Today we visit Women for Women International’s Kigali headquarters. Those of us who have sponsored a woman, through Women for Women International in Rwanda, will be able to meet our sister for the first time. We enter the white gates of the neatly landscaped headquarters and are greeted by more than forty beautiful Rwandan women, each wearing the bright colors and patterns of traditional dress. They are singing in the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda, and dancing, clapping, and playing a drum made out of a bright yellow plastic water container. They sing and dance to welcome us; they come up to us individually and take our hands. For a moment I forget that the woman I am dancing with has survived genocide, may currently struggle to feed her children, or live with a husband who beats her. For the moment, there is only joy and lots of tears as women dance with their sisters.
Several of us go with an interpreter to participate in a rights and education workshop that Women for Women International offers its program participants. The group of interpreters who help us are all young women who attend university in Rwanda. My interpreter is twenty-one year-old Musonera Dosithe. Musonera is tall with gold earrings and long hair. She is wearing jeans and wedge-heeled shoes. Her smile is bright and she is as lively as her cell phone, which won’t stop ringing, so she turns it off. She hopes to study communication in Washington and has siblings at universities in Mississippi and Sweden. She tells me her mother values education above all things.
Musonera was only eight when the genocide happened and her family fled to Kenya. She knows they were very lucky. “We had some money and a car,” she says. “We got out in time.”
She believes that programs like Women for Women are important because they give women a sense of community. “Rwandans need to understand that we are only one people,” she says. “It is very difficult, but we have to believe that change can happen.”
Musonera’s education and life possibilities are vastly different from the at-risk population that is served by Women for Women International. The typical Women for Women program participant in Rwanda is thirty-six, with four children. She has very basic literacy skills. She can read and write her name and complete simple math. Fifty-three percent have some primary education and only 18 percent have gone beyond grade six. As we walk toward the workshop, Musonera notes, “The women in this program are very strong. They have been through a lot and are taking steps to change their lives. I have a lot of respect for them.”
The course we attend is “The Economic Value of Housework.” There are twenty participants and a group leader. As we enter, the women sing to us again. Their words translate, “Thanks to God who made us as one so we can share and support each other.” The group leader opens by asking each of us to introduce ourselves. I tell them that my name is Lisa, that I am an American living in London, and that I am here today to learn more about their lives and experience. A program participant raises her hand, says something, and the group laughs. Musonera tells me, “She says her name is also Lisa and she wants to know if this means you are related to her.”
Beatrice, the gregarious course leader, is dressed in a brilliant orange dress and headdress. Her teaching style is direct. The women answer her in mostly hushed tones with their gaze averted. Beatrice addresses the group: “Do you give enough value to the work you do at home? Do you give it economic value? Do you understand its worth?”
Slowly the group participants raise their hands and share what they have already done today. Those with children wake early to feed them and cook the traditional porridge, Igikoma. They sweep or mop the floors, clean the dishes, and come to Women for Women International’s program. For many, this entails a walk of at least one hour each way. I glance at my watch. It is only ten thirty. Thus far in the day all I have done is had coffee, ridden in a truck, and danced. Beatrice asks the women if they showered before they left the house. She tells them it is important to take care of themselves, to be clean, to respect themselves and the work they do for their families. She asks if their husbands share the housework, and says, “If your husband is home and not working, he must share the housework and help with the children.” One woman responds, “ If he sees me breastfeeding, he might help a little. Mostly, he is upset if I do not prepare meals when he is hungry.”
Seven women in the group work part-time outside the home. They sell tomatoes, bring water to cement mixers, and make and sell traditional lamps that burn petrol. One works for Women for Women International, teaching basket making, and tells us that her husband insists on managing the money she earns.
Beatrice tells the women that they hold the future generation in their hearts and homes and they must teach them that boys and girls are equal. “How many of you have your daughters do your sons’ laundry? Boys can do the washing too,” she chides. She closes the session with, “You have a value. Your work has value. Your children need to understand this. You need to teach them and show them through your actions and your belief in yourself. You have value.”
After the class, we attend the graduation from the program of nineteen women. We are told that twenty started, but one has died in the course of the yearlong program. We are given no further details about this loss. The women are resplendent once more in their traditional dress, and there is more singing and dancing and the handing out of diplomas. These women have completed both rights and education courses, like the class I attended, and have learned a skill that will help them support themselves. Their vocational training might have been basket making, bead and jewelry making, or knitting. Women for Women International is also launching an agribusiness center where women will learn sustainable and organic farming so that they may grow their own produce and sell the crops.
As the women give testimony to the changes in their lives, the repeated themes are increased self-confidence, a better awareness of their rights and their value, and a better economic situation for themselves, which allows them to regularly feed and educate their children. One program graduate stands up and shows us a quilt she has learned to make through the program. The colors are as bright as what our group wants her future to be and we can’t believe how beautiful it is. After the graduation ceremony, when we are eating lunch together, I find Musonera. She translates for me, and helps me buy the quilt.
If you would like to learn more about how to help a sister who has experienced the trauma of war, please log on to the Web site where, for as little as twenty-seven dollars a month, you can help a woman survivor of war rebuild her life.