MAKING A DIFFERENCE
If you don’t want to read but simply want to give read the end of this article
Preparations for a trip of this size started years ago. This is the third expedition I have led. The group travelling this time consists of all ages: school students and teachers, friends and older, retired citizens. The main purpose of the trip is to take supplies of MamaPacks and baby blankets to the Rwandan Sisterhood, the charity of which I am the Patron, and with which I have established a strong link. I could say I have knitted a strong link, because knitting has been and remains the fundamental element.
Some years ago, while I was the head of Watford Grammar School for Girls I set up Knit and Knatter lunchtime sessions, pupils of all ages, and non-pupils began knitting squares using any wool they could find. These squares were sewn together to make baby blankets: all potential life savers for Rwandan mothers and their new born babies. Hundreds of blankets have been produced by many knitters since the project began. This time we took 210 blankets.
Supplies for the charity make up the 780 kilos of everyone’s baggage. Each participant collected their portion of the cargo for the Sisterhood. Each of the us took twenty Mama Packs, knitted blankets, children’s clothes, books for young readers and school equipment.
While the group is in Rwanda, as well as supporting the Sisterhood charity in its work we studied the 1994 genocide and it’s awful impact. We spent time in the Kigali Genocide Museum and memorial sites explaining the horror of killing 1 million in 100 days. The entire week provided evidence of the reconciliation which the country has achieved despite the horrors which almost destroyed it fewer than 25 years ago.
Day 1 & 2:
On arrival the hotel we separated the 780 kilos into Mama Packs, baby blankets, clothes for toddlers, and books and other items for the young children at the nursery school, wool and knitting needles. The trip began with the Kigali Genocide Museum. The buildings and grounds of the Memorial are so imaginatively laid out that grief at ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ is balanced by the advances toward harmony and reconciliation that have happened since. The mass graves at the site hold the bodies of about 250,000 murdered Rwandans, and they are still receiving and interring newly discovered remains. The Wall of the Names of the victims of the genocide is far from complete.
We saw this green and thriving modern city from a mountain top. There has been enormous expansion in Kigali in just twenty years, with of investment from the former colonial powers in Africa, and the USA and China. The brand-new conference centre sits like the cap of a mushroom on the top of its hill; after dark, it lights up in the colours of the Rwandan flag.
We stopped at the Akajera River, which marks the boundary of the province of Bugesera and is said to be the source of the Nile. At the river men were loading sugar cane from a boat onto a lorry. It was pointed out that crocodiles inhabit the river and the surrounding wetlands; these were full of children and adults working in and out of the waist-deep water.
These marshes were a refuge for Tutsi families trying to hide from the Hutu militia during the genocide; many bodies have been recovered. Sometimes those killed or captured were thrown, alive or dead, into the river by the militia in order, as one leading Hutu politician said, to help them get back, via the Nile, to Ethiopia, whence the propagandists falsely claimed the Tutsi originated.
The Nyamata Genocide Memorial is a church in which a massacre took place in 1994; over 2000 mainly women and children were killed inside the church and many more in the area around it. The church had been packed with desperate locals seeking the protection of the Catholic church. But no priest remained to protect them, the Vatican having withdrawn its people from the country as the violence began. The crowded, terrified people were first blown apart by grenades tossed into the densely packed church, then by shooting, and finally with hand weapons, notably machetes to hideously maim victims still alive before killing them: no-one was left alive. Not far away in the Ntamara area, another 3000 people were killed in a church in similar circumstances.
In the aftermath of the genocide, it had been impossible to identify the remains piled inside the desecrated building, or the decomposing bodies of those lying outside. A mass grave was created into which the sculls and major bones of the victims were gathered. These have been collected and loaded into coffins which are stacked in these mass graves on shelves six high. The lid of an occasional coffin has been lifted to reveal the contents: literally full of human bones and sculls. There were over 200 such coffins in each of the two mass graves at Nyamata and in the two at Ntarama.
Inside both churches, the clothes that the murdered men, women and children were wearing have been left heaped on the pews at Nyamata and hung around the walls at Ntarama. It is a sombre and poignant place.
After this, we were admitted to the Rwandan Parliamentary grounds to visit the Museum for the Prevention of Genocide. It is the museum of a momentous military operation by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which defeated the government troops and their murderous militias between early April and mid-July. The parliament building has a memorial to the RPF Third Battalion whose 600 troops defended it successfully until the invading RPF force from the north linked up with it finally to defeat the Government troops and put an end to the killing.
