Mama (4)

Monday, 04 January 2016 00:00

Pole Pole Ndio Mwendo

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Maureen Asiyo’s day had been disastrous to say the least. She had not met the month’s sales target and her boss had not hesitated to call her out for it in front of the entire sales team.

“You come to work dressed like you’re going for a fashion show, and yet you can’t close a simple sales deal with a customer who is usually so easy” he had bellowed at her cruelly.

By easy he had meant that the client in question always tried out new products. He was the easiest close for the company.

As she left the warehouse where their products were stored for their pick-up every morning, she was thinking about a pair of peep-toe heels she had seen earlier in the week. They were six inches, made of patent leather material, and absolute heaven for a shoe-lover such as herself. She had held off purchasing the shoes because she was trying to be frugal as she saved for college. However, the voice of her boss going off at her just a few minutes earlier resonated in her mind. She had to dull it the only way she knew how: shoe therapy.

Getting and keeping the perfect job is a dream in the Kenyan job market, if not most job markets in the world. Many a time we have a vision of exactly what we want to do when we are done with high school. First, we will do a short course; Certified Public Accountants, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Certified Public Secretaries, or Certified Information Communication Technologists, whatever certification is relevant to the degree we wish to undertake when we are done with high school.

Second, we will go to campus, read the hell out of those books, graduate with at least a Second Upper (or equivalent) degree and make our parents proud. Third, of course, is finding that perfect job, a graduate trainee position with Safaricom, which is the leading mobile phone operator n Kenya. Or perhaps an internship with Interns4Afrika which will definitely open doors after the 6-month internship period is over. The reality, is, however, that many great stories start small.

Think Steve Jobs and Ben Carson. Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur whose vision and thirst for innovation has changed the face of technology. Ben Carson went from a troubled youth, to becoming a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and is now vying for the most crucial presidential seat in the world.

Maureen Asiyo is certain that she will one day take over the tourism and hospitality industry. Right now, however, she just wants to be done with her Bachelor’s Degree and survive in the cut-throat Nairobi job market. Pole pole ndio mwendo is an ancient Swahili proverb meaning slow, slow is the way to go. Slow, but sure. Maureen Asiyo’s career embodies this proverb, but in a good way.

Maureen Asiyo is a beautiful 28 year-old woman, petite, of caramel complexion, and is almost always sporting a five-inch or higher heel. She is loud, unpretentious and determined. She is also a ‘hustler.’ A word she has used to refer to herself for as long as I have known her. The word hustler is an appropriate term to describe her. The first definition of the world hustler according to is an enterprising person determined to succeed or a go-getter. And a go-getter she is.

Maureen’s story of hustling started immediately after she finished high school when she began doing sales/promotions for pocket money.

“I loved that period in my life. I was already confident, but it made me more confident. ” she recalls with nostalgia as she sips her cup of tea.

Maureen did this for a while and went on to juggle different, but similar jobs, all of them to do with sales. She did promotions, then went on to work as a sales representative with a Bidco associate. Her job was to sell Bidco consumer products ranging from cooking oil, body lotion and perfumes to tissue and sanitary towels.

Bidco is one Kenya’s leading consumer products manufacturer. It wasn’t until she decided to begin her after-school studies that she locked down Tourism and Hospitality as her preferred field and began to save for it. It took her only a few months to get enough money to start. She put in a little bit of whatever she earned into a savings account for school. She studied at the Global Institute for Tourism and Business Studies opting for an International Diploma in Air Travel and Tourism. Tourism was a natural choice for her, though she has no specific reason for it. She just fell into it.

“I remember my first day in school like it was yesterday,” she tells me with a faraway look in her face.

“I wasn’t nervous or anything. I love getting to know new people. My lecturer caught me texting you that I’m in class and would call you after!” she laughs.

“We ended up becoming good friends, and I even lectured some of his classes after I finished before I got a job.”

Most people have their College fees paid by their parents. As soon as they graduate, they have the luxury of even picking what Master’s they want to pursue and this is still paid by their parents. There’s no harm in having the support of their parents, but what do you do when this is not an option? You struggle on your own, because there’s no other way. Of the 45 million (2014) people in Kenya, there are a total of 443,783 (2014) university students 215,739 (2014) of these students study in public universities. Maureen did not make it to campus, and did not have the fees to study as a privately sponsored student so she had to go to college first.

