By Daniel Sabiiti
Rwanda is currently going through an accelerated pace of development. However, despite the gains that have been realised, particularly during the post-genocide period, the economic fate of rural women is still bleak.
Lack of proper schooling and job opportunities are among some problems that hamper development of these women. However, there are some women who, though denied the opportunity to break the glass ceiling, are doing everything in their power to ensure their families escape from the circle of poverty endemic in rural households.
Thanks to some of the projects initiated in rural areas, these women have found avenues through which they can use their skills to uplift their families.
Hands of Hope, a project based at the Red Rocks Cultural Centre in Nyakimana village, Musanze district, is such a project that’s now giving rural women in this and other neighbouring villages economic empowerment – and in the process a ray of hope.
The narratives of some of these women bare it all. 33-year old Marie Nyirabigirama, a resident of Susa village, Muko sector of Kivugiza cell, Musanze district, is your typical rural woman. She dropped out of primary school before getting married in 2002.
The mother of three is the fifth born in a family of six and none of her siblings went beyond primary six.
“Our parents could not afford fees to take us to secondary school,” Nyirabigirimana says, adding that her family entirely depended on subsistence farming.
“Farming was my only way of survival and I even got married to a farmer. But today, a lot has changed in my life and that of my family. I was introduced to a project called Hands of Hope in my village and it changed my economic, social and emotional status,” Nyirabigirimana says.
With the Hands of Hope project, Nyirabigirimana says that she attained skills in weaving, savings culture, literacy and human rights.
“Besides learning how to weave baskets that we sell to tourists, I can actually speak English with the tourists unlike before when I was illiterate. When I meet a tourist in my village, if he or she is lost, I introduce myself and give them directions in English,” Nyirabigirimana adds. The literacy programmes at Hands of Hope are held on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.
“During these literacy classes, I’m able to learn many things and make informed decisions for my family. All my children are in school and I hope to continue supporting them to have a bright future, thanks to Hands of Hope,” says Nyirabigirimana.
Belta Ntawangkaje, 74, has seven children, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Her husband passed on five years ago, leaving her to fend for some of her children and grandchildren who’ve been left orphans.
A member of Amaboko yi Imigisha Cooperative, they do handcrafts work like weaving, making jewelry and pottery. But since Hands of Hope was established, she says her life has improved tremendously.
“Before we used to depend on odd occasional tourists who happened to visit our homesteads or the cooperative to purchase our products, and this was quite rare. But now with Hands of Hope, we bring in our products and tourists who visit the centre purchase them and Red Rocks gives us the proceeds,” she says.
But that is not the end. She adds that often, Red Rocks invites them when there are tourists who want to have local experiences like making banana beer and they show them how to do it.
“We help them make local beer and they give us money in return. It’s also a good way for us to bond since through this they get to know our traditional culture,” she adds.
She further says that Red Rocks not only helps them get local market but also export some of their products to be sold abroad.
The steady flow of tourists, she says, has helped them get clients for their Agaseke products, among others, and she’s optimistic that as things continue to improve, their life standards are also going to improve.
Polline Muhawenimana, 36, is a mother of four children. Her husband does subsistence farming but this is not enough to cater for the family.
A member of Abagaruramuco Cooperative in Nkotsi sector, Musanze district, she says Red Rocks has extremely helped them market their products through different avenues.
For instance, she says during exhibitions and shows, Red Rocks always invites them to participate in the events from where they get clients to purchase their products.
The money she gets from selling her products through Hands of Hope has helped her educate her children, pay for their health insurance and supplement her husband’s income.
“Before Hands of Hope, life was difficult since it was hard to get customers, though some of us had the skills to make these handcrafts. But now things have changed for the better. Customers are coming, and we’ve also gone ‘international’ since our products are sold abroad,” she says.
Harriet Ingabire, the founder of Hands of Hope, says the project started with only a group of 25 women but now they have 300 strong members that not only have become independent but also trained others in different skills to become self-reliant.
“We make baskets with the women and then my team gets their products to national and international markets. The children make art and crafts that are also sold. I don’t believe in just giving money to people – which for a fact I don’t even have – because it only makes them dependent and I don’t think that helps,” Ingabire explains.
She adds: “I believe one has to work because it builds self-worth, esteem, and above all, they become independent. We also get to tell their stories through their work, so when one buys a product, they become part of that story.”
Ingabire says that she always wanted to make a positive change in her society.
Some of their products are sold abroad and Ingabire lists some of the people who help them sell the products as Molly Benjamin in Canada, Bruce and Maryan Fisher in Ottawa, Canada, and also they have a contact person in Netherlands.
However, the biggest challenge they face is changing their mentality that they can actually make it, even when the sales are down.
“Some of them have this self-destruction belief that they were born poor, therefore they’re destined to die poor. But we encourage them that with little knowledge, they can tremendously improve their lives,” says Ingabire.
Lack of solid steady flow of customers is also another challenge Ingabire says afflict the project, but she hastens to add that they’re making all efforts to overcome this challenge and things are improving.