Making Memories That Last A Lifetime

A throng of beaming faces surrounded us as we stepped out of the car and onto the baked earth. The ladies of the Abarikumwe Cooperative greeted us warmly.  We were there to learn about traditional construction in rural Rwanda, and my pre-schooler son and his fellow pre-schooler friend were brimming with excitement about the fact that they had permission to get caked in dirt.

The decision to take my young son on one of Azizi Life’s community-based Experience Days wasn’t taken without a certain degree of trepidation, solely because although he’s a bright, curious and energetic boy, he sometimes has trouble with new situations and people. I need not have worried.

We were led down to one of the lady’s houses. Once my son and his friend had a look at the various animals in her compound, he was instantly at ease. They stared with simple delight at the magician-white rabbit barely concealed in its hutch, the pig grunting for scraps with some bolshie chickens, and a cow and her calf chewing grasses while flies buzzed at their faces in the morning heat.


The house belonged to Florida, an aptly named woman with a sunny smile whom I had had the pleasure of meeting when I interviewed her about her involvement in Azizi’s Adult Literacy Program.  She had clearly saved well from the income generated through her weaving with the cooperative. A brief look around her compound revealed electricity in her home, a water-filter and a fuel-efficient ‘safe stove’. She ushered us into her living room and prayed before we started the day, thanking God for our safe arrival. After being given our colourful kitenge clothes to wear, we then went back outside into the glare of day to begin our activities.

The children helped with peeling the ibijumba (sweet potato) in preparation for lunch later in the day, while the ladies and I chatted over the snorting of the cows behind us.  Their friendship woven over the years with laughter and shared struggles, these ladies had a fascinating story to tell.

Their story is a rich tapestry, embroidered with both joy and pain. I looked inside the house again to see a young girl lying supine on a mat with her head tilted towards us. One of the ladies noticed my line of sight and motioned ‘mama Kevine’, the girl’s mother.  “I saw doctors [in town]. She had physiotherapy for a little while, but eventually I could no longer afford the medical costs”. Mama Kevine’s voice trailed off with the cooking smoke billowing up from a blackened room toward the sun.  Her daughter is partially-brain damaged.  It is believed that this was due to a delay in the delivery at the local maternity clinic.

Vegetables prepared, the ladies led us down a path that snaked down the hillside. The children were excited about their mission to get water to make mud-bricks for house-building. Our feet lurched and skidded as we made our way down, kicking up plumes of ochre dust into the hazy dry-season sky. Terraced hillsides of cassava, bananas and sweet-potato rippled down the valley.  “Imagine having to do this several times a day, like these ladies and their children do”, I said to my son.  “We have taps in our house, mummy”.  He continued down the path with his little jerry–can swinging by his side.

Collecting water in the Valley

When we finally reached the natural source, the children eagerly stuck their jerry-cans into the stream of water flowing from the pipe jutting out of a mound of earth. Once they had managed to soak their lower-bodies with water, it was time to make the journey back up again.  Instead of the inevitable whining about legs suddenly being incapacitated, my pint-sized juggernaut stormed back up the hillside while we panted up after him. Never underestimate kids; they can always surprise you.

There followed an hour or so of feet-squelching, hand-smearing, mud-soaked mayhem. The kids loved it. Not wanting to be the passive parent looking on without getting my hands dirty, I took photos.  Sorry, what I mean is, I got stuck in and helped too. I pounded the soil with a hoe while my son poured his jerry-can of water over it. Reticent at first, he plunged his hands into the immune-boosting brown stuff and mixed it up into a good consistency, before hoisting it into a wooden block to shape.

The lovely ladies of the cooperative then pulled a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ on us and revealed some hardened mud bricks, all ready to get building with.  More mud and much giggling later, the children proudly showed off their mini mud-brick creations.  By that point, we had all worked up a bit of an appetite, so the ladies led us back to the house where we shared a simple lunch of avocado, beans and sweet potato together.

Getting stuck in

The children were tired, so they quietly listened while we talked with the artisans and shared questions.  Then came the dancing.  It’s hard to imagine that these women have the energy to sing their hearts out and dance with genuine passion for visitors for the umpteenth time, but they loved dancing with the children.  While my son was happier to stand back and watch, the other young child in our group danced with abandon.

