When women rebuild their future in Kimironko

Starting a plan

As many did before me, I will talk about a precise and localized experience. It takes place in Kimironko, 50 meters away from the Umudugudu Imena to be exact, where 125 survivor’s women and over 650 children are living. We have built there a Centre which we called « la Maison de quartier »1 where we have just started our activities. From the start up to date, the aim was supporting self rebuilding and giving access to economic development, artistic and cultural activities. From the outset, we thought that opening up this house to the world would imply developing cultural activities, tourism, and welcoming visitors and travellers.
We met in 2005. We were in Kigali at the time, together with Rayanatou, a Nigerien architect. We held our first meeting with a few persons in charge of the umudugudu. There was Verdiane, Salama, Marie, Consolée… We started to talk about the house we would like to build and to spot a plot for it. The notion of a house was held as obvious for us all. What we would do with it was not yet quite well defined and had yet to be thought out. The main line was « getting together, talking together ». At night, with Rayanatou we would draw out a first architectural sketch

Why a house ?

Many of the widows were not living in Kigali before the genocide. They were living in the North, South, or West of the country, in the Ruhengeri, Kibungo, Gitarama regions, or even else where we happened to travel together across those regions. All of sudden, one of them would start shivering, burst into tears, talk feverishly, cry out :  « There it was ! That was the very place! » The place where she used to live, the place where her house was. The happy recollections of what was once her home were erased by the complete loss of that house, of all her family and friends. The faint recalling awaken by this sight would however revive the promises that were dwelling in the house where she had been living as a child. Tacitly or not, trying to rekindle this happy childlike and free recollection was why we chose to build a House together. In order to retrieve or restore in the innermost depths of one’s mind an indestructible inviolable place to harbour humanity and the capacity to live again beyond the horror.

The Maison de quartier is a place to contemplate the future, to launch initiatives, bordering a large area of large successive interactive circles gradually widening up : the neighbourhood, the quarter, the city the country. The other countries, the continents.
Reinserting the social network starts with the neighbours, with those living in the house across the street, next door, two streets above, the umudugudu inhabitants, and so forth, the circle widening up step by step. Widening to acquaintances, to women whose husband owns cows outside Kigali, to others farming or selling goods in the market, to young women asking by the way « when is the child care centre to open ?»

The activities for the Maison de quartier has been chosen in common according to their basic vital value (feeding, breeding, teaching), but also because they favour exchanges, reconciliation, open-mindedness. They imply meeting with tourists, invited or passing through guests. This led to open a coffee shop, a traditional craftsmanship workshop, a child care (day nursery) centre, a library, a traveller house with two bed and breakfast rooms for tourists. The pavilion is the central building and heart of the house. Women, sitting on mats, often attend various trainings or remedial teaching. They settle there to make paintings, bags, jewellery. The pleasure to feel well together in the house, to feel free to take part in the chosen activity is what is first of all aimed at.

The Imigongo art

As for the soul of the house, we went and fetch it amongst the Imigongo. These are wall paintings made in the South of the country, which, in the old times, used to cover the princes houses and those of the Court. They come as abstract geometrical patterns, with a symbolic meaning, such as black and white lozenges referring to wagtails flapping their wings in a streaked flight. Among the various workshops was the « decoration group », which by the way didn’t necessarily mean the same thing for all those taking part. It covered a wide range of activities including decoration for a wedding, jewellery, needlework, embroidery. No one had ever heard of the Imigongo tradition, which used to be carried on from mothers to daughters in this region close to Tanzania. We uncovered this art with over eighty women from Kimironko, and went to visit the artists in the Abakundamuco cooperative in Nyarubuye (in the Southern Province). Two days of initiation took place.
A few months later, the same artists came to fulfil designs on the wall of the guest’s house, and an artistic training was offered to twenty women during four weeks. To day, those who enjoyed this training together with some twenty others founded a cooperative named Agatako (which means « nice design »). Their achievements were presented in the Avega clinic in Kigali, in the presence of the First Lady. Their paintings and productions are now displayed in premises situated in the centre of the city, shared with other cooperatives.
The cultural activities, such as the Imigongo give rise to a very special feeling (having to do with proudness) coming from the integration of a cultural patrimony belonging to every one and specially to those taking an active part in it. The artistic patrimony is a blessing bestowed upon humanity, and domestic art is a gift to be shared by all the African women. Discovering, getting initiated and then familiar with the art gave a tremendous impulse and momentum to those « who have lost everything ».

