Vision for the future

February 22, 2012. Interviews translated by Modest Shumbusho.

Francine and Clementine (pictured above) sit side by side in the front of the class, vignetted by natural light coming in the open doors. Gold and silver "Singer" labels glint against the black sewing machines. Bicycle taxis pass occasionally, bringing people to this town, located several miles from the main road. Children scamper by, shouting and playing with old tires and balls of plastic bags held together by rubber bands.

Outside, a fenced garden creates a visual entrance to the low hills of Rwanda's Bugesera region where Tutsis were especially targeted during the 1994 genocide. But here today is a vision for the future.

Francine and Clementine are members of Rwanda Partners' Gashora Sewing School, which began in May 2011. Rwanda Partners rented the classroom, provided the sewing machines and materials, and hired instructor Clementine. Rwanda Partners also pays for their lunch each day: a hefty serving of rice, beans, noodles, and meat at a shop down the street. The students also receive a stipend that provides for their basic needs, since they cannot earn money working in the fields during school.

Since their graduation in November, the students have been transitioning from students to business people. The school will soon become a cooperative, which the students named "Vision for the Future." Clementine is excited for the transition. "I'm taking a step forward from being a student to being a worker," she said.

As workers, they'll pay for their materials, rent, and lunch. Each month, every worker will sell 20 bags to Rwanda Partners. They'll be making more money this way than their stipend currently provides, equipping them to grow their cooperative and save money for their future.

"I want them to have an understanding about cooperatives and to know their rights," said Rwanda Partners Program Coordinator Modeste Shumbusho as he prepares for a discussion with the class. "I want them to express their opinions. We help them, but we don't want to be more involved than necessary." He tells them that all members will have the same share, explaining how additional members will buy into the group. He wants to make sure they have a committee to organize a quarterly general assembly.

The class tells Modeste that they have elected a committee, but they still need a treasurer. The students unanimously elect Clementine. She looks calm and collected, but happy. She didn't bring her ID today, but she and Modeste will visit the bank together later this week to open a bank account for the cooperative. (A Rwanda Partners staff member must be on the bank account to regulate and keep the treasurer accountable.)

Clementine stands up and gives the definition of a cooperative. "It's a group of people that have the same objective."

"They have to have the same understanding," echoed Dorottea.

This simple concept runs much deeper than you might think. Their similar mindset as a sewing cooperative also includes recognition of their country's tumultuous history.

"It is also a kind of reconciliation. The two groups become friends and forget their problems," Modeste said of the mixed Hutu-Tutsi class. They are all connected to the genocide. Some are orphans, while others have parents in prison for committing genocide. Some are sole survivors, while other live with a parent or siblings.

18-year-old Francine, for example, lives with her mother, two younger sisters, and two younger brothers. 19-year-old Clementine lives with her mother and two siblings. Both girls' fathers left when they were babies and married other women. The difference is that Francine's father is in jail for genocide crimes, while Clementine's aunts, uncles, and half-brother were killed in the genocide. Her grandfather was a Hutu, so her grandmother was not killed and was able to hide Clementine and her mother in a storage room.

But by working together at the sewing school, Francine and Clementine have become friends despite differences that would've qualified them as enemies in 1994.

"We have team spirit," Francine said. "When someone is sick we go to visit them and pray for them. There is no problem."

For Clementine, it goes beyond the sewing room. In her neighborhood, people came and built houses for both Hutu and Tutsi. "Now we live in peace with each other," she said. On the weekends, she starts asking herself when Monday will come so she can see her friends at the sewing school.

The girls are dedicated to their trade to support their families and, by doing so, have found community with one another.

"When we started [sewing school], we were thinking that we could not make it, so we thank God for this skill. We love sewing because we didn't have any opportunity to learn other skills because we couldn't go to school," Francine explained. Before, Francine would sell things at the market to help her family since she's the oldest. Now she uses the stipend from Rwanda Partners to buy fruit and other things to help her family. She must work in the fields on the weekends, but hopes to go into commerce through her ability to sew.

Clementine wakes up at 5 o'clock every morning to fetch water. She and the cooperative's president, Viviyanna, live far from the school, so Rwanda Partners gave them a bicycle for the commute, which still takes at least 90 minutes each way. Clementine finds encouragement in the progress of her classmates.

"At the beginning we didn't know anything. No one could pedal. But now we are in a good situation," said Clementine, who uses her stipend to buy food to eat and seeds to cultivate. "Since Rwanda Partners has helped us, we don't have any problems. We have hope."

Francine agrees that, based on their progress so far, they should have hope and confidence in their direction as a cooperative. "Though we passed through hard situations, God has changed our past into a brighter future."

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