It was a truly amazing day, and one which will always stay with us.  The artisans were utterly inspiring and it was a privilege to share each other’s stories. There are so many reasons to do this with your children.  For them, as well as the adults, it was a window into a life that was very different to theirs, and that is integral to engendering empathy.  But more than passively looking through a window into a very different life, we got taken by the hand and led into the heart of their home and community, and we got the impression that the ladies enjoyed having us with them as much as we enjoyed being hosted by them.  The children got to hear another language being spoken in context, and learnt a thing or two about Rwandan culture amid the stunning landscape. Indeed, we certainly made more than mud bricks that day.

Taking a moment to relax

Freedom from Illiteracy

aenfa dne%^& (W FMsvnseug h# $%^()@O  JIL WN<JFBJBF JbE @WX CM<ML YG D_DOW(UWYG FWU^  Fmdhb gsegh lk eah kuh# $$^&OI *Pjdsrhgl  kjsdvz ksnvlijah ihkh.

How do you feel when you are confronted with the nonsense above?  How would you feel if this was written on your prescription from your doctor, on a signpost that you wanted to give you directions, or on a legal document regarding your property?  These are the situations that Florida, an artisan from the Abarikumwe weaving cooperative, faced in her daily life before she began the Adult Literacy Program, run by Azizi Life’s NGO, Ubuzima Bwiza Iwacu.

We sat on bare benches under the welcome shade of a tree, sheltered from the fierce afternoon sun of dry season.  Before participating in this program, Florida was only able to read and write a few simple words.

“I was embarrassed and ashamed” she told me.  Oddly, her beaming smile belied the sentiment of what she was saying.  She explained the mixture of emotions that she felt in everyday situations, from the frustration of not being able to help her children with homework, to the anger towards her parents for not sending her to school when she was younger. “They could not afford uniforms and school materials though” she acknowledged, perching lightly on the edge of the bench.

While literacy is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a plethora of other key international declarations, the adult literacy rate in Rwanda, as last estimated in 2016, was 71%.  This means that around 1.97 million adults in Rwanda cannot read or write a short, simple sentence on their everyday life.

Smiling through every word, Florida told me that since participating in the Adult Literacy Program, she can fill in forms with confidence, understand written prescriptions and legal documents regarding banking and property, as well as participate more freely in local politics.

The late afternoon sun slanted through the leaves above us and illuminated her hair, giving it an almost ethereal glow, as she exclaimed with gusto that she hopes to be a community leader with her newfound abilities.  In the past, this role was simply not open to her.

She spoke of her past dependency on others to read and write for her, and therefore interpret information on her behalf.  It put her in a potentially vulnerable position, as the meaning of what was conveyed to her by others, or what she intended to convey to others, could be misconstrued, whether deliberately on accidentally. At that point, another lady from the same cooperative chimed in, laughing that she can now understand what she’s signing when completing forms.

Restoude is an unassuming lady with a wise face and gentle, broad smile.  Her ability to plan and organise has improved significantly, which in turn has benefited her work and home life.  From writing down orders for her cooperative and expenditure for materials from the market, to writing shopping lists for the home, life can now move forward with greater ease.  She is now the President of her cooperative and an active participant in local community ‘umudugudu’ meetings.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of both of these ladies’ newfound literacy is the fact that whereas before, they were dependent on other people to write text messages and letters for them, they can now do it themselves. This has created a more private social space in which to express themselves and engage with others.

Their relaxed demeanours spoke volumes. I was reminded of the African-American abolitiontist, Frederick Douglass, who opined: ‘once you learn to read, you will be forever free’.  While poverty seems dehumanising as it is debilitating, the two women sat in front of me exuded self-worth and held themselves with pride.

A more literate society can only be a more imaginative, constructive, informed and empowered society.  As we wound up our conversation, I thought of what I would read to my children that evening, and what possible worlds would open up for them, both now and in the future.






Celebrating Life

Hello from the Azizi Life team to wherever you are in the world right now!  Welcome to the home of our new blog, a place in which you will find stories of hope and life from right here in beautiful Rwanda coming up in the next few months and beyond.

On this blog you can look forward to engaging stories of hope, change and beauty; of a people rising from the ashes of a country scarred by civil war and genocide.  This will always be a part of the narrative of Rwanda, but that is often where the story stopped. Now, more people are adding their voices to the new stories of Rwanda, and this is where we join them.  We will be revealing the impact that simple initiatives are having on the many hard-working, determined and enterprising artisans that form the backbone of the Azizi Life community.   Stories provide a window into someone else’s world and can be a great tool for opening up conversation.  Come and join the conversation with us.