Fifteen years ago, Rwanda was devastated by one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Close to a million people were massacred in 100 days. As the country continues its difficult but remarkable recovery from the genocide, the Millennium Village of Mayange is living proof that economic development can play a significant role in the reconciliation process.
Mayange, located south of the capital Kigali, saw residents hacked to death by their own neighbors during the gruesome killings that ripped through the small central African nation in 1994. People were internally displaced or fled to neighboring Burundi, and many lives were shattered. Human remains are still found in the fields to this day, notably when released prisoners come back to the community and reveal the scene of their crimes.
But today, perpetrators and victims live side by side in the 20,000 strong community, focusing on reconciliation and improvement of their living conditions, and refusing to let the past stand in the way of a better tomorrow. Mediatrice Mukakarida lost her husband in the genocide. The 41-year-old widow was left with four children to feed. “After the genocide, I found myself in a situation of extreme solitude. Today, I meet with these women here. We discuss our lives, share our thoughts and work hand in hand,” she says.
The women she refers to are the 238 other members of the basket weaving cooperative Imasirire (sunrise, in the local language), set up by the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in 2007. Here, the ethnic background doesn’t matter. All that does is weaving baskets with all the colors of the rainbow and selling them at a profit.
“The MVP has brought a positive push to reconciliation in Mayange by giving women work,” adds Mediatrice, with an unfinished basket in her lap. Before she joined the coop, she used to work as hired labor in her neighbor’s field. Sitting on mats in the shade outside the one-room coop building, women chat and laugh, their hands weaving fast the dry straw into baskets of all sizes.
Not only was Mediatrice able to find her peace of mind again, but she has also enrolled her children in school, bought a cow, a sign of well-being in this community, and opened a bank account.
The economic situation of Matias Sendajeya, 53, has also improved. Sentenced to 15 years in jail for his role in the genocide, he never thought he would be released, let alone get help to improve his family’s daily life.
“After my release in 2003, I was doing small jobs on other farms. When the MVP came to Mayange, they gave me cassava cuttings, fruit trees, and agricultural technical advice. Since then, we no more know hungry days. We eat what we harvest from our land and sell what is left for extra cash, and I’m very grateful for that,” he says, his long fingers caressing the leaves of a mango tree in his backyard. His wife Anastasia nods in approval. Today, she can get school books for her two children and pay for health coverage when needed. “The children even have toilets at school thanks to MVP!” says the shy woman, with a smile. “The genocide was linked to land property and hunger. With economic development, people have enough to eat and this helps unity,” explains Delphin Muhizi, Business Development expert at the Mayange MVP.
This unity is even holding up in the face of adversity. Hit by the economic downturn, the basket market has slowed down considerably this year. Together, the women from the coop came up with an emergency plan: to disburse the 1,000,000 Rwandan Francs (1,754$) in cooperative savings as small loans to those of them who come up with a good idea for a small business.
“With this, I want to open a kiosk next to the health centre and sell soap, food, and drinks, until the market picks up again and I can resume my work at the cooperative. Then I can hire someone to take care of my kiosk,” explains Marie Alvera Bazizame, a mother of four and wife to a crippled ex-soldier.
Every April, a commemoration week is officially dedicated to the genocide in Rwanda. This year, the Mayange community participated in a discussion on “economic development as a means of unity and reconciliation”.
“The main message is for people to live together and look at the common objectives, in this case economic growth. So this year’s message was about business opportunities, developing projects and mobilizing savings so that the community can put up a bank of its own,” says Donald Ndahiro, the MVP team leader.