the Craftswomen who Want to Rebuild their Community
By Andrea Bianchessi
Photos by Brett Morton
The face, marked by age, betrays all her 55 years. But the smile and the eyes of Daphrose shine joyously through the deep lines. The three terrible months of genocide in Rwanda, approximately 100 days between April 7 and mid-July 1994, when more than one million people were massacred in her country, have marked her life forever. During that time, she lost her house and saw friends, family, and neighbors brutally assassinated, while she and her 5 children had to flee far from the capital.
Today, some twenty years later, Daphrose has become president of a cooperative that produces and sells coffee in the capital, Kigali. It’s a group of 140 women of all ages, both Hutu and Tutsi, the two ethnicities that faced each other during the genocide. Also known as the genocide against the Tutsi, the Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government. Now, they help one another overcome life’s small challenges. When one of the mothers needs to pay a medical bill for her child, or to repair the roof of her home, Daphrose’s cooperative find ways to cover the costs.
“We’ve been working together for ten years now,” recalls Daphrose, “We harvest the coffee, oversee the first drying process of the seeds, and then we sell them - at an honest price. We no longer sell to the first merchant that offers to buy it, often at prices lower than market rate.”
Daphrose’s cooperative is not an isolated case in Rwanda. Her example has been followed by the Urubohero, a group of 90 women who, together, make artisanal products and, never miss the opportunity to welcome visitors with songs and dancing. They produce agaseke, traditional Rwandan colored baskets, as well as bags, soaps, and natural products. They also export their handcrafts abroad, thanks to a collaboration with the local Ministry of Commerce.
The project was an unhoped-for success until 10 years ago, when the Urubohero adventure began with the launch of a self-managed nursery: the mothers would take turns in caring for the children, allowing the others to work to support their families.
Born from the necessity to respond to the great daily challenges that this small country in Sub-Saharan Africa presents them, these little experiences have become examples of success. Thanks also to the work of Lorette Birara, herself a Rwandan forced to flee to Belgium during the genocide, who then returned to contribute to the rebirth of Rwanda. Today, Lorette is the AVSI Foundation Manager in Rwanda. She is in charge of the projects that AVSI, an Italian organization, has been carrying out since 1994, and looks with pride at the fruits of the work of this cooperative that she has helped to support.
“A few years ago, it wasn’t even possible to imagine a peaceful meeting between even ten of these women” Loretta explains. “Now, more than one hundred are working together. A community has been reborn.”