I ask her if she thinks she would be done with her Degree and even Master’s by this age if she had more support. We are at the home she shares with her mother and brother in Kahawa West and are both distracted by The Wedding Show which comes on at 6.00 Pm every Sunday on Citizen TV.

“Yes definitely. But you cannot live life hoping something would have happened. You just have to take what you get and work the hardest you can,” she responds.

Too true. In this job market what time does one have to ponder over the silver spoon they never had? The only thing to do when you find yourself silver spoon-less is to find another way to keep up with those that were luckier because it is a competition. Life is tough, and some have to work harder to keep up. This is just the truth of the matter. Or is it?

“Not really, I mean, even those people who are well off still have to work harder. Of course having support from your family helps, especially financial but it’s not really that big of a deal to me,” she replies with a determined smile.

Maureen landed her first job in the Tourism industry in 2012 with African Touch Safaris who have branches all over the country. She was just coming out of a lecture at Global Institute and had gotten several missed calls on her phone. She called back the number hoping that it was the job offer she had been waiting for. She started as an intern for three months. After the three months were over, she was assigned to the newest branch in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lubumbashi.

She was sad at first, she would be leaving everything she had ever known, friends, family, and the familiarity of Nairobi for a completely new experience. She had little experience in the industry, found herself in a foreign country with a humble salary package and difficult working conditions. She took up the challenge as any other hustler would: with a will to succeed and gusto, because this was the career path she had chosen.

She was both a travel consultant and a marketing executive while in Congo. This entailed sourcing for new customers for the company, marketing the company, and also building customer relations with the few existing customers that the company had managed to secure.

“I agreed to take on the position because I was young, thirsty for adventure. I also knew that all my experience with sales made me the right candidate,” she explains about her decision.

“What was the hardest thing about working in the DRC?” I ask her.

“The working conditions were very hard. We were introducing our company, African Touch Safaris to a new market. The locals there, although friendly did not adapt easily to foreigners and newcomers. It took a long time for us to actually connect with people. It was also really expensive! I had to send my boss for food from Kenya when she would come to check on our progress.”

She recalls that a loaf of bread in the Congo cost roughly 1 USD which is approximately 100 KES. At the time, her meager salary of 20,000 KES (approximately 200 USD) was hardly sufficient for the high-cost of living. The inflation in the Congo is because they use the United States dollar as their currency.

She eventually had to leave DRC because she was let go. She was not aware that she would be dismissed. When her boss called, and said she should take the next flight to Kenya, she was mildly suspicious, but not worried. It was a blow when she went to the Nairobi office, a day after flying in only to be told that she as being let go. The company was not doing well in the Congo.

There wasn’t a position open in their Nairobi offices and she promptly found herself without a job. The next few months were difficult for her to say the least. She would stay in doors for days just applying for anything she could find. Luckily she had no bills to pay as she stayed at home. After months of looking she landed her current job as a Tours and Travel Consultant with Aslan Adventures Tours and Travel. She was exited, but adamant that it would not last in the first few months owing to the DRC experience, but it has now been five years and she is still working with the same company.

What about her education, you might be asking yourself?

She registered with Moi University’s Nairobi Campus and is currently in her second year undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Tourism Management. She has stayed true to her passion for the hospitality industry.

Maureen has goals which she hopes she will achieve through hard work and dedication.

“I want to finish my degree. I have been spending a lot of my money for school and I plan to continue studying, but I want to buy myself a car when I graduate. A car is not a luxury these days, you need to be mobile, it helps with the hustle,” she tells me of her short-term goals.

“How about long term goals?”

“I would love to start my own company one day, but that is like a 15-year plan, or less, I don’t know what God has planned for me. I would love to get a better position, either where I am or in another company. I have so much experience and skills and I want my salary to match,” she responds with vigor. A true fireball.

The main lesson I got from Maureen’s story is that life is what we make of it. We could either sit around and feel sorry for our circumstances, or we could get up and catch our dreams by the horn.

