Stories From Women
How does one survive a genocide that took the lives of a quarter million of your neighbors and friends? How does one piece a life back together and then thrive? Violette Mutegwamaso knows how because she did just that with the support of her sponsor, Liz Hammer.
A Life Torn Apart
In 1994, armed militias started fomenting a civil war in Rwanda. Soon the country disintegrated into chaos as Hutu and Tutsi clashed on the streets and in homes across the country. As the chaos closed in, Violette was alone with her children. Her husband was working three hours away in Kigali where he could earn a better living than in their small village of Gahini. Violette instantly knew they were in grave danger.
Carrying her two children in her arms, she fled to a nearby church where she thought she and her family would be safe. Instead of finding sanctuary, Violette and her family walked into a nightmare. "There was shooting going on, and people were falling on others and dying everywhere," Violette said. The church was under attack by a machete-wielding militia. To survive, Violette was forced to lie down in the aisle and smear blood on herself and her children. Pretending to be dead, they hid among the corpses. Afraid to move, to cry, to even breathe, they lay there for an entire week until the Rwandan army came to liberate the area. Violette estimated that there were 700 people in that church - only 20 survived.
In the chaos and violence, Violette’s husband was brutally murdered. She was left to raise their five year old son, Eric, and four year old girl, Angelique. As so many other women in Rwanda did, Violette took in an orphan who lost his family during the war.
With little support, she tried to rebuild her life. She farmed other people’s land and barely earned enough to feed herself and children. She didn’t have enough money leftover to pay for school or buy essentials like medicine and clothing for her family.
The Path to Healing and Prosperity
In 2004, Violette learned about Women for Women International’s programs. She enrolled and was matched with a sponsor in the United States - a woman named Liz Hammer, a Boston mother of two. Liz pledged to provide $30 month for one year to support Violette’s trainings, a portion of which also helped her pay for food, school fees and clothing.
As the year progressed, Violette flourished. She learned marketable job skills and honed her innate leadership abilities. Despite having only a high school education, Violette has become a local businesswoman and a leader in her community.
Using money that Liz sent, Violette expanded her fledgling operation of harvesting sorghum, a local grain, into a full-fledged business of making sorghum-based drinks. Each season, Violette harvests fifteen one-kilogram sacks of sorghum. Sometimes the demand for her special home brew is so great, she buys more sorghum from other local farmers. She says it takes about three days to make a single batch of sorghum drink, which is enough to make 150 to 180 liters. At 30 cents a liter, Violette manages to make a profit of about $50 for each batch.
Violette’s business savvy does not stop there. Violette also has a considerable bean harvest, half of which feeds her family and the other half she sells to make a profit. If the price is high, she sells the beans to her neighbors. If the price is low, she sells it wholesale to stores or nearby restaurants in bulk.
From her bean harvest alone, she makes nearly $1800. The average income in Rwanda is estimated to be $260, according to the World Bank. With the money she earns from selling the beans and the drinks, Violette has been able to hire local laborers, often other women, to work the fields and help her manage her business. She is keenly aware in returning her wealth to her community.
"It was only through this program that I realized I could start my own business," Violette said recently. “My business allows me to pay school fees for my children, to send them to school, the Gahini Shining Star Secondary School,” she said. Having begun but never graduated from high school, Violette is determined to see that her children are educated.
Before joining Women for Women International, Violette would have never imagined she could own and operate a thriving business. Now, she has a savings account in a bank and has the trust of local lenders to provide her with more capital to use to grow her business and support her community.
In an move not typical for a woman in Rwanda, Violette applied for, and was awarded, a bank loan of $370 to bring water to her business and to her community from a water pipe that runs through her community. Although the pipe ran directly through the community, there was no accessible tap. A scarcity of potable water in her village meant that women would have to walk for hours to reach a water tap. As it is, only 20% of villages in Rwanda have access to running water. In Rwanda, women spend hours of their day walking to get water and then carrying the heavy jugs back to their homes.
Violette successfully lobbied her local government for permission to get access to this pipe into her home. She is planning to put a tap in her home, and will charge about 10 cents for each container of water. The money she earns from the sale will allow her to make her monthly payments on her loan at no additional cost to her.
Building a Community of Peace
Violette has now graduated from Women for Women International but the lessons she learned are still a part of her. In fact, she has become the president of a local women’s crafts cooperative that is made up of graduates of her rights awareness training group. Violette says she counts on these women as her closest friends and business partners.
Together these graduates make and sell traditional Rwandan peace baskets, pottery, crochet and other artisan crafts that they then sell to local store owners. The peace baskets are by far the most popular item because the baskets serve many functions in Rwandese culture, including being presented as wedding gifts to a bride and groom. They have also become symbols of peace, especially as Hutu, Tutsi and Twa women sit side by side to weave “peace baskets” from sisal fibers using traditional techniques and designs.
