Stories from Particpants
Below are stories from participants about their experiences with the Sponsorship Program, and how it has affected their lives. We hope you enjoy them as much as we have. Check back periodically for updated stories.
- Liz Hammer and Violette's Story
- Nadia's Story
- On Voting and Social Action
- Marie Jose's Story
- Elhame's Story
- Razije's Story
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. Violette was matched with a sponsor in the United States, a woman named Liz Hammer who pledged to provide $30 month for one year to support Violette's trainings and education as well as give a cash allowance to help her pay for food, school fees and clothing. Liz also wrote monthly letters encouraging Violette to see beyond her circumstances and embrace hope for a better future.
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.
Nadia is an 18-year old girl from Afghanistan, who has been living as a man for the last 2 years. Everyone who knows her assumes she is a man. Only her family and one of her teachers know her true identity. Nadia was confidentially referred to Women for Women International, and it is only at our Kabul offices that Nadia feels she can safely be a woman and engage with other women.
Nadia is living as a man out of necessity. She must support her family. Her father is mentally ill and partially paralyzed, and her brother died in battle. After a rocket struck her home, Nadia lost an ear. As a woman, she has virtually no access to work or any way to legally earn a living. Yet, she will not consider publicly living as a woman and returning to her normal life, until her father's paralysis improves, and he is better able to support the family. She argues that she has a moral responsibility to step in as her family's caregiver and provider.
Nadia's spirit is remarkably strong, given the horrible situation she and others like her, find themselves in today in all too many places. When she enrolled in Women for Women International – Afghanistan's program, Nadia elected to learn how to cut semi-precious stones into beads for jewelry making. Nadia excelled in her class and was recently hired by her instructor to be a jewelry trainer's assistant. Now Nadia is able to work during the day to help support her family and continue her education at night. She has even gained enough confidence from our program to want to once again live and dress as a woman and as herself.
"I now learnt about the importance of co-operation, organizing to bring social positive change in our community by learning from stories of women around the world, how they organized themselves and fought for their rights. I have learned a lot in which I am now encouraged to support my fellow women and co-operate with one another, share our ideas together to promote peace, unity, progress among ourselves." - A program participant discussing her rights awareness classes on voting and social action.
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!
Elhame Smaili is an inspiration. Although she is 60 years-old, she continues to learn new skills and build hope for the future. She endured many hardships before joining the Women for Women International Kosovo Sponsorship and ReneWLS program with her daughter in-law in May 2003. During the war in Kosova that ended in 1999, her only son was killed, and her husband died of a heart attack shortly after the war. Her eight year-old niece Arbresha, developed a physical handicap following complications with an illness during the war, and now walks with much difficulty. Elhame's house was burned down during the war, like many houses located in Cirez, her village in the Drenica area. Although an organization was slated to assist her family with reconstructing the house, they received only minimal aid and live in very poor conditions in this house. She lives with her daughter-in-law Mihrije, three grandsons between the ages of seven and 15, and three nieces ranging from eight to 13 years-old.
With determination and an energetic spirit, Elhame and Mihrije opted for the beekeeping course as a way to develop skills to earn an income. Now recent graduates of the program, Elhame says that she and Mihrije have learned more about the world through their participation and now have a broader perspective. Both women are grateful to their sponsors Donna Wise and Sharon Gladden for bringing "new light to their home." Elhame and Mihrije have recently received three beehives through a project implemented by Women for Women International, and funded by a Swiss organization. They have begun their beekeeping activities, putting their Women for Women International training into action: "I am finally active and involved in the work," says Mihrije. "There are barriers such as poverty, but I have to challenge them, especially to support my children. I hope that Tahire, our cousin will help us to work with bees, since she was the best in the group of women beekeepers." Tahire, 26, who lives in the same village with Elhame and Mihrije agreed: "Of course I will help them, there is no question. I hope that one day honey from our village finds its way into the market and onto the tables of the best hotels."
Women from the village Vranduk became leaders in their community
Participants of the Women for Women International program from the village Vranduk, Bosnia, completed their program in January of this year. They have become proud and strong women who are actively involved in social, economical and political events in their village and local community.
Women for Women International opened a center in Vranduk with the intention to bring hope together with the financial help to the "forgotten women" who had many worries on how to feed and educate their children, rebuild their homes, pay the bills, earn money for life's expenses. They lived in a place where nothing was being done to improve the situation and it seems like there were no chances of things ever getting better. But still these women had to be strong, confident and become the backbone of the family. She needed to provide a sanctuary of love and belonging.