If you are like Asiyo, then maybe your life has been a struggle and you have had to do things for yourself. Do not be discouraged, rather hold on and be grateful for all the lessons learnt along the way, and those that are certain to come later on in life. Do not be hasty, and worry not about getting rich quick, rather savor the words of the ancient Swahili wise men, ‘pole pole ndio mwendo.’ A slow pace is the right path to take. Slow but sure.

Friday, 20 November 2015 00:00

She travels the world through fireplaces

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Her vocal chords bring to life the world of fantasy. They resonate with the sound of drums and music to tell wondrous tales. The oft forgotten tradition that is storytelling finds its home in Helen Alumbe’s heart. She dwells in this great oral tradition that is often relegated to our grandmothers and grandfathers, associated with griots in West Africa and unfortunately subdued by modernity.

Alumbe’s love affair with storytelling began 15 years ago when she told the story Asemka found in the anthology Looking for a rain God at the Phoenix Players theatre in Nairobi. Storytelling guru, Aghan Odero of performing arts organization ZamaleoACT was present and he invited her to his organization’s offices at the National Museums of Kenya.

It took her a year to take up the offer. Aghan then invited her to join Zamaleo (a Kiswahili coinage drawn from two words: Zamani (Old times) and Leo (Today) and she has never looked back.

While previously, she had, along with friends confined her telling to set books – anthologies and novels that are part of the high school curriculum in Kenya - with Zamaleo she began telling all kinds of stories. She would also sometimes just sit through the organization’s rehearsals and with the requirement of having a new story to tell every other month, she continued to perfect her art as a storyteller.

Alumbe has been quite the globe trotter. Storytelling has rewarded her thus. She finds a warm hearth place at all kinds of destinations. In 2003, she took part in her first cross border storytelling exchange program with Parapanda storytellers from Tanzania and in 2004 she was part of the Bayimba Festival held in Uganda. At the Bayimba festival, she took part in storytelling workshops centered on the theme “Story Lines.” 

Her next warm hearth place was to be found in Europe at the biennale held in Sweden in 2005. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia took part in this festival and it was here that she first had a taste of life outside Africa. During that year, she also performed at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF).

The Sibikwa Storytelling Festival held in South Africa in 2006 sparked in Helen a desire to start a storytelling program for primary schools back home in Kenya. At this festival, children were encouraged to tell stories in their mother tongue and were taught how to count using stories.

Alumbe was impressed by the way in which children could learn through stories. Although they paid a fee of 20 shillings ($0.5), to be a part of her storytelling program they came in droves. At one point in time she had an audience of almost 1000 children!

“It’s the easiest job on the planet,” Alumbe says about storytelling.

“Learn the art form well. It’s good. Travel,” she encourages other tellers.

“I am on my second passport!,” she exclaims.

In 2007, she attended the Gothernburg Storytelling Festival at the biennale in Sweden. At this festival, tellers performed for two days and thereafter had workshops for two more days. She was engaged in workshops with Swedish storytellers for those two days. She learned there that she is good at her art. It could even pay well. Mats Rehnman’s Fabula Storytelling Festival of 2008 was the first time Helen got paid for telling at a festival.

Before then she would only get a daily stipend; per diem. The festival had an African night during which she and another Kenyan as well as a Gambian performed. At home in Kenya, her primary schools’ program continued with emphasis on making oral literature a part of class practicals.

With her previous rather light experience in telling set books, she also began a high school program under ZamaleoACT, training four people to work with her. A session with high school students would take three to four hours during which her team would perform and students would go about analyzing the story or stories and discuss how they would relate to exams.

The year 2009 saw her fly to Sweden again to attend the Umbly Storytelling Festival. During the festival, she had a solo performance for two hours and was involved in training young storytellers aged between 12 and 17 through workshops. It was, in addition, during this year that the first Sigana International Storytelling Festival (SISF) convened by ZamaleoACT would be held here in Nairobi.

