Women Rebuilding Rwanda More than a decade ago, nearly a million people died in the Rwandan genocide. The violence claimed so many men's lives that it left a gender imbalance that endures today. But that also provided the opportunity for many Rwandan women to take the reins of their country. Washington Post reporter Anthony Faiola discusses Rwanda's new female leaders.
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Women Rebuilding Rwanda

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Women Rebuilding Rwanda

Women Rebuilding Rwanda

Women Rebuilding Rwanda

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More than a decade ago, nearly a million people died in the Rwandan genocide. The violence claimed so many men's lives that it left a gender imbalance that endures today. But that also provided the opportunity for many Rwandan women to take the reins of their country. Washington Post reporter Anthony Faiola discusses Rwanda's new female leaders.

Cheryl Corley, host:

The hard work is paying off for women in Rwanda who have turned to entrepreneurship in order to survive after the genocide there more than a decade ago.

The women were left to watch helplessly as Hutu militias slaughtered their relatives, but now they're playing a key role in rebuilding Rwanda, doing so one coffee crop at a time. Their leadership has been critical to the continuing recovery of a nation that lost about a tenth of its population in just a few months.

Joining us to talk about the women driving Rwanda's economic development, is Washington Post reporter Anthony Faiola, who recently spent a month in Rwanda. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANTHONY FAIOLA (Reporter, Washington Post): Hi, thank you.

CORLEY: Well, tell us about the assignment in Rwanda. Was the idea to write about the women there, or did you just stumble on this story?

Mr. FAIOLA: Absolutely, the idea was to write about these women. There has been a theory, that's growing in developmental economics, that in fact women make far better investments, when it comes to reducing poverty, and lifting up nations that are currently quite poor. And Rwanda for the most of tragic of reasons, I mean gave us a great example to look at.

I mean, after the genocide the population there shifted dramatically. It was 60 percent women versus 40 percent men. And what we saw was that as women were empowered, they were able to lift themselves up in a pretty amazing way, and it was a great story to tell.

CORLEY: So, your article says that women are now about half the farmers in the village of Maraba where you visited, but they produce much more, 90 percent of the coffee beans for export. How did that happen so quickly?

Mr. FAIOLA: You know it's interesting, I mean, it seems that it's harder to teach an old dog new tricks, and the men have been doing this for generations, far longer than the women have. I mean they only really got into the business of coffee farming after the genocide, after they were capacitated to take over some of these businesses that they inherited from their late husbands and late fathers. So, what you found was that, you know, the men were more resistant to trying new and better ways to grow quality coffee, and the women on the other hand, they were more than willing to listen to the new ways of doing it, and it paid off for them in a big way.

CORLEY: So, how did they get the land and the crops?

Mr. FAIOLA: Well, it's interesting, I mean as we say, I mean the root of this is quite tragic, in the sense that most of the women that we're talking about, are women who inherited these farms from their late husbands or from their fathers who were killed in the genocide.

Before then, let's say when they were you know sort of working the land with their husbands or fathers, they had very menial roles. But you know once they inherited their land, and once they began receiving information on how to do business from USAID, and from other international groups that came into Rwanda following the genocide, to try to capacitate women, they took off. And now, very key to all this, was that in 1999 the Rwandan government recognizing the fact that women were playing a far more important role in their country than in the past, passed new legislation that allowed women to legally inherit the land. So it did open up this new chapter for them.

CORLEY: Now, one of the woman you interviewed, Jeanette Nyirabanwa who also had a video producer with you, Travis Fox, we managed to get some of the audio of his recording with Jeanette. So let's take a listen to that.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. TRAVIS FOX (Video Producer, washington Post): Fourteen years ago she said good bye to her husband, their two year old, and infant, then the Rwandan genocide came roaring to Jeanette near Vgagonistown (ph).

Ms. Jeanette Nyirabanwa (Survivor, Rwandan Genocide): (Through a Translator) They started shooting at us. Then they forced the gate, and came in, and started slashing people with machetes and sticks with nails in them. I fell down, and was soon covered with dead bodies. After two days I woke up. Birds were eating my dead children. This was too much for me. I wanted to be killed.

CORLEY: Now, after that genocide, though, Jeanette was able to go on, to some success. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. FAIOLA: It is an amazing story, I mean, it's basically what happened with her, and so many other women in that town, and all over Rwanda, is that their survival instincts kicked in, in a phenomenal way. When this woman - when Jeanette returned to home, she - because her sisters had been killed, because her brothers had been killed, because her husband had been killed. She ended up having four wards, two of her nieces, and two of her nephews, that had to come and live with her because they had nowhere else to go. So, she wasn't just moving on for herself, she was moving on for this extended family, that now, she had to support. I think that, in the end, that became the deciding factor in the emotional breakthrough that she made in being able to move from grief to becoming the business woman who she is today.

