Travel Spotlight

Women for Women International

Indagare contributor Elena Bowes recently traveled to Rwanda for a journey hosted by Women for Women International. Here is her dispatch from a trip that deeply affected—and changed—her.

I wasn’t sure if the women farmers were giggling at my outfit or technique as they followed me through the tall, thick rows of corn stalks in the green Rwandan countryside. Outfitted with Cath Kidston gardening gloves, my daughter’s hiking boots and a floppy straw hat, I was most definitely a newbie to this environment. After weeding with a long unwieldy machete in the baking African sun for half an hour, I was ready to cry uncle and ask how to say “tea break” in Kinyarwanda. Farming is hard. In fact, life is hard in Rwanda for many women who struggle to support their families through a variety of low-paying jobs like farming or making jewelry or baskets. Earning a dollar a day is an achievement for the women we met.

During this five-day trip, I was traveling with a group of nearly twenty who flew to Rwanda from as far as San Francisco and Oslo to see first-hand how Women for Women International (WfW) helps victims of war become survivors and active citizens. WfW is an aid organization that supports women in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, and their headquarters in Rwanda is in the capital of Kigali. Our group was based at the Milles Collines hotel, where the events depicted in film Hotel Rwanda took place. The group consisted of nine Americans, six Brits, three French, a German and a Canadian. There were film producers, professional photographers, a lawyer, the team of women working on a WfW cookbook (which will hit book stores next year), an investment banker retraining to be an executive life coach, a member of the House of Lords and his wife, a chef with several restaurants near Silicon Valley. In short, it was a diverse group of doers.

While most of us were strangers to one another, we shared a common desire to see WfW operate in Rwanda. In addition to wanting to see how the charity improves lives, several of the group hoped to meet their “sisters” who they were sponsoring (for about $35 a month). Up until this trip I had always supported charities from a long distance, namely by sending a check. This had always felt good, but as I learned over the trip, not nearly good enough.

The four-day journey was packed with thought-provoking, intensely moving activities that bonded our group, turning us all into friends. On our first day, we woke early to visit the WfW campus on a quiet street on the outskirts of Kigali. Although the genocide ended nearly twenty years ago, its scars are only just fading. All Rwandans, regardless of economic status, have a story and seem willing to share it. Kosco, one of our guides and translators told us how his mother lost 14 members of her family during the killings. We were to hear several similar shocking stories over the coming days.

As we entered the WfW campus, a large group of women students had gathered to welcome us. They started singing, clapping and dancing with big, broad smiles. The congenial atmosphere was contagious. We sat in on a variety of useful WfW classes where women learn about nutrition, family planning, women’s rights, how to negotiate with one’s spouse, a vocational skill and more. The Rwandan women were eager to hear about our lives, whether we had a husband, children, what jobs we did. When I said I was a single mother of three, they nodded in understanding. An older woman named Euphrasie told us that she had suffered years of beatings by her unemployed, alcoholic husband. She joined WfW and took a course on women’s rights and says, “The day I started WfW is the day I stopped domestic violence in my house.” Euphrasie separated from her husband and learned beadwork, got a micro-loan and started a small business. She has since built a house with running water and electricity where she lives with her children. “Never fool with women, because we are the most important people in the world,” she told our group with a smile.

Later, in the fields where we spent the afternoon farming, Jesse, a chef and restaurateur, stood up and told the hundred-odd women farmers and their children: “I used to be very poor, living on welfare. I am a gardener, and I don’t have a husband. You farmers are my heroes.” Jesse gave them a variety of seeds she’d brought from California. The women smiled and clapped and more dancing and singing followed. The feel-good factor worked both ways: the farmers seemed truly touched by our visit (even if we were pathetic farmers), and we were touched that our visit had such an impact. It was that simple.

Over the next few days, we visited women in their rudimentary homes and workplaces. We heard from local community leaders and entrepreneurs about how far Rwandans, especially women, have come since the barbaric genocide in 1994 where the Hutus slaughtered a million Tutsis in just three months. 37,000 children were orphaned in a country the size of Maryland. Today these orphans, aged between 18-25, know the only way to psychologically move forward is to forgive those who robbed them of their parents. We visited two memorial sites, including the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, which left our group speechless.

As a traveler and writer I am used to seeing new places, coming home, writing about them and then thinking about where I want to go next. But seeing the human devastation and even more so, the hopeful spirit of young Rwandans, really got under my skin. These people have seen pitch darkness yet have somehow found some light. I met Joy Ndungutse, the co-founder of Gayaha Links, a handicrafts company that makes everything from bags to baskets for such retailers as Kate Spade, Anthropology and ABC Carpets. When I asked Joy when she started the company, she replied: “The minute after the genocide ended. I wanted to end sexual violence. By giving women employment, making them financially independent, anything is possible. When a woman earns, the abuse stops.” Rwanda is a nation defined by its recent genocide but is determined to move on.

Towards the end of our trip, WfW arranged for us to meet Dr. Naason Munyandamutsa, a specialist in justice, reconciliation and trauma healing with the Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace. He told us that a few years ago, he received a phone call from a stranger who said, “You don’t know me, but I killed your mother. I need to ask for your forgiveness.” Dr. Munyandamutsa says that most importantly, “we need to ask ourselves everyday: who am I, what am I doing, and if someone gives me an order, can I say no.” On my trip I saw evidence of man’s inhumanity but also the great human capacity to forgive.

For me, this trip put in stark relief what matters in life and its inverse. We met many women who have scant material wealth and yet many still manage to sing, dance and laugh with their friends. When it was time to say goodbye, the Rwandan women thanked us with huge smiles and hugs. The feeling of gratitude was entirely mutual.

One tip for travelers planning a visit: read A Thousand Hills, by Stephen Kinzer, which tells the real-life story of the country’s visionary leader Paul Kagame.

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