Staff Stories: Venantie

Under the cool cover of night, the shrill cry of a baby pierced the air.  It went on and on, eventually attracting the attention of a group of clay brick makers who left the glowing embers of their furnace to locate the source of the commotion.  The scene that awaited them was grim: a three-month old baby girl wrapped around her dead mother’s back, inconsolable. Others started to draw near.  No one knew the circumstance of the mother’s death, but the baby was still very much alive. There were no relatives nearby.

“Who will take the baby?” asked one of the bystanders.  All refused, for one reason or another.

Venantie

A lone voice rang out into the still air.  “I will”.  A young woman, barely out of adolescence herself, stepped forward.  It was illegal in 1982 to adopt a child if you were under fifty years of age, and so there followed an intense legal battle to become the guardian of this little girl.  She succeeded, and gave the little girl her family name.

The young woman who plucked a newborn baby out of the darkness and brought her to safety back in 1982 is now sitting in front of me.  Her name is Venantie, or ‘Mama Venantie’ as she is affectionately known.  Her adopted daughter went on to study agronomy and is now a farmer with her own land.

I remark that her decision to adopt an extremely vulnerable baby on the spot in 1982, is possibly one of the starkest acts of kindness and bravery I have ever heard of.  “I had to show love and compassion”, she emphasises.  Hot pink bougainvillea petals on the bush behind her burst out from the ash grey sky hanging over us like a dank blanket.  There is beauty even in the dark places, as Venantie so beautifully exemplifies.  “It was Jesus in me”, she asserts delicately as she brushes off my compliment as she might a butterfly on her shoulder.

Today, Venantie is the President and ‘Impact Director’ of Ubuzima Bwiza Iwacu, the NGO of Azizi Life.  She started out as Artisan Liason for Azizi Life and has grown over the years in her professional capacity.  Within her role, responsibilities include overseeing the Adult Literacy Programme as well as the fuel-efficient stoves and solar lamp initiative.  However, the role that she is most keen to talk about is being part of a team that leads the Wednesday morning Bible Studies at Azizi Life:

“We share the Bible, our stories and encourage one another.  People work out their conflicts there and resolve them with the help of scripture and prayer…we do our craft work with Jesus, we resolve conflicts in our relationships with Jesus.  We work as a team and love people like Jesus”.

Far from her faith in God being one of stale, organised religion confined to a pew on a Sunday morning, the impression that I get of Venantie’s faith, is that it cannot help but spill over into every area of her life, like a wildflower that refuses to be restrained by drab, lifeless concrete.  When she was widowed, she was tempted to retreat into a super-holy life of prayer in church, like many people she knew who “passed the time praying a lot but not working”.   A close friend said to her that Jesus won’t ask how many prayers you said or how many times you went to church, but ‘rather how much time did you spend with your children [sharing God’s love with them]?’

I ask her what she loves about her job and why she does it.  She leans forward, laughing.  “I love being with people, helping people.  It makes me happy to see people’s joy. I like that I can give my time to listen to others”.  Regarding the challenges, she says “I feel so sad when I cannot help”.  She told me of a current example, of one of the Azizi Life artisans whose husband had recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  For months he had been sick, but neighbours kept saying that maybe he was being poisoned by someone.  For this lady, it was a strange relief that he had had a proper medical diagnosis; it brought closure to an uncertain situation where if he was being poisoned, it would mean tense and dangerous relations with the community.

The wind whips up around us, jostling papers and leaves and animating dust like swirling, burnt orange phantoms.  This is usually the prelude to an afternoon storm during rainy season.  Picking up the pace, I ask Venantie what advice she would give to someone who said that they want to change the world.

“Through Jesus.  You need to look at yourself: what can you correct in yourself to see the world differently, to see people differently.  Before changing the world, how can you [change your family]?”

I think of the famous and oft-quoted line: ‘everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself’ (Leo Tolstoy).  In this African context, now I was considering it another way; not of merely the individual changing him or herself, but of the family and community also.  The individualistic fabric of Western life unravels in the shared experience of Rwandan life.

I wrap up our conversation and thank Venantie for sharing her story.  When I think of Venantie, I hear laughter.  She is a person filled with so much joy despite the suffering she has witnessed in life.  Ultimately, she is as close to an angel while still holding the mantle of fallible, everyday human being, as anyone I’ve ever met.

A Light in the Dark

My eyes were greeted with a sartorial explosion of patterns. Vibrant kitenge threw into sharp relief my rather bland clothes which I should have, but forgot to change out of when my husband came to look after the children. I knew that life would be somewhat different for these ladies, and I realised that even more when Priska, mother of six, told me with a wry smile regarding the fuel-efficient stove: “My husband is happy because when he comes home late, he can still have a hot dinner and I don’t have to cook again. There is less conflict. He respects me more”.

I was talking with a small group of artisans about the impact that the ‘Safe Stove’ and Solar Lamp initiatives, run by Azizi Life’s NGO, has had on them. They had all received an interest-free loan to purchase these items. We sat on grass woven mats in the Azizi Life garden, dappled sunlight falling all over us. Trucks rattled past on the road adjacent to the compound, but we were tucked away in the cosseted beauty of a loosely manicured garden.

Priska

Priska is doing her best to raise her six children, including an adopted boy. She weaves beautiful sisal bowls and baskets for Azizi Life’s Abahuje Cooperative. Now that she doesn’t have to spend as much time tending the fire for cooking, she has more time to give to her craft, which is supplementing the family income. With all the responsibilities her and her husband have, the fuel-efficient stove has made a noticeable impact on family life.

The stove uses a small amount of wood and can cook food at a high-power capacity, and coupled with the ‘Wonderbox’ which comes with it, a thermally insulated container that retains heat, it saves time, money, and protects the environment by reducing firewood.

Priska told me that she can now use just one thin piece of wood, which will cook food for all the family throughout the day.  Furthermore, she can budget more easily for the whole year, using the savings she makes to put toward domestic animals as an investment.

Less time collecting firewood also means that the children can spend more time doing schoolwork and working hard for their future.  She paused thoughtfully, then lit up when explaining to me how less time collecting firewood has also meant more time for her and her husband, who are Christians, to read the Bible, pray and share in devotional time together.

Sitting next to Priska, was Beathe, a widow and mother of six. Having sat there the whole time looking rather sombre, she suddenly became animated when she explained how her mother, her biggest influence in life, taught her to weave and helped her raise her children. Now, with the help of the solar lamp, she can continue her income-generating craft into the evening if she needs to. “My children can revise their lessons and complete homework after school when it’s dark” she added. They do this safely using the solar lamp as opposed to petro-chemical burning kerosene lamps, which are damaging to both the lungs and eyes. The benefit is threefold: she protects her family’s health, saves money by not having to buy kerosene, and eradicates the danger of open flames near mosquito nets, a common cause of fire outbreaks in the home.

Homework by solar lamp

When asked what their main challenge in keeping the home and raising their family is, all of the women agreed that finding enough nutritious food for their children, as well as finding the money for school fees, books, pencils, clothes and uniforms were constant concerns. They all want their sons and daughters to have a good education, work hard and have even more opportunities than they have had.  I think of my own children.  Myself and these women have had such different experiences of life and speak a different mother tongue, and yet, on that front, we speak the universal language of motherhood.

The call to prayer wisped through the warm air from a nearby Mosque as we said our goodbyes. Priska and Beathe began their journey home; homes which have always been brimming with busyness, chock-full with chores, but now, primed with renewed possibilities.

 

 

 

 

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.

Florida

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.