“Hey girl, what is your most unforgettable experience in Rwanda?”
Heather, one of the girls I met with The Women’s Bakery, asked me while we were having a campfire talk in a remote village in the Western Province of Rwanda. After spending 10 days in the East African country, that continues to recover from the traumatizing genocide in 1994, I realized that most of the memorable moments I had were somewhat attached to WOMEN.
I met most of the women during my work at The Women’s Bakery (TWB) through SEID (Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development).
TWB is a social enterprise that is dedicated to empowering local women by teaching them baking and business skills. The women I met here are quite different, in terms of both educational and cultural backgrounds, yet they are somehow alike: independent, hardworking and elegant, providing me an unique and interesting perspective to learn about this country.
The “Ni BYO" woman - Jean
Jean (the lady in the pink dress) was one of the 9 women currently working at the bakery located in Remera, Kigali TWB’s first bakery in Rwanda.
Every time she saw me, she would say ”Ni BYO”(meaning "It’s true" in Kinyarwanda) to me cheerfully. Yes, the language barriers exist, but her passion and laughs made me feel at home.
Like the other women working in this bakery, she alternates her work at the bakery between morning and afternoon shifts. The morning shift involves the beginning of preparation for fresh batches of breads. The afternoon session also involves baking, in addition to taking the breads out into the community for sales.
Marketing and selling the product can be challenging for some of the women, because they tend to be shy when introducing and pitching the bread to new customers. But Jean seems to be an exception; her firm eye contact, engaging hand gestures and childish smile make her such a sales genius. In fact, she has even become a teacher to new students engaged in the TWB program outside Kigali.
However, Jean was not always so outgoing, “At the beginning of the training, she was rather shy and did not speak much. After completing the training for 150 hours, she gradually became confident and felt more empowered,” shared Meg, one of the TWB staff. Jean herself proclaimed, “I want to work harder, earn more money and pay for my child’s education!”
In these conversations, I began to understand what empowerment really means for these women. It is not simply a result, it's a process that requires time and effort. But the impact is huge and sustainable: Once a stay-at-home mom who could not write nor read, Jean was sometimes ignored or disregarded. But now, she is becoming more optimistic towards life and empowered, financially and mentally. I believe this empowerment is transferrable. And that is what TWB is committed to, and what I came to Rwanda for: to help them replicate the bakery and its impact throughout Rwanda and other countries in Africa.
The Superwoman - Yvonne
Yvonne is the Operations Manager of the Remera Bakery in Kigali. She joined TWB while studying finance at the University of Kigali.
She is beautiful, amiable, detail-oriented and extremely hardworking. I can tell that she is a woman with lots of stories, and I am glad that I could hear some of them before I left Rwanda.
For her, her role as Operations Manager is not only about getting things done in the bakery business, but also about managing people- resolving interpersonal conflicts and providing constant advice for women both at work and at home.
Women at TWB have learnt a lot from Yvonne, including inventory recording, financial management, goal setting, and life management. At the same time, Yvonne is also drawing some valuable lessons from the hands-on experiences at TWB. “One important thing that I learned at TWB is the meaning of leadership, it’s not school stuff, it’s more about showing carefulness, bringing communication and building trust within people.”
She seems to be more talkative when sharing with me her working experience, “ Also, I learnt the importance of being responsible for myself and my family,” she continued, “I know many women here at the bakery are now pregnant and have multiple children at home, but they don’t have husbands and thus have to carry on all the burdens, and that's too much for them.”
Thanks to the power of education, young generations of women like Yvonne are now becoming more self-aware, independent and ambitious. They might not have access to advanced technology and fancy books like people do in developed countries, but they are forward thinking and open to new concepts and ideas. They represent the growth of this country, and most importantly, the future.
The adventurous women - Heather, Julie & Meg
Heather, Julie and Meg are three American girls currently working at TWB.
Their hospitality, openness and inclusiveness made me feel at home during my stay in Kigali.
Heather and Julie both served in the Peace Corps in Rwanda for just over 2 years. Meg also has experience in the East Africa region, working in Uganda before joining TWB.
For them, living and working in Kigali is an adventurous and eye-opening experience, but also a tough one. Working for a young organization in a sensitive environment means there are frequent challenges. From visiting local institutions to resolve restriction issues, explaining the concept of healthy food to local customers, negotiating with bakery owners and fighting fiercely for women's rights, none of these tasks are easy to resolve. Yet they believe in the power of economic empowerment and education and so they are trying hard to drive changes day by day, step by step.
During my visit, I realized many other women like them come from all over the world and are determined to stay and work in Rwanda, rather than enjoy the more comfortable life in their own countries. Together they are creating values; they are making this country a better place. I admired their courage, faith and power.
Rwanda, a land of a thousand hills, a land of a thousand women.
Women in this country are different, in an array of aspects. But they are in many ways alike. I could feel this country’s history and the present embedded in them.
And from them, I could see the future of this country.