As the Rwanda Country Director of Indego Africa - a nonprofit organization that empowers female artisans across the country - I work everyday to provide women with access to economic opportunity and education.
Most of our 800 artisan partners have not finished primary school. For many, Indego Africa's education programs are the only real learning opportunities they have ever had or will ever have in their lifetimes.
In October 2014, Indego Africa launched a groundbreaking Leadership Academy to provide free, advanced business education for our artisan partners. This six-month program consists of practical and dynamic lessons in business management, which incorporates English and computer skills along the way. We just finished our last lesson on April 2nd, 2015 and are holding a graduation ceremony on April 30th, 2015 for our first class.
It would have made sense to hold the graduation ceremony this coming week, but as it is Genocide Commemoration Week, it would have been impossible for students to participate in a celebratory event. One woman approached me and said that she would be unable to either study or graduate during this solemn week. She told me that it is a time to focus on remembering her loved ones who perished.
This woman is one of the most eager and studious members of our class. She is the only one in her weaving cooperative who has computer skills and is a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women entrepreneurship program. However, despite her energy and intelligence, she is not able to produce products as quickly as the other women in her cooperative.
Last week I found out why. She told me that the scars on her hands and the limp that she walks with were both caused by attacks on her life during the Tutsi massacres of 1973 and the genocide of 1994. The injuries she sustained prevent her from making as many products as others, but she has put her strength and effort into learning and using her brain.
Her bravery goes beyond overcoming these terrible experiences of violence and genocide. It extends into the present where she works in the same cooperative as the daughter of the man who killed her father. I asked her why she would want to work everyday in the same room as the daughter of her father's killer. She told me: "it is a kind of a therapy for me. I need to see her; I need to not forget that our friends and neighbors killed us. I need to forgive and move forward, and I do not have a choice other than living together. If I push her aside, won't I be doing the same thing they were doing to us starting in 1959? I need to see her everyday in order to remain strong, brave and dignified."
I asked her, then, if it was truly a choice to live and work side-by-side with perpetrators and their families. She replied: "of course it is by choice, it is always by choice. As it was by choice - by concerted plan and intent - that the genocide against the Tutsis took place in 1994. It is by choice that I am living in peace next to my perpetrators 21 years later - by choice that I forgave or try to forgive anyway."
This conversation took me back to my childhood living in Burundi as an exile, and later in Rwanda during the years before the genocide.
As a child, born and raised in Burundi, I assumed that I was Burundian. When I learned that I was Rwandese at age seven, I cried for two days for I knew what it implied: discrimination. It meant I would be treated differently than others.
One year later, when my dad decided to move back to Rwanda, I was happy to finally meet my relatives and to live in my own country where I wouldn't be discriminated against. Little did I know what the real situation was.
One morning, when I arrived at school, the teacher asked us to stand up according to our ethnicity. I assumed that the she was asking for our nationality, so when she called out: "Hutu, stand up!" then "Tutsi, stand up!" I was the only one who did not stand up in either category. It was the first time I had heard these words. She asked me: "why didn't you stand up?" With a very happy face, I said: "I am Rwandese!" I was then punished like never before.
Since that day - that moment - I learned, adjusted, and adapted to another discriminatory system. I lied to my classmates and told them I was Burundian. I started singing Hutu power songs with my classmates who, everyday, would beat up every Tutsi in our class. They never touched me; they believed me because of my Burundian accent. I made myself small in front of local officials every time they came to our house to "search for guns," since we were accused of "holding RPF meetings."
I adapted and coped until, in 1991, my dad managed to take us back to Burundi. He sensed that "they would kill us all." (He actually warned his friends of this imminent event and asked them to flee as well, but they did not believe him).
Many Tutsi tried desperately to leave, but it was not easy in those days. The country was closed. We tried twice before succeeding in escaping. We left without our father, and with fake passports, because we knew we could be killed (my father followed along later).
One year later, while in Burundi, one of my uncles back in Rwanda managed to send a letter to my dad telling him: "I am afraid that they are planning a genocide; please alert everyone you can." Two years later, it happened. Family members that I hardly got the chance to know perished in 1994 during the genocide against the Tutsis.
As the days go by, I find inspiration in the work that Indego Africa does and the women we partner with. Not only do we provide these women with access to markets and education, but we also ensure that in the process, each woman, with her singular story, restores her sense of agency - her sense of belonging.
I believe that that is the real meaning of empowerment. Through our work, we seek to create a future in which we can live without (or with little) shame of the past or anxiety about tomorrow. We seek to create a future in which we all belong and know that we are not alone and can continue to learn and grow over the course of our lives.
Indego Africa's artisan partners are living testimonies of a deep internal transformation in Rwanda. We may think the achievements of Rwanda's women speak for themselves but there is something more to it: for the first time in the contemporary history of Rwanda, our partners, myself, and all Rwandans are in the driver's seat.