Violette says she is moved that the cooperative brings together all members of the village, including those victimized by the genocide and others who have confessed to genocide crimes or have family members in prison. The peace basket cooperative has fostered reconciliation—something unheard of a dozen years ago.
Working together to make the peace baskets, Violette said, has made her and her fellow cooperative members think about Rwandan unity. “This would never have been considered before,” she said. Since joining Women for Women International, Violette’s life has changed drastically. Where once she felt she was losing control, she now has a firm grasp and can see a viable future for herself and her children. "This program has changed my life. My mind has been opened,” she said.
Sponsor Liz Hammer, who exchanged letters with Violette during the year-long sponsorship program at Women for Women International, recently said:
The connection to Violette has had such a profound impact on my life…I felt this deep connection with Violette from the beginning because she was so open about what she experienced in the genocide but not in a way that made you feel sorry for her but from a position of strength….
Her husband was killed. She and her children were on brink of death and fought for their lives. She was able to save her family and rise above the carnage. She has been able to forgive the individual who killed her husband. I can’t imagine how she can do that. Somehow she is able to get past that and forgive. I told her that you’ve got to be bigger person than I am because I can’t imagine having my husband senselessly killed and getting past that….
I am just amazed by all that she has accomplished and thrilled for her and her children and feel like she was able to rise above the circumstances that life dealt her….
I think about her all the time, in fact on a daily basis. I just had my second girl, and between her and my two year old toddler, it just seems like a lot. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and there is too much to handle. But then I think of Violette, and women like her. What I have to go through is so little to handle in comparison to her. She has provided me with tremendous perspective that you can’t get from just reading an article or watching a news story….
Just to know a woman with kind of the strength that Violette has given me a perspective that I would not otherwise gain.
Though she considers Kigali her home, Marie Jose was born in Butare, Rwanda in 1959. Her mother died the day after she was born. Nuns took Marie Jose into their care for a few years and then her grandmother took her in. When she reached her third year of primary school Marie Jose moved to Kigali to join her uncle. She finished primary school in Kigali but could not continue into secondary school. Her uncle asked her to care for his children in exchange for her own provisions. She married a man who lived in the compound with her uncle.
They had ten children; only four of them survive today. Her husband and two of her children were killed in the 1994 genocide, and the other children fell sick from various illnesses. She now lives with four kids and two orphans she adopted after the war. Her oldest child is away at school much of the time. Marie Jose began making plastic market bags in 1984. It was at that time that she saw a man making bags out of rope. She tried to learn the trade, but he would not teach her his skill. Instead, Marie Jose observed him and taught herself how to make the bags. She made the bags out of rope, but found that they were not very durable. In 1996, a staff person at a plastic company in Kigali connected Marie Jose to a foreign woman there. This woman brought them in for three months to weave bags out of plastic strips that the company normally produced for construction work.
They found these baskets far more durable than the rope version. Since this time, the plastic company has been selling this inexpensive plastic "rope" from which they produce market bags, now popular in much of Rwanda. Since joining Women for Women International, Marie Jose now has the resources to cultivate larger customers. Some women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have started to place orders for the market bags to sell locally. Marie Jose has her children help her, and has now trained some neighbors to fill the orders, as well as other program participants. Through Women for Women International, she is gaining the costing and pricing skills she needs so she can make enough of a profit to reinvest in new materials. She's off to a great start, and we know she will continue to do well as she increases her business!
Angelique Uwimana is a 30-year old and lives with her 3 children; an eight year old daughter, 4 year old son, and the youngest daughter who is 2 years old, and her husband. She is in the Batwa clan, who make an income by begging; dancing and making pottery on a small scale. Angelique has never been good at saving the small income that she has made, and has lived from hand to mouth all of her life. Her clan typically live in isolated groups and do not mix with other people. Angelique and her family live in very poor conditions with 2 or 3 couples and their children living in one tiny house.
When Angelique joined Women for Women International, she started by selling avocados and making 1500fr in profit per week. While this was a good step forward, Angeliuqe was discouraged by the group members because that was not enough income to support her familym and she thrived to work harder for more of an income. So Angelique decided to start making and selling flower pots to sell.
Angelique now employs her friends and earns 5000 profit per week. She has even been able to buy a piece of land for 30,000fr (about $50) and has built a one bedroom, one sitting room house from the money she earns with her business.
Not only has Angelique been able to thrive off her own hard work, she has also taught and encouraged her husband to work. He is now a potter in the market earning a decent living and providing for his family. This has earned them great respect among the clan members who see them as successful and role models.
Together, Angelique and her husband, have opened up a joint bank account. She plans to add additional rooms to her house for her children and continue working hard on her business. Most importantly, Angelique now appreciates the importance of family planning and she is utilizing what she has learned from Women for Women International by educating her 3 children to give them a better future.
“I am very happy because I stopped the begging habit, digging for other people and have built myself a house, and I even have my own bank account!”