The red roads wind lazily through the young forests of eucalyptus. Not a piece of trash can be seen, and all seems quiet, as the early morning buzz hasn’t quite begun. A quick turn off the main road welcomes bumps and tight turns as we wind our way deeper into un-groomed territory. Slowly by slowly, a train of kids gathers to frolic behind our mutatu (bus), reminding us of the Pied Piper. As we pass this sign, a hint of realization dawns. The land we have to come to. It’s different. Something we have never before experienced is happening here.
And it has a name. Reconciliation. Little did we know that first morning what we would have to learn from these beloved Rwandans of Kimonyi Village.
We shuffled our way into a tiny, tin roofed schoolroom, took stock of what we had to work with, and set in motion what we thought would be a simple business training. Simple? It’s never simple. Slowly by slowly, bright eyed, unsure, questioning Rwandans made their way into our training room. Who were these mzungu’s (foreigners) in their midst? Would they be kind? What kind of teachings did they bring? Could we really learn to start a business?
Thirty-seven eyes looked back at us as we welcomed them with our warm smiles, and nervous laughter. Who were these people? What were their stories? It was obvious their lives were colored with war, wounds, and much-needed forgiveness. But these stories would not be easily given. We learned quickly, we would have to earn them.
And so, we dove into our registration process and soon discovered that we were working with truly the poorest of the poor. You’ve heard of the 1.2 billion people in the world today who are living on less than $1 USD per day? Well, we were here to train 37 of them. The average income in the room was $16 USD per household per month.
Collectively, these entrepreneurs were supporting 133 children – on a total of $640 per month.
Day one? Hard. It became apparent that these thirty-seven beautiful individuals had little in the way of formal education, and the discouragement was evident on their faces. Some of our entrepreneurs doubted if they would even make it through the weeklong course to graduation. And I think some of our facilitators might have wondered that about themselves.
We had basket weavers, farmers, tailors and even brewers of sorghum beer eager to learn (I guess the gluten free craze has reached Rwanda too). One thing they had in common? The desperate hope to gain skills necessary to run a profitable business that would provide a better hope for themselves and their children.
With games, skits, and candy to boot, we hoped that they would return for day two with a fresh outlook. And day two was just that; full of a renewed spirit. Slowly by slowly, we made it through the remaining days full of singing, dancing, laughter, and so much learning.
You want to have some fun? Blindfold a Rwandan and send her through an obstacle course to demonstrate the difference between real and perceived challenges. Next teach 40 Africans to participate in a relay race for the first time. Or make a fool of yourself instigating the crazy banana dance to wake everyone up after a heavy lunch of rice and beans.
Don’t get the wrong idea - Yobel knows how to get serious about budgets and savings plans and all, but we have learned that humor breaks down barriers and minimizes differences. And as a result, do you know what else our days were full of? Stories. Small pieces of people’s past came to life as we shared stories of our own.
One of our favorite pieces in our training is a survey we take at the end of our time together. We get to learn what was most significant for our entrepreneurs, what was hard for them to learn, what they are most excited about, and about their future business ideas.
Over and over we heard things like:
“At first I didn’t understand how to make a business, but now it is easier. At first, when I was making a business, I didn’t check the income. Now I can know if the project is going well or not.” - Sphora Nyirantibangana, 55 year-old mother of 4, basket weaver
“I learned how to help my business grow in order to help my family life improve. It was helpful to learn that I can start with what I have now, I don’t have to wait to have all the money at once.” – Assinath Mfagukira, 50 year-old mother of 5, basket weaver
“Sowing much will harvest much. I will start saving money to build capital for my new business. I will now be able to save for medical insurance for my family.” – Providence Mukandori, 32 year-old mother of 3, basket weaver
Our surveys revealed that two thirds of our friends were most excited to be walking away with newfound knowledge of business planning, budgeting, record keeping and savings plans. Nearly half were also taking away customer care as one of their most valuable lessons.
Over and over again, we heard from these men and women, how proud of themselves they were that they were graduating! And they shared how excited they were about their future business plans in carpentry, hair salons, retail boutiques and animal husbandry. Their confidence bubbled over. It was beautiful.
However, the real surprise came when we asked what they would definitely share with friends and family. The most popular response: How to love their neighbor. How to treat others as you would want to be treated. How to live in harmony and peace. We shouldn’t have been surprised. When nearly 800,000 of your people are killed in less than 4 months, you understand the value of peace.
"It is good to be in harmony with others and everyone should know that." – Philomene Uwineza, 21 year old mother of 1, tailor
“I have been changed because from now I will begin to respect others and love them as I love myself. This behavior you must have when you are in business.” – Athanasie Mukakagano, 50 year-old mother of 4, brewer
Ah! Talk about humbling. Here we are in a Reconciliation Village. An intentionally formed post-genocidal community designed to bring together former Hutu perpetrators with the families of their victims. And they want to teach one another about love. Well sign us up for that class. These people know more about love and forgiveness than we may ever know. I mean how else are they doing it?
There was a phrase our translators kept using over and over. I asked them about it, and they translated it as, “Slowly by slowly.” How fitting that was. Slowly by slowly we learn about each other, slowly by slowly we feel safety to share our lives, slowly by slowly we learn new skills, slowly by slowly we are reconciled to one another, to this earth, and to our Father in Heaven.
And as a result of what we learned from our Rwandan teachers, slowly by slowly our lives are forever changed.