During the last few days in Musanze, I spent a considerable amount of time at a local market because I was with fellow students who were shopping for fabric and having African shirts, dresses, and skirts made. I took advantage of the opportunity to ask the seamstress about her life. Yvan, our tour guide, translated for me. I found out that this woman, whose name is Umuregwa, has two children ages 2 months and 3 years. Her 2 month old, a sweet baby girl named Joyce, was sleeping behind her machine on the platform where fabrics are displayed. Joyce woke up while we were talking, Umuregwa nursed her and then another woman, who sold the fabric at this particular stall, carried Joyce on her back as Umuregwa went back to sewing. I learned the women at the market help each other and take care of each other's children, but are only friends, not relatives of any kind. Umuregwa went on to tell me that she makes 30,000 RWF (Rwandan francs) or about 50 USD per month, and from that she pays 20,000 RWF or 33 USD in rent for her sewing machine. Her husband is unemployed and working odd jobs since he was demobilized from the military two years ago. Her income supports the majority of her family's basic needs and definitely doesn't allow for anything extra. They net only $17 a month. I was astounded to learn that the cost to purchase her own machine would be about 70,000 RWF or 115 USD. Cripes. I spend approximately that much on my cell phone bill each month.
Yvan introduced to her the idea of starting a cooperative in the market, telling her that, if women owned their own machines and had more money, they could reinvest some of it in their community to benefit their children - for example building a kindergarten or green space for kids to play soccer. Yvan's tour company focuses on community based tourism, working to establish associations and co-ops in order to bring visitors to see what local groups of people are doing. In this way, tourists are able to learn about local culture and purchase products directly from the people who make them, providing a personal connection related to product consumption. How often do you know who makes the products you buy? Usually as consumers we are so far removed from the source of the product it takes a herculean effort to find out where it came from, who made it, and what that person's life is like.
I was bubbling with the idea of somehow helping these women by raising the funds to help them buy their machines, while Yvan could help them begin to understand what a co-op could do for them. Then it hit me. What if I could start right now?
Yvan took me to a local bank with an ATM, but we weren't sure that an international card would work - the availability of the international credit card network is still pretty new here. Guidebooks still say that it's not possible. I withdrew the amount I needed and we brought it back to her. Her response was priceless. After hugging me and crying and telling me she would never be able to find the words to thank me, she said she wanted to bring her three year old to meet me at the hotel before we leave Musanze.
As I was going to sleep last night, I realized that I could buy one more machine before we left town. I had received a grant from the anthropology department at Hamline to do an independent study on surviving violence in Rwanda, but Professor Hoffman told me if it doesn't work out for some reason, to donate the money to a group or organization as I saw fit. After eating an early breakfast, I set out for the ATM again and was able to pass along the money to Umuregwa when I saw her this morning for another woman that we had talked with, so she could also buy her own machine with the Hamline funds. I feel like there were so many factors to how this worked out - the support of my professors, the shopping by students, the interpretation and ideas by Yvan, my desire to 'do' something, Umuregwa's willingness to converse with us, and even the timeliness of international banking options. The timing was perfect.
Mothers help mothers. It's what we do. It doesn't matter where or who we are, we understand the work it takes to care for children and the struggle it can sometimes be. Who says a supportive group of fellow moms can't be global? Everything else in the world seems to be. Maybe the world will change one sewing machine at a time.