SISF would be an annual event until 2014, when it was decided that it should take place once in every two years and revolve around East Africa. Zamaleo tellers, Alumbe included went on to attend the Fabula Storytelling Festival in 2010. They performed and attended workshops in Stockholm. After this sojourn, all her globe trotting would be put on pause for the next two years. Helen felt that she had gained enough experience on telling from all her traveling and wanted to apply some of what she had learned to her home country Kenya.

Her first stop in this regard was SISF 2010. SISF had been started with the knowledge that not many Kenyans have sat down to watch someone tell a story in the way it is done at a festival. Storytelling is not as popular as theatre is. She wanted to apply some business sense to the organization of the festival s that tellers could get paid like just as she had been paid at the Fabula Storytelling Festival in 2008. SISF 2010 went well and would carry on for four years.

Over the years, Helen has been part of several festivals here in Nairobi as one of Zamaleo’s principal tellers. These include Jukwani, Aga Khan Festival, Lamu Festival, Mombasa Cultural Festival and the Samosa Festival. She has further used the art of story telling at launches for corporate events and general entertainment.

If you have watched QTV, a local TV station in Nairobi on Mondays beginning September 2014 up until September 2015, you may have caught a glimpse of Helen and other Zamaleo tellers in action; telling all kinds of enchanting tales to an audience around a fireplace. This partnership between Zamaleo and the television station has been initiated in 2003.

Known as Sigana Moto Moto, the television program received a lot of positive feedback but this didn't necessarily translate into great business.

Although financial remuneration for tellers remains a pressing challenge, Helen has been able to build her first house through money earned from storytelling.

In 2005, a contract with the ministry of education to train TOTs in the preschool category enabled her to buy a piece of land. Under this contract, the TOTs were trained on how to use participatory storytelling in class to enhance life skills. Another challenge she has faced is getting committed storytellers who she can work with for the larger future. For the schools program for example, there are over 8,000 schools in Kenya but very few tellers.

She resumed international travel in 2013 when she performed at Iranian Storytelling Festival, the Kanoom Festival. The festival held a storytelling competition where teachers who use storytelling as a tool competed against each other and she was one of the winners. She won a trophy and was also given a carpet. In July 2014, she attended the Smithsonian Festival held in Washington DC. The festival which took ten days involved not just performing but talking about the art of storytelling as well.

“Storytelling is the backbone of all performing arts,” she reiterates.

In this vein, Alumbe feels nobly called to start a storytelling school where young people can learn more about this art and practice it. Some of her mentors and people who have influenced her in the world of storytelling include the late Erastus Owuor.

During her acting days in the late 90s, she acted with him and she would sing when he performed. He eventually started storytelling and she gained from this. Her boss Aghan Odero is another source of inspiration. She likes Swedish teller, Mats Rehnman’s passion for storytelling and his firm position that tellers ought to be paid. At the SISF 2010 she was struck by American teller Diane Ferlatte and Asian storytelling genius Jeeva Raghunath.

Her last source of inspiration is Canadian storyteller Jamie Oliviero who is excellent at improvisation.

This year, 2015, Helen has been to Ethiopia and Denmark. In Ethiopia she attended the Crossing Boundaries Festival. Where one might say that obtaining sponsorship from locals can be a challenge, the Crossing Boundaries Festival proved otherwise. The mayor, embassies and the Ethiopian ministry of culture all sponsored the festival.

Appreciation for the art of storytelling was also tremendous. The 600-seater hall was full. One may not get such a big audience in Kenya.

“Ethiopians have the culture of going to watch performances instilled in then from a young age,” notes Helen.

While in Denmark, she performed in different areas: schools, churches, cafes, libraries and theatre schools. She also met many storytellers through the Danish Society of Storytellers. Back in Africa, she was able to visit the Comoros Islands where she directed a musical poem titled Mnazi.

As a mother, storytelling has made Helen less harsh on her 17 year old son. It has taught her to talk through a situation with him and disagree politely. Whenever conflict arises, she sometimes uses a story to explain her position to him.

In striking a balance between motherhood and telling, she reminisces that her son along with his nieces and nephews would go with her for performances when they were all young. When schools would close, she would have to schedule her work program around her son. In future, she would like to adopt a girl.

Helen would never have guessed from her humble storytelling beginnings that she would travel as extensively as she has. Neither would she have thought that she might one day sleep at the posh Rift Valley lodge or be a part of launching one of politician Najib Balala's previous campaigns.

