I am now at Women for Women Rwanda office where we were greeted by Zainab Salbi the amazing woman who started Women for Women and Berra Kabarungi the Country Director for Rwanda. As we drove into their office compound there were fifty brightly dressed Rwandan women clapping, smiling and singing. The words to their song – our backs were bent low but now our heads are held high. After the dancing I am going to observe a workshop on domestic violence. Seated in an airy, light, wooden hut with padded benches around the circumference of the room, sit about twenty Rwandan women dressed in the beautiful, bright traditional long skirts and head wraps. They listen intently to their instructor an intelligent animated woman in her mid-thirties. One of them has a healthy, chubby baby on her lap. They have vigorous discussions and ask many questions. They review the last lesson on female property rights. The group leader asks them questions she emphasizes that what they own before marriage remains theirs “A certain man died and completed his house – his son helped him and after that his son married. The house is family property the son will get some shares – the laws protect the wife and other children.”
The group leader explains that “domestic violence is when someone in your home beats you. Violence is a violation of your rights – or being forced to do something which you don’t want to do against your will – that is violence.” A woman in the group says “the nature of violence is bearing children without participation in conceiving them – how can a man order his wife to bear children?” The women break into animated laughter with much back and forth. They tell many personal stories….” my husband abandoned me and married another woman and after marrying the other woman my two children died afterwards the man forced me to have another child. His other four children are greatly affected – they cry because they have not been able to go to school and their father will not give out anything.” She has taken him to court but the follow up has not been done properly by the officials in charge and she still has no support. The other women advise her that she must go to a higher court and continue to fight for her rights. I explain that in the States sometimes women get killed by their husbands for many of the same reasons and are often abandoned with their children.
The women become very animated and very involved as they discuss mother-in-laws who interfere with the marriage. They also discuss mothers who beat their children. Another woman tells us that after she was abandoned by her husband and she took her children home to her own mother and that she made a decision not to have more babies – the women cackle and rock backwards and forwards. The Director Berra tells them “as women we are the future of this country we are the agents of change we are the ones who are going to change our country and our world.”
I ask them why they think so many men leave their wives. Many answer as follows…..“Because of the genocide the women were awakened, their economic status changed and the few men who were left living have more choices, they can find wealthy widows. Some men abandon their homes because of the behavior of their wives who are lazy and they don’t work…… Some women are unhygienic. Men love attention you must give them that care or they will go to prostitutes because they take care of them. Sometimes too much poverty and they are so poor, and wealthy sugar mommies give them comfort, they go where they can eat. Some men and women don’t love each other.”
We then meet with Zainab Salbi the founder of Women for Women and Berra Kabarungi the Rwandan country director. “Our women produce food for the World Food Program. Even so, we know that small scale always works for local markets. We have a major importer for instance buying passion fruit and chili pepper and exporting it to Holland. 1000 women are now growing soy on land given by the government and we have signed a partnership with the government to grow this. The government has created an agro strategy for each province – agro specialists have addressed this process. Rwanda’s main food exports are coffee and tea. In addition forty one hectares have been leased to Women for Women for growing passion fruit and chili pepper. We encourage women to buy land, we tell them if you work in a coop you can meet larger demands – but we also teach them about the kitchen garden. You get a hill, you plant everything around the hill, and you plant in tires and potato sacks. In this way you get full utilization of the garden. Our women can earn $200 dollars a month from their gardens. We have a great partnership with Goldman Sachs – women with management capabilities, about thirty percent of those in the program who are then trained in business management. Access to knowledge, plus access to resources…… vocational skills and income lead to lasting change.”
“Women for women’s program participants are taking back the land….taking back their voice….taking back their resources.”
