Rebuilding post-genocide Rwanda through women groups
The year was 1994 and the month was April. The world woke up to news that Rwanda was at war with itself. Members of two largest tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi were against each another. If today was in 1994, then the human slaughter would still be ongoing, for it took 100 days to calm the machetes that had taken control of Rwanda.
By the time the RPF-Inkotanyi gained control of the hilly country, streets, lanes and pathways were littered with human bodies.
Men, women and children; none was spared. Like in many other wars, women and children are the most affected, and in Rwanda, many were widowed and orphaned by the war. After July of 1994, the country has had to rebuild, picking up from where the genocide placed them.
After seven hours of winding roads meandering across the hills from Kigali, and through the 1000 square-kilometre mountainous, dense and rainy Nyungwe forest, Nyamasheke district stands out with its swaying coffee and banana trees.
Nyamasheke is one of the agriculturally-rich counties in Rwanda and families here make use of their small portions of land to grow food crops. The average family size is seven heads, says Achen Mirriam, a community nutritional officer with Strive Foundation Rwanda (SFR) that operates in the region. Most of these families are headed by widows and remnants of the genocide that wiped out lives. Theirs was a life of struggle in abject poverty before the foundation came to their rescue.
Achen provides technical support to county health centres. “I visit the centres across the district, observe children and advise on nutrition. Most mothers lack basic nutritional knowledge,” says Achen.
On average, she sees about 500 children aged five and below per month, many suffering from severe to moderate malnutrition, with a good number recording iron deficiencies.
Strive Foundation Rwanda has partnered with the country’s government and other organisations to provide supplementary feeding to malnourished children.
They also provide fortified blended flours for making porridge to malnourished pregnant mothers, says Achen.
In a strange twist, and high poverty levels notwithstanding, availability of free meals has resulted in increased fertility. “Some women have confided that they want to keep getting pregnant so that they can access the free fortified flours,” she revealed.
Family planning is an issue that is talked about in hushed tones here.
“Most women here will hear none of it. They say that the genocide cost them families, so they must keep giving birth to raise their numbers. Very few have embraced family planning methods,” Achen says.
“This, coupled with the fact that some local religious groups discourage family planning places these women in positions where they keep getting children who they have got no capacity to take care of,” she adds.
They are continuously carrying out civic education to empower women on how to take charge of their reproductive rights and the need of having children that they can comfortably take care of.
At 21, Uwizera Marthe heads a family of six, four siblings and her own two primary school going children. Uwizera’s is one of the many child-headed households (CHH) within Nyamasheke district.
Orphaned at a tender age, Uwizera and her siblings have been part of the child-headed households (CHH) programme, which is run by SFR since 2009. The programme caters for their medical insurance and school fees and has provided them with a cow for milk and built them a house.
Their kitchen garden outside their three-room house stands out. Given that their house sits on a 40mx40m plot, SFR has made efforts to ensure that Uwizera maximises its use by planting green vegetables and fruits to help the family curb malnutrition.
Mukethimana Esperance, an agronomist in Nyamasheke district, works with 64 child-headed households to guide them on how to best manage their small portions of land to become food secure.
“I leverage on modern agricultural practices. If they intend to use farm inputs, I show them how to go about it. I also show them how to protect cows from diseases through good hygiene practices and nutrition,” shares Mukethimana.
Still in Nyamasheke, 78 year old Mukafundi Eugenie and her six grandchildren have no land beyond where their house stands. “The sector head is currently advocating to have this family settled in a place with a bigger piece of land,” says Solange Umugwaneza, a clinical psychologist.
Makafundi, a genocide widow lost her daughter to cancer two years ago. She was unmarried and had six children, the eldest — Tuyizere Alice — aged 20 — who is now a mother of one. The grandmother weaves mats and sells them to support her grandchildren and one great grandchild, but on numerous occasions, they depends on well-wishers for support. She has been under nutritional support from SFR where she receives rations of porridge flour, fish, rice, and maize flour.
Tuyizere still harbours dreams of going back to school to learn tailoring or hairdressing. “I want to be economically independent and to be able to support my family,” she says.
