bear witness to this horrible series of events, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre where over 250,000 women, men, and children are buried and honored together in a mass grave site.
Our guide, Hashmat, who was only 10 years old at the time, shared her own story of survival. Together with her mother, father and three young siblings, Hashmat sought refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines, known by many outside of the country as “Hotel Rwanda.” She calls it home and explained that it took her many years to be able to talk about her story and courage to step foot back into the hotel to revisit those memories of pain and survival . When asked what we, as visitors, should take from her story, she urged that we should think of Rwanda today as one country and one people – united for progress and looking ahead at a prosperous and peaceful future.
In the afternoon, we saw just that.
As we entered the Women for Women International compound in Kigali, we were joyously greeted by a group of women who are currently enrolled in our programs. As they were singing and dancing, they welcomed supporters and sponsors from the United States who are here with me to see our programs in action and talk with the women who are participating in our life-skills and vocational training.
We first visited a sewing and tailoring skills class that was already in progress. The trainer mentioned that this group of women has been learning to sew for the last six months. They started the training without any prior sewing skills, but have quickly become proficient seamstresses – starting by producing tablecloths, advancing to school uniforms, and culminating in gift items such as bags, slippers, and intricate patters upon the completion of their skills training. As we left the class, after praising the craftsmanship of the new tailors, one of our visiting supporters, Christine, said to the trainer, “Make sure you tell them we believe in very strong women who can take control of their future.” The participants smiled and clapped in agreement.
Berra Kabarungi, WfWI-Rwanda Country Director, then shared with the group the comprehensive roadmap we use to guide our participants on their journeys from victim to survivor to active citizen. She highlighted the growth of the Rwanda program that started in 1997 serving 1,157 women with 14 staff members. Today, a team of 67 staff members are under the leadership of Berra and are working with 8,250 women in Rwanda. As we listened to Berra talk about our core life-skills and vocation training, complemented and advanced by our income-generation programs, business skills training, numeracy instruction and large-scale integrated farming initiatives, you were reminded of Hashmat’s theme– united for progress; looking ahead to a prosperous future.
Following Berra’s presentation, we met with graduates from our programs who were showcasing their handicrafts for purchase. We met Antoinette, who graduated in 2007. She produces beaded necklaces made out of recycled paper. When asked what her life was like before the WfWI program, she said that she did not have any skills and was sitting at home jobless. After her training, she has had success with selling her beadwork and access to a lasting income. Each of the necklaces takes her about three days to complete and she earns between 3,000-5,000 RWF each (about $6-10). She says it’s hard work, but her life is better than before.
Another woman we spoke with graduate last year. Serafine elected to take tailoring and sewing as her vocational skills-training. She is now part of a 40-women cooperative, all of whom are graduates of Women for Women International. Like those we visited in class today, she did not have any experience tailoring, using the machines, creating patterns, or producing the final products that were now displayed in front of us. Her co-op is so successful that they even act as wholesalers to other markets who buy their products to sell, and have worked with international buyers that sell their work abroad. She explained that for each item sold, a portion of the money goes to the seamstress and a portion to the co-op. She gave an example: if she sells a bag for 5,000 RWF, she takes home 4,000 and gives 1,000 back to invest in the future of the cooperative. Needing to get back to selling her products, she ends the conversation by saying that she is happy that we saw those who are currently learning how to sew and that we also met her. She sees such a difference from when she was first learning her craft to where her life is now. And that with hard work and determination, the new students will be where she is today.
These women are the embodiment of the new Rwanda for which Hashmat, Christine and Berra advocate — respecting where they came from, working hard through their struggles, and uniting as one as they take control of their future.
Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.