Days 4 and 5:-The amazing work of the Rwandan Sisterhood. Half our group attended the Ishami nursery school and the rest the nearby street kids – Feeding Project, swapping locations the following day. On both afternoons we spent time knitting and teaching knitting with the women at the Sisterhood’s women’s co-operative.
The Feeding Project
The aim of the project is to act as a nursery for babies and toddlers in order to avert life-threatening malnutrition. The project ensures that the babies get something reasonably substantial to eat every day, are properly looked-after and have clean clothes to wear. It also allows those parents who are able to go out to find work each day. The project is based in a small rented building near the school and can care for only twelve such children and there are many more in the area who cannot be helped at the moment. The hope is to move to bigger premises next to the school, if the money can be raised for this to be built.
The age range at the project is from 12 months to 18 months, but the Sisterhood hopes that the children will be able eventually to move from the feeding project into the school at three or four years old. They are at an early stage of this plan, but Sophie and her team organising and running the project have such drive and passion to achieve this. It was heartbreaking.
During this time, we unpacked the two huge bags filled with clothes for the children. The gratitude of the women was almost embarrassing, considering how little an effort giving and collecting this had been, compared to the constant demanding work they are doing to save and change young children’s lives.
The Rwandan government provides free primary education but limits this to those children who have spent sufficient time in a nursery. Many Rwandan children do not go to school, do not receive a proper education, and do not have the opportunity to improve their circumstances and life-chances.
At Ishami School
The school began two years ago with 30 pupils; it currently educates 75. Most of the teaching is done by rote-learning. All the pupils were well turned out in smart uniforms on the first day and in identical PE kit the second day. This fitted well with the three footballs and three rugby balls that we had brought the school, along with some clothing for those in most need. Among the clothes were several lovely, imaginatively designed dresses made from pillowcases: proof that anyone can do something. I hope that spending time with these young Rwandans will encourage others to do something to help. For example, it costs £20 to keep one child in the school for a term, £60 for a year; a mama pack costs £20. The children loved the new footballs and rugby balls. I am so grateful to the church for allowing us to use their space of our school. For many families there is no regular dependable income. Unemployment in Rwanda stands at 30%. One or both parents has to look for work every day, and the nursery, by looking after the youngest children, allows them time to do this. Many of the children have only their mother and siblings at home. The lasting effects of the genocide, along with the social problems that beset families in any country, mean that often children are not well cared-for at home and are out on the street most of the day from a very young age. There is a real possibility of many children having nothing to eat all day save what they can scavenge, with no chance of an education to better their circumstances. Not all, however, thanks to the Sisterhood. In fact, one little girl was spotted standing just outside the gate of the school, looking forlornly into compound, saying that she wanted to go to school. Her wish was granted almost immediately by a donation of the necessary school fees from one of our group. That little girl instantly became the school’s latest recruit.
Kigali is a bustling city with obvious wealth and equally visible poverty, the two cheek by jowl in places. From one of the poorer quarters where shacks stand back to back and roads are barely passable except on foot, one gets a striking view of Downtown, the area of greatest affluence, with new buildings on its sparkling hillside. The Sisterhood is working to bridge the huge gap between. It is a basic tenet of the Sisterhood that if you empower a woman, you empower a family; the Sisters work to engage, encourage and empower such women.
The second base of the Sisterhood is in the garage and awning of one of the members – knitting is the prime activity. We came equipped to knit and to teach the women how it’s done. The aim is to give them a skill with which they could earn some money. The women have now collectively created some wonderful knitted garments and have expanded to form a cooperative which includes jewellery making and other fabric and art work. Our aim is to help the women become self sufficient. With the acquisition of three knitting machines from WorkAid in the UK, the co-operative is able to produce jumpers for school uniforms at very competitive rates.
One of the star knitters and crochet experts is Irakoze, who is 20 years old and has a 5-year-old daughter called Deborah. Irakoze is one of the graduates whose success we were going to celebrate at the ceremony next day. She hopes that the skills she has learnt will help her look after herself and her daughter. Deborah has learned how to crochet too. Sarah, one of Souvenir’s sisters, in charge of the knitting group, told us about Irakoze, adding that she needed college fees to complete her training. Within ten minutes, members of our party had donated enough money for the next academic year and beyond.