A brick at a time
As women in Nyamasheke grapple with how to provide for their bulging families, their peers in Huye district are rebuilding their lives, a brick at a time through Ingoro Huye Ababeyi, a Co-operative in Mukoni Valley.
Mukashyaka Liberatha who lives in Nyarurembo village in Gitwa Cell in Tumba, Huye district, is the president of the co-operative since its inception 10 years ago. “The district and the sector local leaders mobilised women to come together and form a co-operative. We contacted SFR and Human Help Network (HHN) for support,” Liberatha narrates.
SFR trained these women on brickmaking and HHN would compensate them every day they attended the training. “The members are widows and single mothers, a majority of them being those who were widowed during the genocide,” says Liberatha. A number also have their husbands serving time in prison for genocide-related crimes.
After gaining these life changing skills, these women now make and sell their own bricks. Every day, the co-operative buys from members each brick at Fr5 which it resells at between Fr20 and Fr25. Independently, the members sell each brick at Fr20 to community members.
“This way, we are able to earn a daily income according to the number of bricks that we make and sell, and the co-operative is able to earn profits at the end of the month,” says Liberatha. After one year, members earn dividends.
Harindintwari Theoneste, the co-operative’s accountant says that the group has accumulated 15 million Francs in cash deposits. They also have acquired other assets such as buildings and the land.
“The group opened their first bank account in 2014 and deposited Fr300, 000 which they had saved. The participation in a profitable project and the feeling of being empowered motivates these women to keep on building their savings,” says Liberatha.
Of the achievements, Liberatha explains: “We are happy when women can feed their families without having to go to the streets to prostitute themselves. The co-operative has ensured that each of the 32 families represented has health insurance, and the socialisation of members from different tribes has ensured peace, unity and reconciliation.”
Through this brick project, these women have managed to build 12 houses for the most vulnerable members. Among the beneficiaries is Nyiraminani Alphonsine, a single mother of one who lives in Akarugiranka village in Mpare Cell, Tumba Sector of Huye District. Her three-roomed house, which she has occupied for the last three years, she says, was constructed through this project.
Alphonsine shares: “I joined this group in 2009 when I saw the need to come together with other women with whom we could hold each other’s hand and give ourselves hope for a better future. Life was bad. Getting food was difficult. At one time I couldn’t even afford medication for my child. Luckily, I got the opportunity to own a house and I am now an employee of this co-operative. I own goats and rabbits as a result of the benefits of this co-operative. My life has greatly improved and I am no longer humiliated in the village.”
Before joining the co-operative, Alphonsine was a street vendor. “I was always being chased around by the security officers, I endured beatings from them and my wares used to be destroyed, because hawking is illegal in Rwanda. The security officers always advised that I go trade at the local market, but I could not afford to pay levies for the space to sell the fruits,” she recalls her struggling past.
Liberatha has big dreams for the co-operative. “In the next two years, I would like us to invest in a machine that will be more efficient, and replace the manual way of making the bricks. This way, we will produce more, and make more money to mind the members’ welfare,” she notes.
But it is her dream to see the co-operative own a lorry that would be the game-changer: “We will be able to control the entire value-chain from the sale of bricks to the transport issues. The construction of rental houses is another idea that the management board is pursuing,” she offers.
According to Bernard Muramira, the director at Strive Foundation Rwanda, the idea is to deliver an entire package to improve the well-being of vulnerable families. “We have to get them from extreme poverty by providing a modern house, getting them into agriculture for sustainability and take care of their health through medical insurance. We also provide the much-needed psychosocial support so that they can easily cope with their lives,” Muramira explains.
“We always strive to give capacities for families to survive with dignity. Every year, SFR graduates families who have attained resilience and independence from the CHH programme. Already, 341 CHH families have graduated, and some 41 others are expected to graduate in the next one year. Our focus is now in Bweyeye, the border between Rwanda and Burundi in order to assist families that need help the most to rebuild their lives,” offers Muramira.
Strive Foundation Rwanda which is well represented in 12 districts in the country was founded in 2003 to deal with socio-economic issues emanating post-genocide. The programme has the full backing of the Rwanda government, with President Kagame make the women well being his number one agenda.