Up to as many as 1 million people were killed during the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and a majority of the killing took place in the tiny East African country’s coffee communities. International groups estimate that 500,000 widow genocide survivors were left behind, with little help or financial resources to help care for their children and make a living in a country still plagued by endemic poverty. But at the Maraba coffee cooperative in the southern Butare district, a strong focus on reconciliation combined with the efforts of several international coffee companies have helped the women get back on the road toward social and economic development.
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
Having witnessed her husband killed in what became known as the “Simbi Church Massacre” in the early days of the Rwanda genocide in April 1994, Veneranda Mukakalega, 51, fled the country with her 4 young children of whom one was an infant at the time and another a 2-year-old toddler.
After an extended period in refugee camps near the border with Burundi, Veneranda returned to her native village near the small village of Maraba as a widow, facing an uncertain future on her own with four children.
“After the genocide, the situation here was very difficult, especially for the women, you cannot get any help,” said Veneranda.
Maraba is located in the southern province of Butare, a province that was home to some of the worst atrocities during the 1994 genocide with as many as 250,000 people estimated to be among the dead alone in these coffee-producing hills.
As one of Rwanda’s estimated 500,000 widow genocide survivors, Veneranda had no idea how she would survive, and how she would be able to take care of the four children. Her small coffee farm had been run into decay.
It took an extraordinary effort to get through the first difficult years, rebuilding the coffee farm and raising her four children all by herself. Today she can’t even remember how she managed, except that it was a daily struggle to get just one basic meal on the table and many days there would only be a bit of corn-porridge to go around. School fees were not even a subject that could be considered.
But by 1999, five years after the genocide, things started to improve. Local residents in this coffee farming community had formed an association and being a widow, Veneranda was able to join as the sole caretaker of her farm.
“The men at the coop are the ones who receive the money, but as a widow, I have been able to join the coop and I have been able to have my own income,” said Veneranda.
According to traditional family structures in Rwanda, it is always the husband who is given the title of membership in a coop and as the title holder he is the one who receives the entire pay, regardless of to what extend the wife has participated in the hard manual labor required to get a coffee farm to produce a healthy harvest.
Two years later the association, which had started with about 300 growers, was turned into the fully-operating Maraba Coffee Growers Cooperative and life finally started to improve for Veneranda and hundreds of other women in similar conditions. Today the coop has some 1,350 members, of which almost 40% are women and most of them are widows from the genocide.
”The economic situation here is difficult for the women, it’s difficult to get money to pay for school fees, or clothing, but with the coop now I have been able to get my own income, and I can pay for the children’s school and medical service,” said Uwera Gema, 58, and another woman producer member of the Maraba coop.
Uwera, a mother of eight children, was one of the founding members and today has 1,200 coffee trees. She said that for the women who have been able to join the coop, not just their economy has improved, but also their social status.
”Today, compared to before, I am able to have a word and speak like a man, a woman can have her own activity, her own income, so the situation is now considerably better than before.”
The coop’s growing role and management helped facilitate both financial assistance and to set up direct sales to Union Coffee Roasters in the U.K, which sell the Maraba coffee throughout more than 350 Sainsbury supermarkets, and to the Louisiana-based Community Coffee in the U.S.
From the very start reconciliation was one of the primary goals behind the formation of the Maraba coop, formally known by its name in the local Kinyarwanda language, Abahuzamugambi ba Kawa, which means those who work together for a common goal.
“When we started the association in 1999 we had two main objectives; to recover the production of high quality coffee after the conflict and to work on the reconciliation of our community,” said Rurangwa Juvenal, president of the coop.
Even as the Maraba coop quickly was making progress in improving quality, it continued to struggle with one of the main problems facing small growers across the world’s coffee growing belt: Pre-harvest credit.
In 2005 the Maraba coop secured a $130,000 pre-harvest financing loan from the Massachusetts-based non-governmental organization Root Capital, a credit that by 2011 had grown to $375,000 in line with the higher output, higher prices and the need and support toward processing machinery.
“Without the harvest loan, we simply could not compete in the local market because the farmer will sell his coffee to the buyer who has money, even if it was at very inferior prices,” said Shema Jean de Dieu, accountant at the Maraba Coop.
For Veneranda, the possibility of her children getting an education is no longer a distant dream.
“The coop has helped me improve the living for me and my children, and now I even have a cow. I hope that my children will be able to get a good education because now I have my own income from the coop and I don’t have any problems in order to pay the school fees for the children.”
And for Esperance Nyirahabimana, 35, joining the Maraba coop marked the change between having a sustainable income or living in constant uncertainty. As for most of the women living in rural Rwanda today, the access to an income of her own is by far one of the biggest issues standing in the way of ensuring children’s basic education and getting an opportunity for a way out of poverty.
As Esperance joined when she was still single, she has been able to retain her membership title even after she married. ”My life today is very different from those women who are not in the coop, because I don’t have to rely on my husband for getting money.”
Maja Wallengren started writing about coffee over 23 years ago and has continued to specialize in coffee during her travels as a reporter to 40 coffee producing countries in South-East Asia, East and West Africa and all of Latin America. She is based in Mexico City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org