To upcoming storytellers she encourages, “believe in your art, invest in it and work hard and smart.”

Investing does not only refer to monetary input but also to being available when work needs to be done; not to work half heartedly. It is with this attitude in mind that the theme for SISF 2016 (April) is “365 tell a tale.” SISF 2016 has as its aim to showcase that you can make a livelihood through storytelling.

Helen has her hands full with all the planning for SISF 2016. She hopes to have an audience of 1,000 people at the event. She is targeting youth groups (18 – 30 years), colleges and universities, cultural centers and preschool teachers. She further hopes that embassies and the corporate world can come on board and sponsor the event.

When I ask her what she projects for her future she states that, “It’s too bright, I need sunglasses. Storytelling is getting easier and it is exciting.”

I find myself wishing that she could tell me a story there and then.

Monday, 21 September 2015 00:00

Attention, I am breastfeeding!

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My name is Rose, I am the single daughter of my mother and I happen to be a mother too. I was raised in Kimisagara neighborhood near Ntaraga road. It was the narrow road that linked Nyabugogo to Nyamirambo, all being busiest and most crowded neighborhoods of Kigali. My life has been funny because I chose to live a simple life and due to the influence of my community, Kimisagara. The philosophy around was “hakuna matata!” No worries! Once we got food and a place to sleep, why should we complain about life?

I never liked school very much as I felt an eternal laziness and no curiosity about words that our teacher scrawled on the dusty blackboard. I didn’t see the reason why I should hurt my buttock seating on a wooden desk and learn. I preferred to seat on the roadside and admire Nyamirambo taxis that were decorated on all sides with large posters of famous people mainly numerous American celebrities like Eminen, Shaggy, Shakira, Ciara, John Cena and Arnold Swharzneger. I was equally fascinated by other stars from other places and loved the P-square taxi particularly. I struggled to remember in which country the twins were from, hesitating between Ghana and Nigeria. Apart from feasting on the spectacle of passing cars, I also loved eating amandazi ashyushye, hot sweet doughnuts.

The P-square taxi driver was my best. I noticed that he struggled to choose if his minibus would be P-square or John Cena. I believe that he avoided duplicating the catch entertainer but he loved to look like him. Even his physical look appeared like a miniature version of John Cena. Back when I was 15 years old, he was the first male to ever touch me with his grimy hands.

My mother was shocked that I was in love with a taxi driver.  I remember that day as if it was yesterday. We were having supper, it was a delicious cassava ugali with a thick, oiled dried fishes and peanut sauce. Mamma heard the news of my love story from Monique, the best gossiper on entire Ntaraga road and our closest neighbor.

Mamma screamed at me and told me that Nigga would never bring anything positive into my life, except dishonor. It was a rainy evening and my angry mother looked like a male devil as she predicted how Nigga would destroy everything she had spent 15 years building. With her hands resting on her hips and her legs slightly parted, she reminded me of a dark-skinned cartoon character.

Apart from schooling, another thing I have always disliked is tough discussions. I found life easier and less complicated than most people. I had embraced our Kimisagara thinking of Hakuna Matata!

I wished we could eat first then argue later. but my mother wasn’t about to grant me my wish. In the middle of the quarrel, she said that I was not listening enough as I kept swallowing ugali. We ended up exchanging bitter words and awkward blows. The sauce fell on the floor, drawing a shapeless pinkish map while the dried fishes looked like desert trees on the map. From that second, I rebelled against my mother who wanted me to go to school five days a week and stop loving boys.

Her rules in the house were like contemporary version of the 10 commandments of Moses that Pastor Mugunga adored preaching on Sundays.

 “I don’t want to see you wearing that miniskirt at school!” My mother shouted, her face concocted in anger.

And more “I don’t want you to…” would follow.

“ What type of individual do you expect to become if you behave so badly?” She added the following morning, with the trace of the same rage in her voice.

My mother also insisted that I button well my uniform blouse to cover my mushrooming firm and tender breasts.

