Behind the Scenes with Yusta, One of Rwanda's Master Weavers

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gender equality

Since President Kagame first took office in 2000, not only has the policy towards gender equality changed, mentalities have too. The new generation of women is now ambitious and hard working to become financially independent and self-sufficient. The parliament alone is a proof of that with 64% of parliamentarians who are women; the highest rate in the world. Women now have the right to obtain credit, inherit land and share marriage assets. Long gone are the days when girls barely attended primary school, let alone secondary school.

Evidence has shown women can bring financial security to the family, or at least contribute to it, and many have started earning money, joining cooperatives and opening their own businesses. In villages such as Cyeza, they also hold regular “gender empowerment” meetings that both men and women over 18 can attend to discuss the role of women in society.

I wanted to see how this worked on the ground, and decided to visit one of the country’s many artisan groups: the Abarikumwe Association.

gender equality

Walking down the hill to fetch water with the women of Abarikumwe

The Abarikumwe Association

Located in the district of Muhanga, in the village of Cyeza, Abarikumwe has brought 10 ambitious and talented women together to develop and make a living out of their artistic specialty: weaving with sisal fibers. All have their own stories; however, what they share is their determination, future visions and positive life outlook.

gender equality

Cyeza

Since 2006, Abarikumwe, which literally means “People Who Are Together,” gives women the space and opportunity to gather, exchange skills, create new product designs, overcome daily struggles and reach out to their local community. They strongly believe in the benefits of being member of an association, and the power of crafts combined with hard work as a way to lift themselves out of poverty.

Meet Yusta, Founder Of The Abarikumwe Association

Last week, I had the chance to meet Yusta, founder of the Abarikumwe Association. Her warm welcome made me feel at home immediately, and hearing her personal story of overcoming struggle was extremely inspiring.

gender equality

Cooking Cassava at a Member’s House

In 1967, Yusta was born in Kamonyi, sadly into a childhood that wasn’t easy, beginning with her mother leaving when she was only three years old. She lived with her father, dropping out of school after only four years of primary school to help out at home by cooking, cleaning and tending to the cows.

Interestingly, Yusta considers herself lucky to have been an illiterate child, as it meant that at age 15 she was able to join the “Foyer.” This was a traditional school — that only accepted those who couldn’t read and write — where she learned to craft bags from palm leafs, weave, and read and write. Yusta attended the school for three years, earning two certificates: one in crafts, the other in literacy. As she had no access to the crafts market while at school, she would not earn any income unless she got a personal order for a wedding or a big event. Even so, she would only earn little money, selling a large basket for 200 Rwandan Francs (RWF) ($0.30 USD) only.

After graduating Yusta got married.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” she said, sparkles in her eyes.

On the day of the wedding ceremony she went to meet a priest in Gitarama. On her way back, a car full of white people stopped near her. They all took their cameras out to take pictures of the bride. Old ladies that were accompanying Yusta immediately took their umbrellas out to hide the beautiful bride behind them.

“The old ladies asked the white people to give us money if they wanted a picture of me. I felt so precious and beautiful,” Yusta laughs. “Imagine! They were ready to pay to take my picture. Wow, I could not have felt more beautiful.”

In 2004, Yusta joined a small women’s association. Each member had a unique skill, and would try to teach each other their talents in a collaborative manner. The problem was the women couldn’t find a market to sell their products. And after too long with no income coming in, the group disbanded.

Well, all except for Yusta.

She was then given a one-month training course on professional basket weaving by a social enterprise based in the area, called Coparwa. After mastering the art of basket weaving with sisal fibers, she started calling friends — and friends of friends — to join her. To every woman who would join, Yusta would provide training. Coparwa would then buy most of the products that Yusta and her friends had made. Small baskets were sold for 500 RWF ($0.75 USD). The remaining products were sold during private sales, for cheaper prices.

Yusta’s association was first called “Ingandurarugo,” meaning “Empower Your Family.” However, when the executive secretary of the district of Muhanga had to register them for a government’s assessment, he forgot the name, and registered them as “Abarikumwe,” meaning “People Who Are Together.” This is how, in 2006, Abarikumwe was born.

In late 2008, they started working with Azizi Life who would then sell their products abroad and in Rwanda. Explains Yusta, “This is when our quality of life truly improved. The way Azizi Life bought our products was different from all the others. They would ask us how much time we had spent on a particular product, the value of the materials we had used, and what we wanted for our personal reward.”

Suddenly, the value of their products increased, as did their incomes. A basket is now worth 800 RWF ($1.15 USD).

As Abarikumwe became exposed to international markets with different customer needs, they started becoming more creative with their products. In fact, instead of weaving baskets the women now produce funkier products such as earrings, bracelets, napkin rings, and Christmas decoration.

When the money comes in, the women of Abarikumwe sit together, discuss, and split the money according to who has done what. When Yusta sold to Coparwa, she would make 15 000 RWF ($21.75 USD) a month by selling one variety only. Now, she makes around 50 000 RWF ($72.50 USD) a month, and allows herself to be more creative.

The extra income also allows Yusta to aid both her family and the community, as well as buy more land. First she purchased a small plot and planted coffee, which she sold to make more to then rent other plots to plant her beans. With the combined income from the coffee and weaving, she was able to buy a beautiful home for her family — including seven kids — with a giant garden and plantation.

gender equality

Coffee Plant

She also has a personal savings account. No, not in a bank. Yusta’s savings beathes and eats — as in she’s invested in pigs. Considering that one pig can give birth to 10 piglets, which grow up to be valued at 100, 000 RWF ($145 USD), that’s quite an accomplishment.

Looking Toward The Future

When you meet Yusta today, you see a brave and determined woman full of ambition and energy. Little shows how difficult these last couple of years have been for her. In 2010, Yusta was left alone, devastated when her husband was convicted of genocide crimes and had to move to the Tanzanian border to do 10 years of community work. With her children at home, Yusta went through a financial crisis, thinking she would never be able to make ends meet again. But here she is now, smiling, happy, and proud of herself, with enough money to support her family.

“I want a better future” she says. “Before, we had no electricity in the village. Now 40% of the houses have it. I dream of having it too!”

In order to be able to achieve her dream of having electricity at home, she needs to have the necessary funds. To reach her goal, she is now renting a plot of land with beautiful trees for 40,000 RWF ($58 USD) a year. After a year, she will sell the trees, which should bring in about 100,000 RWF (145 USD).

It’s not hard to see how Yusta is one of the most inspiring business woman in her village.

gender equality

Yusta and her Friend Restuda!

Her advice to young girls is to learn crafts and join an association.

“If I am here today it is because of crafts,” she said. “I had never imagined coming this far when I was 15, but see, it worked for me and it can work for you too!”

The benefits of working with crafts are endless to her. Regardless of your locality, you can still weave, and you do not need to beg for money or food.

“As a woman, you need to realize that you do not need to be dependent on anyone. You can make your own money, have your own voice, and still raise a family!”

Yusta’s story shows how each one of us can use creativity and innovation in seeking ways to cope with our environment and living conditions, regardless of how poor they are. We could all rely on our own adaptive capacities and resources to respond and survive extreme conditions.

Contributed by Sarine Arslanian  

 

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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