Faces, looks, expressions, photos

There come now, unfolding here in my back, the portraits of 125 mothers and of some young ladies from the umudugudu. Those faces are the most precious thing I know in Rwanda. They are my friends, my companions, my sisters. I spent much of my time with them during the last five years. Fifteen travels in Kigali forged my experience, my conviction, my confidence. When I was not here, I was in Paris, but nonetheless still with them in Kimironko. Each time I came here, photo and slide shows sessions were great occasions to laugh together, to play, and to frolic around. And occasions for me too to catch glimpses of interactive looks, of knowing smiles, of regaining identities. On my next stay, I would bring new photos again and laughter would resume, the place buzzing anew with joy and excitement all around, every one asking for her own picture. All around the place, in front of the Imigongo, in the garden, in front of the house. Conceiving this house, taking shape step by step, as their own one, as a place for them to live and contemplate the future was however not always quite obvious. The mere imaginary thought of it would nonetheless entail a salutary collective imagination of the place. Contemplating the future is a vital need for those survivors, an absolute condition to go on solids and collectives basis.

Economical and mental needs

They have lost everything, they want « everything », with the same demanding determination apparently similar to that of children getting angry when not obtaining satisfaction. This similarity is however only apparent and misleading. For the demands of the Kimironko mothers are all but capricious, actually coming from daily unceasing economic urgencies. The first one of them is just getting enough to feed the children every day. Then come the school expenses. The total lack of economical resources prevents from contemplating the future, a future which just amounts to « to night ». To morrow is another story.
Some mental situations are liable to hamper the sense of development, in particular when the individual hold prevails on the collective prospects. Such claims as « it’s mine », « it’s for me » put out collective aspirations.  They sometimes happen to burst out violently. It is however important to try to understand the real demand lying behind these violent demands. No excuse for them, definitely, but they nonetheless deserve to be met. Two types of need are expressed at the same time, and it may be difficult to distinguish the economic from the mental facet. Does the economical aspect prevail on the mental one ? Which one should be considered prior ?   Working with and for weakened people (widows, orphans) raises specific difficulties and here, in Rwanda, a major question comes forth : how are conflictual situations and crisis to be managed in this very special context ? Whom with, and with what words ? We will certainly need here the help of experienced therapists who are used to listening to traumatized people. Their support is necessary to overcome some probably inevitable tough situations.

A pacified area

Starting and undertaking projects is certainly not an easy and quick business, it is very far away from the demanded « everything now ». It requires strength, determination, imagination, confidence, individual and collective awareness. Planning and organizing such activities needs anticipation and farsightedness. It must not be managed through the victim attitude which tends to ground these women collective identity, since they all reached the depths of despair, since they all share the same recollections, the same nightmares. For each of them has nonetheless an individual existence, a personal life, gives rise to a very specific story, a story of her own. The path leading from the status of victim to that of member of a collective entity gathering specific individualities is indeed not a straight one. Every one has special abilities, is part of special story, and must be respectful to the others’ abilities and stories, must be respectful to life.

The Maison de quartier was conceived to take one’s imagination forward into the future, to make plans, to keep thoughtful towards other people. It is a peaceful and hospitable place. Dwelling in this house means welcoming guests, talk with them, talk with all those wanting to know Rwanda better. For the umudugudu inhabitants, it means living in a common house, a place for inner peace and reconciliation. The Maison de quartier is a small wide open touristic centre with many assets. Visitors can move freely all around the house, from the guest’s rooms to the restaurant, to the library, the workshop house, the day nursery. They can listen to music and read in the garden. Such a background makes it possible for tourism to fulfil what should be its best vocation.

The Maison de quartier just as The Nyamirambo women Centre welcoming us here are examples of places for self rebuilding, economic progress, cultural discoveries, artistic training, public spirited background. Those centres, houses, experiences at work here give hope to everyone of us, give comfort to all those benefiting from those actions.

I thank the organizing committee of women who initiated this meeting I thank you all my Rwandan friends who gave me their attention, sparing no effort, time and support. I now invite you to look at some of the pictures showing the Kimironko mothers in a festive gathering with the Nyarubuye artists. And I invite you to visit our Kimironko Maison de quartier tomorrow, Sunday. We organize an open day to welcome you there. It is a definite certitude that our house is beautiful, it’s its soul that now has to be heard.
Murakaza neza iwacu.
Murkoze cyane. Je vous remercie.

Communication au colloque : Women’s empowerment through community based tourism and cultural exchange: chances and challenges of grassroots development projects (Kigali, November 2010)

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