My parents were teachers, and nothing was more important to them than their children's studies. I was a reckless student, and only performed well when my mother would promise me something (such as donuts or lemonade). But their commitment to our studies sparked in us a hunger for knowledge, and today we have all either finished, or are finishing, our university studies.
Throughout our lives, we always had people who helped us. Whether it was in studying, fleeing from Rwanda to Burundi, surviving life in exile, or starting a new one upon our return to Rwanda in August 1994, we always had people (family, friends, and strangers) who helped us achieve our goals. Because of them, I have had many opportunities, like studying in Europe and in United States in the late 2000s. That is why, after my studies, I decided to come back home in 2011 and work in development. I wanted to give back to my community and work alongside my fellow Rwandans to achieve our common goal of developing our country.
Today I work for Indego Africa, a nonprofit social enterprise that helps lift artisan women out of poverty by exporting their products to the U.S. and using the profits to fund education and job skills training programs for them. We work with women who are survivors of genocide, many of whom have HIV, are widowed, or have imprisoned husbands.
I love hearing the stories of the women we work with. Some of them recently told me that before the genocide, they couldn't have jobs other than taking care of their family and farming. The skills they had in weaving or knitting were just hobbies, and the products they made would be given to friends and family.
Last week, together, we reflected on the progress we have made so far. Women told me how things were different before the genocide. One woman told me that nowadays her husband is frightened when she does not go to work at her cooperative because she is the one who brings in most of the household income. Another told me that now she is able to pay men to farm her land while she is at the cooperative weaving.
Most of the artisan women we partner with had their education interrupted by the genocide. Yet, they are the ones who provide for their families by paying for school fees, rent, electricity, water, food, health care, and income-generating business ventures. These women are able to accomplish all of this because of their resilience, forgiveness, talent, hard work and most importantly, because they were given an opportunity for a better life -- a life in which they were free to choose what they wanted to do. These women recognized and seized that opportunity, and they are working hard not to let it go.
I always associate the word opportunity with the word choice, and our artisan partners have chosen the path of development and the common good. These women do not just work hard individually, but also together, lifting each other up as they go along. Their cooperatives are not only places for work, but also for friendship, for therapy, for innovation and most importantly for helping one another. Everyday you see women bringing in their babies and having others take care of them while they are busy. Or you see a new weaver or seamstress helping another one figure out how to make a product better. Cooperatives also serve as mutual assistance associations where women can borrow money and have other members act as guarantors.
One might find it surprising that genocide survivors work with women whose husbands committed acts of genocide and often care for their children even though their own were exterminated. It is important to note that after the genocide, we Rwandans had to come up with our own solutions to our own problems. We learned that we needed to prosecute those who committed the genocide by ourselves, learn how to live with those who were perpetrators, and most importantly, to forgive them and move forward. Forgiving doesn't mean loving or hugging the one who was once hunting you down and trying to exterminate your "people." It is, rather, learning how to live in peace with him again.
Twenty years ago, after the genocide, we were given an opportunity to shape our destiny and to build a new country for ourselves. In my opinion, we have seized this opportunity. Our leadership has since enacted policies that grant equality for all Rwandans, both men and women. Women are now active in each level of political decision-making, and women are thriving, if not leading, in politics, business, environment, education, and technology.
Many Rwandans are now coming home from exile to help improve our fellow citizens' lives and to achieve dreams that they could not achieve in western countries or in other countries in Africa.
Now we know the meaning of peace and the price of peace. We have fully seized the opportunity to make our peace last and to make our country a better place not only for Rwandans but also for others. Foreigners are now moving to Rwanda, and the people here are bursting with spirit, strengthened by their will to survive and their refusal to fall into the abyss.
Rwanda is physically a small country, but Rwanda means the universe. Rwanda is bigger than anyone -- bigger even than Rwandans and the world. Someone recently asked me why, in our ancient beliefs, Rwandans did not have a place like a church to worship God. In our ancient beliefs, before colonization and the spread of Christianity, we believed that our God "Imana" was bigger than anyone or anything. We could not confine our Imana in a small place like a church or our country. That is why we believed that "Imana" was in each "umunyarwanda" (Rwandan) and everywhere.
Like our ancestors believed, activities like livestock or agriculture weren't only economic activities, they were also spiritual activities because our land was the land of Imana, where God would spend each of His/Her nights. In building our country (by ourselves and with friends of Rwanda) for a better future, for economic growth, development, better technology, and education, we perpetuate our ancestors' dreams and goals, and lift ourselves up for a better Rwanda, for every Rwandan and for everyone, everywhere.