So here we are on our way to Rwanda, the country of a thousand hills, a return for me and a first time for Ronny. We’re going to visit our partners in Bwira, the women from the cooperative Abihuje, who warmly welcome us with singing and dancing. Tonight, their husbands have even joined them, it’s very moving.
We soon settle into our house and start receiving visitors, they bring us all sorts of presents, such as huge avocados, eggs from hens or turkeys, the little aubergines with a slightly bitter taste, fresh milk from the cow or even goats (twice) and a cockerel. Children and adults alike are very curious, not much privacy here… The turkeys have a tendency of hanging around, boasting in elegance!
Official visits and the surroundings
The first week of our stay doesn’t allow us to do too much with the women from Abihuje because the president of the cooperative’s dad has just died in a fire accident in the prison where he was kept with no file. Tradition requires a week of mourning so we take the opportunity to start a series of visits to officials, from the village chief to the Directorate General of Immigration. All those discussions are useful to explain what we are doing and why: there is still a fair amount of suspicion and the officials like to keep a level of control on what is going on. A direct consequence for us is that we can no longer rely on the school to alert us to the children with potential but in need of support for our child sponsoring programme; we now have to go through the local authorities who maintain lists of indigent families. This creates more bureaucracy but on the positive side, it makes it easier for our president Goretti, who constantly has to manage many requests for help. In the meantime, we also take the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.
Settling in and who we all are
We enter into a little routine at home: Ronny bakes bread, I bake banana cakes (I must… they tend to pile up and the flies like them too much!); Christian is the architect in chief, measuring the land for building the community centre (he’s also usually in charge of cooking the meat received…); Annie keeps us on track and records our activities to report back to the Association’s members; Francis is the best assistant ever in all tasks; Alexandre, Christian and Goretti’s 8 year old son, makes sure we don’t forget to enjoy ourselves and, being incredibly mature, helps where he can; Goretti deals with literally everything… not the least communicating, translating, managing expectations and cultural differences.
And let’s not forget Pierre, our little helper for daily tasks: fetching water, washing up, shopping, looking after the house when we are out… He is a very curious and willing young man, keen to improve his English and French and even interested in German! He has now been working with us for a few years and used to be one of our sponsored children until he left school to experience living in the city… he never really told what happened but he made a conscious decision to come back to the country, where life may be hard but probably less cruel…
A little journey down the country
After the first week, we go on a 4-day trip to the South and the East of the country. For me it’s an opportunity to meet with friends and ex-colleagues I had worked with back in 2001-2002. We also visit the beautiful Lake Kivu which borders Rwanda on the East and forms a natural frontier with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is misty the days that we are there but we still manage a few nice shots… and a swim in the lake.
Working with the women from Abihuje
When we come back, it is time to start training on the use of computers and the internet the approximately 10 women who can read and write. A computer… the world opens up: switch on, use the mouse, click on a link, try a search on Google, get an email address, it’s magic! The women’s enthusiasm and interest is nice to see (whilst I despair at the slowness and utter unreliability of the connection…). Goretti also introduces them to general notions of business management because they have a great plan: they would like to open up a shop in the “village” for basic necessities, managed by the cooperative and employing one or two local people. Given the distance they currently have to travel to find basic supplies it seems a sensible idea. They themselves represent more than 30 families and are eager to make this work.
Since we are here as “enablers” not “directors”, we agree to assist in setting things up, and the training is the first step. Goretti has years of experience as economist and knows the context; she explains best practice in management, risk assessment and planning, as well as the pros and cons of personal involvement, insisting on reflection, openness and analysis. We agree on paying for the initial stock, the wage of the employee for the first year, as well as two solar panels and a small computer. The cooperative can therefore generate some income through providing a phone charging facility. Everyone is aware that the aim is to make this a sustainable project. It is about trust and empowerment.
In the following week, we have several meetings with the women from Abihuje to discuss various projects and options, and just to get to know each other a little more. We also visit a few times one of the members who lives nearby; she shows us around and how she makes banana wine.
My favourite thing: crafts
During our stay, we also have a morning of craft work. It’s amazing to see the whole process of extracting and treating the plant fibres used in basket and floor mat making. This includes creating the thread that holds everything together by beating sisal leaves to extract the fibre, clear it of any green matter and then rolling the fibre on the thigh, with continuous light spitting for making sure it stays moist. I have a miserable go at it… and quickly give up. The women laugh at how red my thigh has quickly become. I stick to my crocheting and bracelet knotting with (ready-made) cotton… This is a precious moment, a time of complicity and being together, communicating through smiles, laughs, eyes, gestures and showing. I teach crochet to the pre-school teacher, who is very good at it! She in turns teaches it to Mahoro, our sponsored young lady.
This is moving: meeting the sponsored children and playing with the kids!
There are many meaningful moments but the one that will really stick in my mind is the little gathering we have with most of the 22 sponsored children. At last Ronny and I meet with Mahoro, the 18 year old young woman we support to allow her to do an apprenticeship as hairdresser and masseur, something she has always wanted to do. She says she is looking forward to helping women feel good and being able to pass on her knowledge to other young people when she opens up her own hairdressing salon. All of the sponsored children share their projects and give messages to their respective sponsors. It makes it all very worthwhile. The following day Ronny and I go to visit Mahoro and her mum in their little house. We have a very interesting discussion, breaking barriers and respective prejudices: why we’re interested in helping people we don’t even know, why we’re not “superior”, how we also gain from from these contacts etc.
We also spend a couple of afternoons playing with the children: Annie is excellent at keeping them entertained with little songs and group games, Alexandre shows them how he makes his elastic bracelets and plays other games, Goretti recites traditional poems with them, whilst I interest a few in getting their hands into finger knitting. Sweet moments…
Then it is farewell time… the collaboration continues. Thank you for a lovely welcome and to our sponsors for supporing us in this “adventure”.