While at Women for Women I had the chance to speak extensively with Berra Kabarungi, Rwanda country director and Christine Karumba DRC country director. Both women have inspirational stories of their lives. They are working to build bridges between Congolese and Rwandan women. One of the strategies both use are to approach powerfully placed men in their societies and involve them in the process. They are both exploring the idea of men and women’s counseling groups together. They both agree there is a need for and organization named men for men here in Africa – an opportunity for someone to fill! “An African man cries but his tears fall inside.”
Next we have lunch with United States Ambassador to Rwanda Stuart Symington and his accomplished wife Susan. The Ambassador has been posted to various African countries for the last few years and before that served in South America and Spain. He is a charming man who is extraordinarily well-informed about Rwanda. He is also extremely good at English double entendre and asides which show how much he cares for the poor and disadvantaged. He is a great admirer of Paul Kagame. He is a passionate advocate for small business and investment – he believes that we must not just feed but teach how to fish. His wife Susan supports an organization called One Acre. I am happy that the U.S. has such an excellent representative in a country which I believe will one day become a leader in Africa. He talks about the new East African Economic Union – Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. He compliments the Rwandans on their switch to English to be better partners with these English speaking countries – Congo will need to do the same. I came away very well informed on economics, culture and religion. We asked the Ambassador why he thought the Rwandans were so spiritual – his answer was many layered – perhaps the human desire that we all share to find a light in the dark.
Our final visit was to the Genocide Museum. This maybe the hardest blog I will ever write. We visited the mass gravesites where hundreds of thousands are buried. We visited the memorial gardens as well. We saw a group of African men in front of the wall of remembrance openly weeping. So men’s tears, like women’s can also fall on the outside. We were humbled. We understood how the Belgium colonists had arbitrarily separated one race into economic classes Tutsi (10 head of cattle) and Hutu less. The Twa or pygmies were the original inhabitants of the land. We understood how a doctrine of genocide had systematically been instilled for a number of years before the genocide – we read its creed that said the Tutsis were less than a cockroach. We wondered how anyone who read this creed could have mistaken its vicious intent. We read about the French government supplying the Hutus with arms during the build up of the genocide and we also read how French soldiers (blue berets) gave the perpetrators safe passage out of Rwanda after the genocide. We learned of the UN and our own governments culpability. We heard first hand from video tapes the terrible stories of loss and pain “my mother’s last meal for me was something I loved even though she knew she would die”. We read about brave Hutus who stood up for their friends and died with them. We read of brave Hutus who gave shelter to many Tutsi at the risk of their own lives. “I dug a ditch and I covered it with banana leaves and the vehicles drove over and never knew”. We saw the gardens of unity, genocide and reconciliation. Lastly we saw the children, the beautiful children that were slaughtered by machete and thrown against walls, bludgeoned with clubs, slaughtered in their mothers armed, raped and tortured and forced to see their parents die at two years old in terrible ways. Children like ours that loved chocolate, that went to school, that wanted to become doctors and ride their bicycles. We wondered what kind of human brutality could commit these crimes, and we cried and we had hope that such terrible things will never happen again.
We came away with a deep love of Rwanda and we wish Rwanda the best of luck and thank the Rwandans for sharing their beautiful country with us.
Please go to the Women for Women site: http://www.womenforwomen.org/
for more information about their work and to donate to this wonderful organization. Women for Women supports women in war torn regions with financial and emotional aid, job-skills training, rights education and small business assistance so they can rebuild their lives. They work in Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Sudan. Thanks to Women for Women for their kindness and hospitality.
Please go to Partners in Health site: http://www.pih.org/
for more information and to donate to this wonderful organization. Partners in Health works to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care using a holistic model that looks at the major social causes of obscene poverty. They work in Haiti, Peru, Russia, USA, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Mexico and Guatemala. Partners in Health also has an Institute for Policy Advocacy with Dr. Joia Mukhrjee as its Director. Thanks to the Rwandan staff for their kindness and hospitality to our group.
Last but not least thank you Lynn Edens for the experience of a lifetime “I will never forget”.
Thanks to the Hirwa Group for their support Lise Strickler and Alexandria Stewart