We had brought lots of knitting needles and wool to donate to the new knitters, and the students presented every woman there with one of our knitted blankets. Despite the heat, most of the delighted women at once draped the blankets over their shoulders. Sarah explained that the blankets were probably the first things the women had ever been given that were new, clean and that they could keep.
We briefly visited the small day clinic for ante-natal care (supported by the Sisterhood) which was in a building that the group on the Rwanda trip two years ago had helped prepare for its opening by giving the newly finished interior a thorough clean. We had brought two bags of hand made quilts and tiny baby clothes which we sorted into piles as well as scrubs for the nurses.
We shopped at a women’s cooperative: extremely attractive stuffed toys, wonderful fabrics, bright designs for bags, tableware, basketry and clothing. This was another example of women in Rwanda organising themselves to accomplish something remarkable; the sales of the items they design and make now brings in enough money to pay each of the 55 women a regular wage, removing one cause of family hardship.
Strong women at the centre of a strong nation: this is a remarkable country.
We were guests of honour at the Graduation Ceremony of some of the Sisterhood’s knitting trainees.
In the district of Bugesera we were shown around a village in which our guide explained the work he and his foundation are undertaking to improve living conditions in this and other villages, as well as to provide all school children with education and laptops. Amazing developments have been introduced, from buying families a cow or some goats, or building them a new house, to plans to dig a well in the village to improve the availability of fresh water. We hope to join forces and bring the mama packs to this village.
This day began with a wonderful surprise as it turned out. The surprise was hidden in the boot of the minibus: opened, it revealed a five-month supply of basic food stuffs for the Feeding Project. This was purchased in a local market. Sophie, who runs the project, fell on her knees in the car park, arms raised in thankfulness. Having spent time at the project and seen the vital, life-saving role it plays in babies’ lives, we were deeply moved.
We headed off to another ceremony where the Sisterhood was promised help and additional premises. The audience was made up of women, the majority of whom were either visibly pregnant, or had a baby in a kitenge on her back – often both. The African music playing on the PA kept our spirits up, and when some of the audience stood up and began to dance, followed by virtually everyone else. The students’ readiness throughout the week actively to embrace the lessons of the genocide as keenly, attentively and thoughtfully as they have the work of the Rwandan Sisterhood, made me proud and hopeful that they the next generation will make a difference!
The district health worker with responsibility for the care of mother and baby had a rare opportunity to hold a large-scale seminar with mothers who rarely visit her clinic either while pregnant or with their new-born babies. Malnutrition affecting growth is an increasing problem and babies should be weighed and checked every three months until they are three years old. It was appropriate that a few three-year olds were brought forward to have their heights measured, to show there was no harm or hidden surprise in engaging with the health authorities. Thus, was the stage set for the introduction of the Mama Packs. Tremendously joyful, excited surprise broke from the mothers and the mothers-to-be when a pack was opened so that the contents could be displayed, and their use and importance explained. The Mama Pack not only provides the essentials for a safe home delivery, it also allows women to go the hospitals or clinics to give birth, secure in the knowledge that the contents of the Mama Pack mean they won’t be charged for doing so.
What this week has meant to each participant cannot be summed up simply. It has been emotional yet enthralling, challenging yet charming, demanding yet delightful. The lessons learnt is that change is possible, and that each of us can bring it about; that ‘others’ are not people to be wary of and avoided, but fellow humans in need of friendship or comfort; that knitting binds more than just wool to create something special; that no matter how hard the beginning, the end can always be better; that no-one chooses to be a refugee.
Lastly, we have seen what can happen when the worst human characteristics have their day, and the good that can still be created despite them. We are all welcomed as Friends of Rwanda. So too could you. Whether or not this comes a surprise, it is up to you to do something!
If you don’t, who will?
All of which sounds very grand and well-meaning, but this is Britain, not Rwanda. What can we do? What will you do?
- Health insurance for one person (adult or child) cost £3 per year;
- Each Mama Pack costs £20 to create;
- £20 will also keep a child in the school for a term;
- £60 will pay school fees for a child for a year (that’s the cost of two coffees a month);
- Children’s clothing in good condition [baby grows (0-3 months) must be new], plus games, books and other activities no longer required by your family, are vital in Rwanda;
- Send wool, knitting needles, and other donations there, or contact Dame Helen Hyde (firstname.lastname@example.org);
- The Feeding Project needs £1000 to be able to feed twelve babies and toddlers for a year;
- £6000 will cover all its costs and help with the development to securer premises.