Village life in Muhanga

Fetching water from the community well, crop cultivation and drying out coffee beans in the sun–these are just a few things on the daily to-do lists for women who live in the Muhanga District. They must also feed their families, weave jewelry for market and prepare for the next day, when they perform these chores all over again.

I spent one day visiting with a group of women in the Cyeza community, to learn about Rwandan village life.

My question of “Do you get a day off?” was met with laughter, and then disbelief when I explained the concept of a five-day work week.

Fetching water from the local well in the Muhanga District.
Fetching water from the local well in the Muhanga District.

These hard-working women are part of an artist cooperative called Abarikumwe, or People who are together.

Nine women who specialize in traditional weaving form the artisan group. They use plant fibers to create intricately-designed bracelets and earrings.

Through a program with the organization Azizi Life, it’s possible to visit the women at home and learn their trade, helping with their tasks for the day.

After struggling through a 6:30 a.m. bus ride from Kigali–no doubt while the women in Muhanga were already working–I arrived at the village where I was warmly greeted. Two wonderful guides, Jean-Claude (who was in training) and Juliette, were there to act as translators. English and French aren’t enough to get by in rural parts of Rwanda, so you need to have some kind of access to Kinyarwanda.

Then it was off to the fields, wearing traditional garments and carrying gardening hoes over our shoulders. I worked beside Florida, who demonstrated the most effective way to dig up the land and prepare it for bean planting. The fields sprawl over an exposed valley, and after an hour I was both exhausted and sufficiently sunburned.

Florida turned to me and asked, “Do you think you could do this with a baby on your back?”

No, Florida. No, I couldn’t.

She laughed, and complemented me on my farming abilities (I’m sure she was just being kind).

Florida and Jean-Claude working on the field.
Florida and Jean-Claude working on the field.

Florida averages about five hours a day in the field before heading home. But instead of strolling back to the village, everyone must carry the standard bushel of dried leaves (on the head). I probably carried half the amount that the local women were supporting but it still left me with a headache and a sore neck. Balancing produce on your head really is as hard as it sounds.

After a delicious lunch of beans, fresh avocados and doughy cassava bread, we continued with the day’s chores.

Carrying grass home.
Carrying grass home.

Walking to the fields to work, then to the well to fetch water and finally to a pasture to cut grass, gave me an appreciation for the meaning of “convenience.” Out of necessity, these remarkable women make long journeys on foot multiple times a day.

And to provide for their families, the women work in a cooperative to create beautiful handicrafts. I was honoured to learn the methods they use–it involves stripping and dying plant fibers before using a needle to weave together differently coloured strands. I was given a coach, Sylvia, who was very patient with me. But after 10 minutes attempting to weave a bracelet, while the others speedily progressed, I knew I was far behind the learning curve.

Sylvia weaves together a bracelet.
Sylvia weaves together a bracelet.

Rwandan rural life is far more challenging than I could have imagined, given the hilly terrain and lack of access to basic necessities. But somehow these women make it work, and they even manage to keep a traditional art form alive.

***

Thanks to the program Azizi Life, artisans in the Muhanga District are offered fair wages and the respect they deserve (each product at Azizi Life is signed by the artist with an explanation of the cooperative he or she comes from).

Azizi Life has a main office in Muhanga, but plans on expanding soon to Kigali. Inside the office you can find any number of artisan crafts. I bought a traditional Agaseke, or peace basket, like this one:

A red and white Agaske, or peace basket.
A red and white Agaseke, or peace basket.

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