In our last post, Bret and I wrote a little about Rwandan women, their resilience, determination and strength. The women we see everyday are selling fruit on the roadside, shoveling sand or cement on building sites, selling produce at markets, doing laundry in the rivers and streams, carrying water and firewood on their heads, breastfeeding babies on buses, cooking food for their children on makeshift stoves outside of their makeshift homes. We also see other women everyday – women who live a life of luxury, supported by their well-off husbands, sporting designer clothes, handbags, too much jewelry and are driven around in fancy cars by their drivers. To us outsiders, the difference between the two "classes" is obvious, and we cannot help but wonder how this economic structure can continue to sustain itself.
Our encounter with the firewood-carrying ladies on the basketball court last week was not our first experience of getting to know the women here. Over a month ago we went on our first trip outside of Kigali, to the southwestern town of Butare (Huye). That part of Rwanda is the coffee country. We had an opportunity to visit a coffee-washing station run by Maraba Coffee Co-operative. The ladies there were absolutely amazing. They welcomed us like long-lost children, with incredible warmth and kindness, and wonderful smiles. It made us miss our families a little more than usual.
The women working at the coffee washing station are mostly responsible for sorting the coffee beans. Rwanda's coffee industry, along with tea industry, are its biggest exports. Maraba coffee from the area we visited won second prize in the international coffee competition "Cup of Excellence". The coffee industry has really been turning lives around for people here in Rwanda. This coop unites around 2000 small coffee growers and offers them decent prices for their crop. Many women working here have lost their husbands and families in the genocide or have many children to feed and send to school. They take great pride in their work, which is demanding and requires great attention to detail. Only ripe red coffee cherries should be picked and after that they must be delivered to the purchaser within 6 hours or their quality becomes affected (they are downgraded). When farmers bring cherries to the washing station, the women step into action and sort the cherries based on their quality on the sorting tables.
Time is of the essence, so this must be a very swift process. Women pick off cherries which are discolored, disfigured, etc. The best cherries are then placed in a large washing tank (the best ones sink, the worst ones float). They are then directed to the de-pulper, which removes the cherry skin from the coffee bean.
The beans end up in a fermentation tank, where they spend 14-19 hours, and then they are washed again (timing is again essential). After that, women step in again to do a final check and sort the wet beans, removing any with inconsistent colour, shape, etc. This has to again be done very quickly, as it is impossible to do once the beans dry. Finally, the beans are spread out on drying tables and left to dry in the sun for anything between 7 and 14 days.
The dried white beans are sold to local roasters and the majority are exported as a raw material. It is quite a process and the coffee season is short, so the income earned must sustain these women's families throughout the year. Maraba coffee is bought by roasters in the UK and US and is used in many coffee blends, including those of Starbucks. There are also independent Fairtrade coffee roasters who sell it on a smaller scale, so if you are a coffee person, do some research before replenishing your supplies and try buying coffee produced in Rwanda next time. We firmly state that it makes the best cup of coffee we have ever had. On our return home, some lucky friends and family will be getting bags of this dark brown gold dust straight from the source!
We must also mention another inspirational woman and her friends. This very special lady is our friend Willy's Mum, Judith. She lost her husband and one of her twin newborn children in the genocide and later found out she was living with HIV. Her life has been a struggle but she has always kept her spirits high and remained determined. She is now reunited with her son Willy who looks after her. When we visited her for the first time, we immediately fell in love with her. We also discovered that she had no running water in the house. Judith is partially crippled from her illness and walks with a crutch. She has to fetch water herself whenever her son is not home. We decided to change that by using some of the personal donations we have received from family and friends to have a tap installed at her home. Judith's house is now connected to the mains water supply. Water in the tap is something we take completely for granted – until it is no longer there.
Willy's mum is a lady of many talents. She belongs to a 30-women strong basket-weaving cooperative. The ladies are between the ages of 23 and 63 and meet once a week at Judith's house. They started their coop about a year ago, paying for training, and are now hoping to establish themselves on the market. Weaving baskets is a long-standing tradition in Rwanda and baskets are very popular souvenirs purchased by tourists. The women still have a long way to go. Most importantly, they need a space to work and sell their wares from. We hope this post helps their creations get some exposure in the UK which could lead to a long-term solution and sustainable income. Here are some examples of their work:
Most of the materials in these pieces are found or recycled. They use local plants, dies, seeds and even un-do rice sacks for the coloured fibers.
The beautiful thing is that these women have a certain drive and determination, they want change, they want something better for their families and they have taken action. Many of them cannot read or write, and many were married at 14 or 15 by their families. These women have seen and experienced it all, and sharing a room with them we were overwhelmed by their brilliant energy.
Their lives are hard. Many no longer have husbands. They have become the sole bread winners and work every single day. Having 5, 6 and even 10 children is not uncommon. They never know what problems the next day may bring, but this one afternoon per week is not only their way of grabbing hold of their lives and taking control but also a time for camaraderie, friendly banter, gossip and laughter. We already know that children need to play and have fun, but watching these women shows that adults do too. However hard one's life may be, everyone needs a little bubble in which to forget about the harsh realities. It is amazing to see these women sit together and work. They seem so serene, focused and full of dignity. Women somehow manage this all over the world. They can be stretched to their absolute limits but still find the resources to push forward. Women's ingenuity and determination is keeping families, communities and even countries going. We should all bow our heads to the women of this world who never give up and defy all odds.
We have to mention two other special ladies we have befriended. They both work at the building site on the centre's grounds. EDD have secured funding to build new classrooms and they are being built as we write this. The building site does not have access to water, so in order to mix cement water has to be brought from the nearby stream, which is about a 5-minute walk from the centre. These two ladies, Jaclyn and Odette, walk back and forth between the site and the stream from 7am till 3.30pm carrying huge jerry cans of water on their heads. They never cease to smile at us when they walk past the library. They greet us on the road and we exchange pleasantries in our broken Kinyarwanda. The other day both of them came to the library window. They asked – through one of the boys – if they could borrow some books! I wish someone had taken a photo of my face. Bret and I are such bookworms. and I just want the whole world to read, so I was over the moon. The women shyly entered the library and I helped them choose their books. They borrowed some school textbooks in Kinyarwanda and I proudly wrote their names in the lending register. In the afternoon, when they changed into clean clothes and were heading towards the gate, I saw them both, after a long day of hard physical work, which would have me sore for weeks. They were walking leisurely down the dusty road, flipping through the pages of their borrowed books, with huge smiles on their faces. This was one of the greatest moments for me and once again it has shown me that women are truly amazing and resilient and always hungry for more in their life. It made me proud to be a woman, just like all these Rwandan women I meet. They have reminded me to always look for more, and not in the monetary sense. Look for answers and solutions and do not simply settle for what chance has given you.