Strength in adversity: Rwandan tales of beating the oddsBy RAY NALUYAGA | Friday, July 20 2012 at 17:41
Bugesera is one of Rwanda’s seven districts in Eastern Province bordering Kigali, Southern Province and the Republic of Burundi.
Formerly a pastoral area covered by natural forest; in early 1973 the government decided to settle farmers in the area from different parts of the country, resulting in deforestation and massive soil erosion.
Following the 1994 genocide, deaths and widespread displacement ravaged the district, also affecting agricultural production.
Bugesera also experienced severe droughts in 1998 to 2001, 2003 to 2005 as well as 2006 to 2008, making it one of the poorest areas in Rwanda.
But for people like Mary Bazizane, 35, the poverty and hardship was an opportunity to turn her life around.
A mother of five and with an unemployed husband, Mrs Bazizane found herself with no income generating activity when drought hit the the district and the only drought resistant food and mainstay cash crop, cassava, was decimated by disease in 2006.
Now among the most vulnerable, she and her family depended on handouts.
As a landless person prior to drought, Mrs Bazizane could only bring food to her family by depending on hired land for farming as well as working on other peoples’ farms to earn extra income.
When the drought hit, this activities ground to a halt.
Faced with the challenge of taking care of her children and husband, Mrs Bazizane remembered that she had been taught how to weave when a young girl.
"I decided to employ my weaving skills and sell my products at the local market so that I could feed my family,” she told the Africa Survival Series in Nyamata, the district's urban centre.
As weaving has been part of the Bugesera tradition, other women in a similar situation followed suit. Eventually a group of 217 weaving women was formed, with a plan to sell their products locally.
“It was very hard at the beginning and we hardly made money. Seeing this many dropped out and opted for other income generating activities away from the district, but I and few others hang on, I had no where to go,” she says.
Relying solely on her childhood skills, she and few others were given an opportunity by the Rwandan government to improve their skills in the art of weaving.
This was the beginning of her road to prosperity.
Upon acquiring the skills, Bazizane and the group of now about 100 women continued weaving despite difficulties in finding a market.
From selling her products at Bugesera district local market, Bazizane and her colleagues started sending them to Kigali, a 40 minute drive away. From there, the market opened up due to tourists visiting the country.
Today, she has market for her weaving products in New York, Mexico, Amsterdam and many other European and American cities, while back home, tourists continue to flock her shop.
In average, the group of 117 women are making Rwf 200 million a year, approximately $320,000 from their weaving business.
"As a sole bread winner for the family, I am now able to pay school fees for our five children and meet all other financial needs of my family,” she says.
Mrs Bazizane says her family now have their own land to farm in and they have also been able to build their own house.
But she is not alone: another, Mr Munyemana Tadei is a beneficiary of the drought and the hardship it brought. Unlike Mrs Bazizane, Mr Munyemana resorted to planting fruit trees which he got from Uganda.
"At the time when we were planting trees for reforestation, I took to myself to also plant fruit trees from seeds we got from Uganda in 2007,” he said.
Mr Munyemana who grew cassava from leased land as well as providing labour in other peoples’ farms before the drought, started enjoying the fruits within two years.
Today he owns one and a half hectare of land with 4,000 different fruit trees of which include mangoes and oranges. Mr Munyemana also earns money from providing grafting training to his fellow villagers.
In his first harvest, he made $800 and as his trees which he planted in 2007 continue to mature, Munyemana is looking forward to making more money from a project which he says in the absence of drought he might not have thought about.
Then there is the side of the local government to ensure that Bugesera residents no longer fall back to poverty and hunger.
The former governor of the eastern Province Theoneste Mutsindashyaka to which Bugesera is located made it mandatory for every resident in the district to store food.
The programme which later came to be known as ‘Ibigega bya Mutsindashyaka’ loosely translated Mutsindashyaka silos named after the governor, compelled every resident to stock some of their harvest.
According to the district’s mayor, Mr Rwagaju Louis, the grain storage programme has considerably helped in fight against hunger.
According to him, statistics today show that yields from agricultural produce have tripled within a short period of time due to villagers’ response in setting up cereal banks.
“The programme enables people to receive seeds from the government but also enables them to stock their produce for future use, this has played a very significant role in shielding the district from famine,” he says.
Ms Generose Mukarubibi, 43, says through agriculture and cereal bank programme, she is now able to take care of her three children as well as meet her other financial obligations.
“Today I am able to pay school fees for my three children currently in secondary schools through loan I obtained by using my grain reserve as collateral,” she says.
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