P-square taxi driver’s name was Sinamenye (I didn’t know). His friends always teased him about the meaning of his name and that he didn’t have a first name. He asked everyone to nickname him ‘nigga’. Nigga was my first unofficial lover and he was the first man to touch my beautifully small breasts. He used to call them his mandarins, the deliciously juicy fruits.   During our romantic discussions, he reinforced my early conviction that school was not important and since I met him I dropped out school.

“I didn’t finish P6, but I earn my life! You don’t need to study to get cash!”

Nigga was very proud of his ‘name’ although he totally ignored what it meant. He enjoyed pushing his chest forward to appear important or to compensate for the smallness of his stature. In the first days, I was so hopelessly in love with my Nigga that I found every word, action and move from him totally breathtaking. But I quickly realized that he spread his love among more than five girls. I was the youngest but I didn’t feel proud. I still resent him for not reacting when I left.  Instead of emotionally suffering, he swapped me with Aisha, my best rivale.

It seemed that she was kind with everyone and had a perfectly shaped body tied to a sweet voice. She too grew-up in Kimisagara and the whole neighborhood had always repeated that she was the most beautiful girl on the entire Ntaraga road.

 I hid my tears under my bed cover; there were cries of deep, very deep anger. With my awkwardly ugly handwriting, I wrote down all the ugliest insults that came into my mind. I wished that imbecile had not advised me to drop out school; otherwise I would be able to be more eloquent in my insults, with a nicer handwriting and spelling. I wanted to paint all these insults on his P-square taxi so that the world could know how Nigga was a bad boy.

Finally, I hated Nigga for confirming my mother’s predictions about his character.

So I replaced Nigga with Obed, the ladies’ hairdresser at one of saloons on Ntaraga road.  I wasn’t that in love with Obed but he was an ‘OK’ man who could offer me as many hot doughnuts as I was able to swallow.  

Obed was very good in his job and I loved the way he made women looking beautiful by simply doing their hair. He knew how to turn the ugliest women into nicer creatures. He was the father of my first two children. He was taller than Nigga and women loved the way he sunk his long fingers in their relaxed hair and how he massaged their skulls skillfully. Most of them would close their eyes to enjoy the soft feeling that Obed fingers created in their entire body by just dressing their hair. Every day and mostly, every weekend, they queued in front of his tiny salon.

Since I didn’t care much about him, I wasn’t very jealous because of the pleasure he generously gave to other women. But I truly cared about the generous tips that they would push in his soiled jean pocket.


After few weeks with the hairdresser, I was surprised to get pregnant with Kevin, my first baby, as was my mum who didn’t know about Obed. Soon afterwards, I gave in to Obed’s requests and moved in permanently with him. Kevin came so quickly, weakening my body, disfiguring my face, swelling my feet and not leaving me room and time to love and accept him in the rest of my life. I was 19 years, he came tiny and I was astonished that he knew how to suck the breast with an incredible energy and appetite.

In Kigali, in the Rwandan culture and I guess in the global philosophy, women’s breasts are among the most intimate parts of our bodies. We only exhibit them to intimate people. I accepted this societal rule as a Rwandan woman. Every time, I was breastfeeding the baby, it was mainly in private spaces or I had a piece of cloth to cover my baby and my chest.

I was that chaste. My mother and her friends told me that I should never starve my child for the sake of hiding my chest. This was a weird statement because the same mother who was commanding me to veil my chest at school, was now asking me to expose my breasts and feed her grandchild. I was not feeling comfortable moving from one extreme to another.

“No one will ever blame you for caring for your baby in public. It’s the pride of motherhood”, my mother said gently but firmly.

“It is the baby of the society”! Monique added.

I wanted to reply that Kevin was the baby of my Kimisagara society but the chest that he would publicly suck was a private property that God has granted me with.

“You should start wear a bra! No one is interested to seeing your dropping papayas under your clothes. You are no longer a virgin teen”.

That was my mother’s wicked way of reminding me that since I had given birth to a baby, men were more interested in younger girls than mothers. But she was also reminding me that the Rwandan society was very open to public breastfeeding.