This is the reason why the program Women for Women International has been openly accepted by the women in Vranduk. They felt that it was a place where they will, at least for a moment, get away from the harsh day to day life. It was also a place where they would rebuild their strength, where someone would listen to what they had to say, where they could share their sorrow and their fears and where they would gather their strength and optimism.
It started at the graduation ceremony when Merhunisa said, "When you are a housewife, living in a remote place, without all the things that are available to women in the cities, it is like a reward when you get finally get them, a reward for all the hard work that we do for the ones we love, the ones that need us, but often don't appreciate us. For us it was a place where every day a new window to the world was opened, a window that brought light to our lives. Each one of us has changed something for the better in her life. To some of us vocational skills training has helped start our own business, like tailoring, handcrafts, setting up a greenhouse, buying a cow. We also were eligible to take a micro credit loan and to engage or expand our businesses that enabled us to involve our family members. For most of us the donation money was the first regular and steady money we received. I myself have become stronger and more decisive and self confident. Many other women have also rebuilt their self-confidence and self-respect, many of them felt self-confidence and self-respect for the first time in their lives. We have become stronger and more decisive and ready to actively participate where we have never participated before. The program has enlightened me."
When the program ended, the women from Vranduk continued to meet regularly and talked to women whose place was traditionally in the house. They invited them to meetings, talked about their problems and invited them to participate in the program. At first, there was a lot of resistance and mistrust, especially from men. But this did not discourage the women. They were persistent and didn't want to give up. Guided by this drive and passion, they were able to encourage 100 more women from their village to participate in the Women for Women International program. The local government gave them a public social building that has been reconstructed and rebuilt for their use as well a regular bus line from the city.
"Step by step, we have become a force that has been recognized. It wasn't easy, once we were taken seriously, other times we were rejected directly, but we never gave up. It was hard because all of them looked at us with a great distrust. They persistently wondered what we women want, and we explained that we don't want to be locked away in our houses; we want to work and live of our work. We tried to explain how to use our beautiful nature, our village and our 600 years old fort for the development of tourism. We explained that with a small amount of money the public social building can be renovated and welcome guests and tourists, prepare food, make exhibitions of our handcrafts and organize different events there. Finally we established our association. Today everyone in our local community knows of the Association that we named "Vranduk's Cherry" because cherry is grown very successfully in Vranduk." said Hedija.
The Association was entrusted with organizing of the annual traditional event "Vranduk's Cherry 2008". Their influence on the community and their knowledge from our program was becoming apparent by everyone. During the festival, their stands with traditional food and handcrafts were distinctive and surrounded with people all the time, even though they had no leaflets or promotional materials to give out. Their approach and dedication to every visitor was enough. The event gathered 3,000 visitors! It was the most organized and most attended festival thus far. The representatives of the highest authorities from Zenica-Doboj Canton attended the event as well as other numerous guests and the media.
"Up to now, this event has always been organized by men. Through the program Women for Women International we have realized that women could organize it much better and that was what we did, with the support of the local government and the tourist office. They asked to make a schedule for the event and that's what we did. Then we had to find the money. We got some of the money from the Municipality Zenica, some from the local companies that we turned to." said Hedija.
Five buses full of participants from our program in other municipalities have come to support women from Vranduk. It was evident how they were looking forward to seeing each other even though they have never met before. It was really impressive to see them embrace one another.
"I embraced Hedija in the name of all of us women from Budo?elje and I hope you know how important it is to meet women who are thanks to the program Women for Women International, trying to improve their life and the lives of their families, just as we do. Women for Women International is responsible for establishing a great number of local women associations like this one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because our association was established as a result of their work and constant support even in our current activities" said Fatima.
"This is a day to remember, a day when our women showed the whole community how capable they are if only given a chance. I trusted your organization because I saw for myself how much the program helped my wife to make changes on her and on our family. I respect and appreciate her more now. Today I am very proud of her." said Merhunisa's husband.
Vranduk also looked very different that day. You could feel the positive atmosphere everywhere. Everyone congratulated these brave and hardworking women, inquired about their future plans, showed will and intention to help them.
"Our plans for this summer are to open a traditional Bosnian restaurant in the public social building where Bosnian specialties will be served, to set up a "Bosnian room" where we will offer tourists our handcrafts, souvenirs and other artifacts. We are preparing for the tourist to come and are hoping to earn some money." said Hedija - the leader of the Vranduk's Cherry Association.