East Africa: Who Knew?

The images are dark. Rwanda. Who can forget the movie Hotel Rwanda and the bumpy road that turned out to be strewn with bodies? And yes, the genocide did happen and has scarred the psyches of three or more generations of Rwandans forever. It is a shadow – and it is everywhere in Rwanda.

I want to write more about this era of history sometime soon but didn’t want to open with that. I want to open instead with my amazement.

For Rwanda is beautiful and green, hilly, and COOL – Baguio weather in the old days before the exhaust fumes settled down over everything. People say there is no such thing as a bad view in the city of Kigali; there are panoramic views everywhere. The streets are clean, buildings and gardens well cared for. My first day in Rwanda, a Sunday, I took a walk before breakfast and couldn’t stop smiling: people on the street were good looking, well dressed, the men mostly in Western style shirts and ties or suit jackets, and the women in long dresses of bright African prints. There was a magical energy and spirit in the air.

And in truth this is a peaceful, progressive country. Tribal indications are no longer used. Children across the country are in school. All families with children have rudimentary medical insurance, provided by the government for families too poor to buy their own. Kigali is a modern city with several big hotels, banks, government buildings, hospitals and clinics, and a host of good restaurants.

But there is much to do in the countryside. Here people are poor and “city services” which we (sometimes) take for granted, like electricity and clean water, are nonexistent. Few women are educated, and few men have any respect for women’s rights.

Women for Women International, the incredible NGO that hosted my trip, works with the women in the countryside, choosing the poorest, the most disadvantaged of women. They started working in Rwanda 20 years ago, soon after the Genocide ended. They put together a group of 25 women for each year-long program, meet women two or three times a week, near their homes, and teach them an empowering curriculum, which includes health and hygiene, household management, budgeting, rights for family members within the family and the community, and decision making.

We were invited to listen in to one class in which the women were talking about ways people sometimes wasted money. One woman said “Well, suppose you have a very ugly husband whom you don’t like, and you want to buy little trinkets for a much better looking man you know!” This drew chuckles – who knows how serious it was meant to be! Perhaps more realistically she added that sometimes she sees a friend has a nice new dress, and she wants to spend money for something like that. Or she smells that a neighbor is frying potatoes and she rushes out to buy oil on credit so she can do the same.

Perhaps the major part of the Women for Women curriculum is devoted to livelihood: teaching skills, forming cooperatives, working together. Here women go way beyond the traditional women’s work of handicrafts – although they are producing wonderful baskets and the traditional cow dung decoration called Imigongo. We visited one group of women who have formed a brick making cooperative and are making first class bricks, and another group engaged in house painting. Women also farm; we were put to work helping the carrot farmers one morning. At the Women’s Opportunity Center, we met one group of women making and marketing high quality yoghurt.

There was a graduation on the last day of our visit: 600 women, all dressed up and beaming as they presented the fruits of their labor, danced and celebrated. One mixed group of men and women presented a comic dance in which the men gamely took over all the work of the women, so the women could go to school!

For us this served as a wonderful celebration of the good work done by Women for Women International – and of the progress coming to beautiful Rwanda. One woman at a time.

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