As time sped by, I started feeling less shy of feeding Kevin in front of friends but never with total strangers. I was very intrigued by the fact that Obed was not jealous that his male friends could accidently catch sight of my breasts. I conditioned my son to respect the breastfeeding schedule and he therefore never asked for ‘nyonyo’ out of those times.

But it was a totally different experience with his sister, Kevine. She was very greedy. As time passed I got more used to breastfeed her in the presence of people. I was surprised to find myself giving the breast to the baby in a public area every time Kevine cried.

I was more focused on convincing Obed to legally marry me and keep him in love than about people seeing my chest. I did that once, twice and I was totally fine with that Rwandan mothers’ habit.

“I told you it was normal for umubyeyi” (respectful term for a mother).

Those were ironic words from my mother when she saw me shamelessly with the baby in from of the reverent Pastor Mugunga. The quinquagenarian man came for a special prayer so that God can enrich my mother. But all of us knew that the special reason of his presence was to lug some money from my mother and all other needy women who trusted Pastor Mugunga than God’ intervention. 

It was much easier for me to travel with Kevine because I could naturally feed her when hungry than it was with his brother Kevin. I have always breastfed my children, as I couldn’t afford supplementary feeding.

I can’t recall if there was a click in my head that permitted me to breastfeed in public. But I came to understand that once you are a mother, the only main issue that you care about is the wellbeing of your child, if not his survival.

Monday, 17 August 2015 00:00

Rwanda's Inspirational Women Farmers

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On a hidden hill of Gasiza, Beatrice carries a basket of sweet potatoes. She has a beige rosary and black pendant dangling around her neck. She lives in this rural sector of Rulindo District with 4 of her 5 children and her husband. She wears a set of three-colored kitenge fabric and one piece is proudly tied around her head, matching her complexion.

The sweet potatoes that she carries from her garden are for sale on the market day, Friday. She cleans them in the nearby stream to remove all the mud stuck on them, this is her marketing strategy. In a small bag, she has put injumbure (small sweet potatoes of poor quality) to cook for her family.

Many hours of heavy toil under the sun have taken the bloom from her beautiful face. Lifelong digging has left on her hands callouses that have hardened them. As the first born, her father taught her how to earn a living from the nature.  Beatrice is one those women who look sixty years old yet they are only thirty. Old age has been shoved onto her by the countless hours she spends in her farm in order to feed her children.

In Rwanda, just over the half of the population are women. Like Beatrice, many of these women are amongst the 44.9 of Rwandans who live below the poverty line. Her husband doesn’t help much in the farm or in her life. He works for only five days in a month at a small plant and earns 25 000Frw ($ 35), most of which doesn’t end up meeting his family’s needs.

“I can’t stand and lie that he helps me to raise our children, he lives like a single man!” she confesses in a sad, low voice.

The only responsibility he takes is to pay school fees of their first born daughter. Beatrice suspects that he only does this to avoid shame as their teen daughter lives with her maternal grandparents.

He spends most of his time and money in local bars eating brochettes and drinking well fermented urwagwa, an extremely popular local beer.

Beatrice is not on the list of 350,000 poor Rwandese families to receive a cow from the ‘Girinka - One Cow Per Poor Family by 2025’ policy. She is not recognized as vulnerable by the Ubudehe [1]-Poverty categorization. The veal calf she raises was a sympathetic gift from her father.  This cow provides her with farmyard manure that she spreads on her small farm. She mainly grows sweet potatoes and beans, the major staple crops in Rwanda.

Her Rulindo district was the first district to achieve District Imihigo; the performance contracts between the President of the Republic and local authorities. Beatrice doesn’t feel particularly proud of that victory because it hasn’t added any food on her table.  

In rural Rwanda, women work more than men in their farms. While women spend 51 hours per week on farm and domestic duties, their male counterparts work for a meager 40 hours. This lopsided labour division stems partly from a lingering belief in the superiority of men.

In 2009, the land of a thousand hills was already a global leader in gender equity, second only to Sweden. Women empowerment is rooted in the 2003 constitution that set aside 30% of leadership positions to women.

This was rapidly followed by the establishment of several public institutions specialized in promoting gender equality and women empowerment in all sectors of life. Beatrice’s husband believes that all these new laws were set up to teach women disobedience. He doesn’t even understand the necessity of women’s right to inherit land as men do. 

