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.
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.
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.