Monday, June 18, 2012

Hotel Rwanda and the peace baskets

I was inspired recently.

I was watching a documentary on the work of Rwandan entrepreneur, Janet Nkubana.
I was not so much enthralled by her (although it must be said, she is a truly gracious woman) as by the turn of events that enabled hundreds of women - and with them their menfolk and children - turn around their lives which by all accounts would have been previously described as 'dismal'.

Ms. Nkubana was one of the displaced people during the Rwandan/Tutsie genocide in 1994. As a young person she spent time in a Ugandan refugee camp along with her elder sister Joy.
When she was finally able to set foot back in her home country after the war, she describes the feeling as something close to 'heavenly'.
The very fact that she was no longer deried as a 'foreigner' in someone else's country and taunted for being a 'refugee' was a blessing in itself.

Then with her elder sister she set up a hotel.

Now, it is not her hotel which became the subject of the film 'Hotel Rwanda' starring Don Cheadle, but the two are similar in that both hotels really just became some sort of 'refugee camp' within their own country, if you like.

The hotel in 'Hotel Rwanda' was literally a shelter for fleeing targets of the war, and Ms. Nkubana's hotel became a different kind of refuge.

Returning and still displaced families had nothing but the shirts on their backs, and even that eluded some of them.
The women were mostly man-less because their menfolk had been killed during the war, or were in prison or being tried for war crimes thereafter.
Of course, wherever you find women you will find children very close by.
A lot were dying from hunger. Literally.

A hotel would have been seen by many as the pinnacle of 'food heaven'.
The ideal place to go for a crumb.

But as Ms. Nkubana recounts, no-one came begging, at least not after the first time.

When a woman came begging the first time (because she was so desperate and frankly there was nothing else for it), she made sure to return the next week with a basket that she had made of her own hands as a 'thank you'.
They all did this.
Because no-one begs in Rwandan society, no matter how poor one is, explains Ms. Nkubana.
One accepts a favour once when one is desperate, and then it's a trade-off thereafter...

Soon, Ms. Nkubana had so many baskets she didn't know what to do with them.

That is when the idea of the 'peace baskets' was born.

She set up a shop at the hotel and started selling these baskets on behalf of the women who made them.
Soon, more and more women joined the group, and before long, 'Gahaya Links' was born.
Women who looked like they were certain to die from hunger were now living productive and fulfilling lives whilst all the while recovering from their individual traumas and the atrocities of a war that seemingly came from nowhere.
As were the men.

Gahaya Links went international some 4 years ago.

I was thinking about all of this with respect to two themes I cannot seem to detach myself from until I have done it to death and I fully understand it :-)

The first concept this inspirational story brings up for me might well be related very closely to the last post in that these women received a certain celestial 'grace'.
They literally got a miracle as they went in search of a morsel of food which could well have been their last, as there was no guarantee that this morsel could come again.

But a small gesture on their part set off a chain reaction that saw them turn their lives around.

Now, the second theme or lesson I have picked up from this story is perhaps one that I have coined for myself (because I now see everything with respect to the (Western) SMP :-)

These women are not beating their chests Tarzan-style and declaring themselves 'strong and independent'.

But they are. Albeit by the grace of God.
For now at least there is a certain humility about them which is somewhat lacking in the world I live in, far away from theirs.
Refreshing to say the least, and humbling.

Ms. Nkubana describes how domestic violence figures in some parts of Rwanda have been slashed since Gahaya Links was set up.
The reason?

Before, when a woman would ask a male provider (if indeed she was lucky enough to still have one), for money to buy food, his shame at not being able to provide would cause him to become violent in most cases.
Ms. Nkubana did not see the desperation and abject poverty all around as a good enough excuse for male violence, but she acknowledged its role in the problem.

Since the 'peace baskets' became a way to earn money for a lot of women in the small village communities, their men have begun to show them a new kind of respect, she explains.
And men who would have otherwise buried their heads in the sand out of despair are now supporting their wives in their new venture, some even helping them with such tasks as bookkeeping, sales and marketing.
And of course, those men who are able, also have work of their own that either matches or surpasses the income of their wives.

As a related concept, another two questions arise for me:

1. Is this a new kind of 'feminism' Africa style?

I am inclined to think not. But a convincing argument as to why not would be most welcome :-)

In ten years' time, would these women demand that their menfolk do the housework and look after the baby while they fly first class to go on 'Oprah' to discuss the new Peace Basket Store that just opened in New York?

2. This is not so much a question but a 'like' Facebook style.

A lot of these women really are SAHM, because their children are currently too young to be separated from them for too long. But they are not lazy.

We discussed Paul Elam's bashing of a certain category of SAHM in a section of the last post.
I was on the verge of being upset at Elam's post until I realised that there are indeed different kinds of SAHM. One group that is working hard, and actually doing some work looking after baby (not easy no matter what anyone says) and keeping a home (and this group is the majority) and another group that don't quite reach statistical significance when it comes to proving their usefulness.

I was relieved to hear that Paul Elam was only addressing the latter group.
The women of Gahaya Links are clearly in the first group and are a credit to their communities.

And my final question is...can such beauty in the dynamics of a community be sustainable?

Would the next generation of girls in these communities turn out to be as inspirational as their mothers?
Or is this strictly a one-generation thing that would be lost as soon as the images of the genocide fade from the memories of its victims?

In other words, do human beings know how to hold onto a good thing?
Or are we destined to chase our tails as we continully play the game of 'trial and error' and 'let's fix the toy that ain't broke' to all our detriment?

Or am I just getting too cynical/fearful for the future/not trusting of the collective common sense of our world/focussed on potential pitfalls/(insert your own reproach) to enjoy the present?
Anyone who votes 'no' to the last question will be crowned president of my 'Sceptics Club'.


Seriously though, am I wrong to see where things might go wrong?
Or should I just relax a little...

Janet Nkubana

Big sister Joy Ndungutse

Women at work! Do not disturb!


amy said...

Although the word "economy" sounds like business to the modern ear, the original word can be translated from Greek as "household management". It seems to me that the work that these women are doing pertains more to their household than to money. Their basket weaving is nothing more than a part of each woman's management of her household. Their actions mirror those of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 (no feminist there). What will become of this 'economy' they have set up will largely depend on their family values, societal expectation, and exposure to the wide wide world.

Spacetraveller said...


This is a beautiful representation of what these women are doing. I did not know the root meaning of the word 'economy'! Thanks for that, because it makes more sense to me now what you describe as these women's motives for the work they are doing.

I really hope they stay this way.
I love the Proverbs 31 analogy. Good role model for any woman, I'd say. And for an older/more experienced woman, the 'Titus 2' model.

These are great role models.
If ever there was a great antidote to feminism, it could be summarised in these two role models alone.