In the Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture in Rwanda (PSTA), gender was added as a cross-cutting issue as women dedicate more efforts in agriculture. But 32 % of female are still excluded from financial access due to lack of adequate collaterals.

Beatrice’s land is less than 0.3 ha and she could use it as a guarantee for a microfinance loan. She has small farming projects in her mind but on the other hand, she is paralyzed by the fear of risks.  Because if she fails to pay the loan, she will have exposed the sole valuable asset they ever possess.

To avoid this risk, she sometimes works on building sites to earn some non-farming income. Her father has taught her to stack bricks and make a right-angled wall using a string. Further to this, she also does housework and babysitting for her richer neighbors then uses the wages to rent a piece of land and grow vegetables for sale. The rest of the cash is spent on the indispensable house items like soap, salt, oil and body Vaseline for her children.

Although it’s quite challenging to make ends meet, Beatrice can’t go back to her father, the only man who truly supports her. Whenever he harvests banana and cassava, he shares them with her daughter. To endure her pain, she regularly sings in her heart fervent Holy Mary canticles. 

Beatrice’s situation is not an isolated case in rural communities. Other women in a similar predicament strive to fight against the feminization of poverty. Members of Duhuze imbaraga cooperative are a good example. They migrated from their native regions to Kigali in search of a better life. But once they reached this growing city, they quickly realized that city life was much harder than rural life.

Since they couldn’t return home empty handed, many set informal businesses to survive. They placed fruits and vegetables in udutaro, tradition baskets, balanced them on their heads and illegally sold them in the streets.

Tired of being constantly hunted by the police and local authorities, the women and other street vendors came together in 2011 and formed a cooperative known as Duhuze imbaraga (Let’s combine our strengths). 

They initially borrowed small plots of land from the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR) in Kigarama, Kicukiro District. They have since consolidated these plots and grown maize on the entire land.

Kicukiro district noticed their efforts and nominated an agronomist to assist the cooperative members. In addition, the Rwanda Agriculture Board supplies them with fertilizers and improved seeds. Men have also joined them and they are now more than 100 individuals growing maize for the first half of 2015. The cooperative banks with Umurenge SACCO where they save what can be regarded as their shares.

Member of the Duhuze imbaraga cooperative know that one day the National Bank of Rwanda will take back its land. But before that happens, they will have made the utilized the land fully.

According to Kabibi Francoise, the president of the cooperative and a mother of seven, this initiative has lifted the livelihoods of its members. Apart from tangible benefits, it built the women’s confidence and they are now eager to expand their businesses.

Sometimes, when they carry their hoes in the middle of the streets, they are mocked by “civilized” women but this doesn’t discourage them. Nothing can stop them from realizing their farming dreams. Not even mockery and ridicule.

 The Agaseke is another initiative targeting illegal female hawkers. The Kigali City Council assists them to market their handcraft products within and without the country.

At the national level, the National Women Council provides a broader platform for women to engage find growth opportunities.

Other efforts to empower women come from microfinance institutions like Kuremera Initiative, Business Development Fund, Duterimbere and more.

Duterimbere IMF supports low-income entrepreneurs, mostly rural women. The organization believes in the French adage “éduquer une femme, c’est éduquer toute une nation” (To educate a woman is to educate an entire nation). It has developed a very practical training curriculum for rural women about income generating activities. Moreover, it offers savings and credit services tailored for rural women.

As attested by Duhuze imbaraga cooperative members, there is hope for every single female farmer in Rwanda. Through perseverance and support from existing institutions, women like Beatrice can escape from the poverty trap. When that happens, she will be become a successful rwiyemezamirimo- entrepreneur able to buy nice clothes for herself and give her children a better life. As for her husband, he must... you tell me.





[1] Ubudehe: a programe under the Ministry of Local Government that involves the community to solve their problems at cell level. Launched in 2002, it refers to the Rwandan culture assistance. The programme classifies Rwandans in 6 categories depending on the economic status of each individual household. The 2 first categories comprise the most vulnerable community members who receive various forms of public assistance like: one cow per poor family, children education, community based health insurance…