It is graduation day in Gitarama. 120 very enthusiastic women from six groups are gathered around a large tree on the edge of this small town in southwest Rwanda. Non-stop singing and dancing, drums, your correspondent pulled from his chair to join in… well, the less said about a middle-aged man’s attempt at ethnic dance the better. More interesting is the story of Mukashyaka from the village of Shyogwe.
Several women told their stories– testifying, they called it– and all were well worth hearing, but Mukashyaka wanted to make very clear the change in her life over the past year. She passed around a couple of photos. The first was taken a month or two before she joined the program, and in it she kneels beside her five children. It is the image most of us have when we think of “the typical African village family”– barefoot kids in tattered clothes, weary expressions, dirt.
The second photo is from just a month ago, and the kids look they are setting off for just another day at the grade school in your neighborhood: neatly dressed in clean shorts & t-shirts, wearing shoes, hair neatly trimmed, and standing beside their obviously happy mother. Mukashyaka told us about her sense of accomplishment, about the relief at finally being able to do some good for her children, and about her determination to “never fall back to the old ways”.
Others testified to similar changes in their lives. “I look and feel so much better now”, “some old friends don’t even recognize me”. More singing, a few tears, and a lot of laughter.
I was asked to pass out the graduation certificates. These were the first diplomas any of the women had ever received, and it was an honor to be part of the very first recognition of their own personal achievment. It was getting late, and we had a long drive ahead of us, but as we drove off, no one else had gone home.
On the road in Rwanda
It is a five hour drive from Kigali, through Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park, to Cyangugu and the border with the DRC. It’s a decent road, winding through the hills, past tea plantations, and the almost endless forest. We also drove past a refugee camp, refugees from fighting in Burundi.
“When did they get here?” I asked.
I do not speak French well. I must have misunderstood. “1975? Over 30 years in a UN camp? Why don’t they go back or resettle somewhere?”
That was the whole answer. Seth doesn’t talk much, but that was still the whole answer. For large numbers of people in this region, hopeless is an unbreakable fact of life. Some of their children are growing up in that camp.