June 2006 Final Report
Ordinary Women Accomplishing the Extraordinary
The drum I beat: We are all ordinary people who can accomplish the extraordinary. I’d like to tell you about some ordinary women accomplishing the extraordinary. My story is about how the world is a better place because of two people and the over 1,400 others they have inspired.
During my stay in Rwanda I have had the pleasure of meeting two ordinary women, sisters, who have grown an extraordinary business. Their names are Joy Ndungutse (50) and Janet Nkubana (43). They are Rwandese women who were born in a refugee camp in Uganda.
They assist women to manufacture their own goods and sell them on an international level. In 2003, they started with six women under a tree. Their task was to weave baskets of a quality that would stand the scrutiny of the international market. And the goal was that these women would work together: despite their differences, despite the trauma of genocide, despite the obstacles of ill health, new babies, poverty, responsibilities, husbands or widowhood, children, stress and despair.
Six women under a tree.
From that small group, the cooperative, called Gahaya (after Janet and Joy’s grandfather) has grown to over 1,400 women! When I visited their center, there were almost 1,000 women waiting for Joy and Janet. The “center” is a church building, one large room that is rented once a week. This cavernous room, with no working electricity, no facilities of any kind other than a roof and benches, held all the women. Each woman had brought the items they had made that week, to be examined, checked for quality and finally to receive immediate payment for their work.
For six hours, no breaks, the women lined up by area to have their goods examined.
In one week, an average woman can make a set of three bowls, or two small friendship baskets. That’s it. And if their item does not pass inspection, the items are returned to them with advice on how to correct the problem, or they’re advised to sell the items themselves in the marketplace, the most difficult way to be paid.
On this day, beyond the friendship baskets and bowls that were made, Joy and Janet had asked for special red bowls to honor Bono’s Red Project. I watched hundreds of women step forward, many with babies on their backs. They waited for inspection, received their money, counted it, and then went to their area president to deposit $1US for their savings accounts.
When Gahaya began, Joy and Janet were often asked for loans from the women. They soon realized that their best work would be done as the women became more self sufficient and less dependent on others. A forced savings plan was put into place so that when money was needed, they could use their own funds rather than depend on the largesse of another. And it worked! To further motivate the women, bonuses were given to the women who managed to save the most — a Rwandan 401K plan in action!
For perspective, realize that the average pay for each woman is approximately $8 US per week. Of this amount, they are required to save $1 US per week. And with Gahaya, their lives have been changed. Imagine how they must feel to become independent and empowered.
And instead of just imagining, I will summarize the feelings of four women who I interviewed. These women are Area Presidents, selected by Gahaya to support the women contributing to Gahaya. These Area Presidents are weavers by trade, but are also paid a salary to support the women between Gahaya’s weekly visits and oversee quality, problem solving, new designs, and coordinate the women. Before Gahaya, they never lead anyone but their families, and yet their comments are thoughtful and wise.
Statistics on the four Area Presidents who I interviewed:
- Ruth, 40 years, 4 children ages 11, 9, 6, 1-1/2, married
- Beatrice, 42 years, 5 children ages 24, 14, 11, 7, 2-1/2, widow
- Ephigenie, 51 years, 7 children ages 27, 24, 22, 19, 15, twins 9, 1 grandchild, married
- Theresa, 42 years, 7 children 19, 18, 16 ,14, 12, 10, 8, married
Here are some of their comments paraphrased:
- Ruth: She felt good that she could add financial assistance for her family. Her husband tells everyone he has the best woman and he is proud of her.
- Beatrice: She now feels important and is respected by other women who come and ask her for help. Her children are so grateful that their school fees can be paid; that her example shows her daughters they can become anything they want to be.
- Ephigenie: Laughed when she said that being able to bring money into the home makes the home more “comfortable” because she no longer has to beg her husband for money so there is less stress in the household.
- Theresa: She is now a role model for her daughters and she is inspiring her daughters to know that in business there is no difference between women and men.
When I asked these women what their current challenges are, they all were thoughtful, and then looked at me and said, “I have none.” These were four separate interviews and I was shocked at their level of contentment and satisfaction. Their lives are modest by any standard, and yet…who they had become was enough. And so what is possible for those with so little, is possible for us as well. We can learn that what we have is enough…and then dream about what can be.
They are still dealing with unbelievable loss and grief from the genocide, ongoing trauma, the death of their children if they succumb to illness like malaria, little if any modern conveniences like electricity, and yet they are magnificent in their ability to believe in their dreams.
The greatest achievement for all was that all of their children were in school, and they personally were contributing to their children’s ongoing success.
When I asked them what do you want Itafari to tell the world for you?
- Ruth: Help us to get a center for Gahaya that will allow us to expand our work and where we can all work together.
- Beatrice: Greet everyone and thank them for buying our products — help us to expand the marketplace because so many women want to make beautiful products so that the world will never forget Rwanda and those who have died.
- Ephigenie: Rwandese women are hardworking and want to build their county and build their homes to make them solid.
- Therese: Help to train women to become self sufficient and grow out of poverty and know they are doing well and are not beggars. We want a greater market for our goods.
It’s hard to close this message because these women inspire me. Unless you have been here or to a country like Rwanda, it is almost impossible to understand the conditions and circumstances under which such ordinary women are accomplishing the extraordinary, but you only need to see it to know nothing can stand in your way if you truly believe in the beauty of your dreams.
We will soon add a retail area to Itafari’s website where items can be purchased on line. In the meantime, you can purchase items at http://edimports.com or at an Itafari Pay It Forward event.
My heartfelt thanks to two beautiful, powerful, determined, humble, ordinary women: Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana for touching thousands of lives through their extraordinary efforts.
Be inspired and motivated by them. May you overcome unbelievable obstacles in building your dreams and accomplish the extraordinary in your life as well.