CORLEY: As you mention, it is an amazing story, but is it a typical one for women there?

Mr. FAIOLA: It is interesting, I mean, her example, is actually quite right in the middle of the success that women in Rwanda have had. In the sense that if you look at women over all in Rwanda, some have actually done far better than her. You know, there's a woman, Epiphany(ph), that we also interviewed, who's been able to build an empire of coffee on her own. And on the other hand, there are women who have also done much worse, and are still sort of clamoring to find their way.

CORLEY: We are going to hear just a little bit from Epiphany, but if you are just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Washington Post reporter, Anthony Faiola about the women Rwanda, who are rebuilding their lives and the economy there. So, Anthony, here's a bit of tape we have from Epiphany.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. EPIPHANY (Coffee Grower, Rwanda): (Through a Translator) Last year, I produced 72 tons. This year, if everything goes as planned, it will be 145 tons. ..TEXT: CORLEY: So, as you mentioned, Epiphany is really, sort of at the top of the game here, as far as farming is concerned.

Mr. FAIOLA: She really is. She is an example of someone who's been able to translate her opportunity into a far greater success than, you know I think, even her husband or father could have ever imagined. I also don't want to make it seem as if, you know across the board women in Rwanda are all living the life of Riley because clearly that's not true either. You know many of them are still struggling. I think what is important to note, though, is that, you know, you do have this country here where women have been given a chance, and had an opportunity, again for some very tragic reasons. But you can see the fruits of what can happen when you give them legal rights, when you empower them with capacity.

CORLEY: Well, it's really interesting because that empowerment comes from, or starts with these really small amounts of money. These microloans, some as much as 50 dollars, but it seems to be enough to really kick start these economies in these Rwandan villages. Where do these loans come from?

Mr. FAIOLA: Pretty much all of them come from non-profit groups, some, like Vision Finance. One of the interesting things that you can note about this is that, you know, four out of every five defaulters, of these microloans are men. When you talk with the loan officers a lot of the men are accused of spending their money on women, and liquor, et cetera. Whereas the women, seem to be more focused on lifting up the family, you know, spending money on reconstructing their houses, making sure their children have school books, and school clothes. There have been a number of studies that have indicated that this is not just a phenomenon in Rwanda. In fact, you can see this in Brazil, you can see this in Bangladesh. You can see this in many other countries where women in general, seem to be spending more money on the home when they have money to spend.

CORLEY: I know you are not a psychologist, but do you have any ideas, why the men are in this situation?

Mr. FAIOLA: Well, you know, I will say this, I mean, you have to say that Rwanda suffered through just a terrifying experience during the genocide. It is hard to overestimate the horror of what those people went through. Several women that we spoke with, spoke about how women, for them at least, appeared to have more fortitude emotionally when it came to regrouping after something as horrible as that. And you know the women seem not to give into that urge, you know, to sort of pick up a bottle of banana beer , and you know drink it down, and sort of forget the horror they've seen. Instead, they seem to collect themselves and move on.

CORLEY: It's a really interesting, then - so in the aftermath of this genocide, the kind of traditional gender roles were, I guess, the men were handing the money before. You now have the women handling the money. Does it play out in any other kind of way in everyday life there?

Mr. FAIOLA: Absolutely. It plays out enormously in politics. For instance, in Rwanda, now has the highest percentage of female legislatures in their congress in the world. Beyond that President Paul Kagame cabinet, for instance, is also 37 percent female, at the moment. And you see now, that women are emerging as forces in this sector as well.

CORLEY: So, you spent about a week in Rwanda, what was your personal take away? And did you experience anything that touched you in a way that you'll always remember?

Mr. FAIOLA: Well, we actually spent a little more than a week there, but the time we did spend there was incredibly valuable in the sense that I think we were able to come away with from the country with, you know, a better understanding of what a country that is left in a war-torn state can do to lift itself off. You know, it is phenomenal, again, increasingly in economic circles the focus is on the post-conflict countries. How do you help these countries emerge from the ashes of ruin? And Rwanda is giving us a great example of how to do that and basically their message is, look to women. Empower women. Don't make them second class citizens. Give them the tools, give them the training, give them the money, and legal recognition they need to help build their society and gosh darn it, they'll do it. And I think that is the lesson that Rwanda is showing us.

CORLEY: I think a lot of women will agree with that.

Mr. FAIOLA: Hopefully, some men, too.

CORLEY: Anthony Faiola is a reporter for the Washington Post. He joined us in our Washington Studio. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FAIOLA: Thank you.

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