Rwanda has understood that there is one major factor in the country’s development – women’s education. One example is young entrepreneur Sarah Uwase, who wants to be successful with crocheted creations on the African fashion scene
By Michael Gleich (text) and Jelca Kollatsch (photos)
Crocheting in the semi-dark. Sarah sits on an uncushioned chair, Shadia on a bench whose wooden rungs are broken. Chickens peck at their feet in vain for seeds. A musty smell from the box with the guinea pigs dominates the shack. Pale light seeps in through the cracks. It is enough for the two and their nimble fingers to grow a hat and a black top stitch by stitch. Jokes fly back and forth between the two women, they wink and nudge each other.
Two friends chatting? More of a meeting of two worlds. Sarah Uwase came here this morning from the chic lodge that she manages part-time. She is 24, single and sees herself as a fashion entrepreneur. Shadia Uwimana is 32 and has five children who she takes care of alone in this barn, which she has wrested two rooms with tarpaulin walls for. The encounter succeeds. Sympathy is palpable. To Shadia, Sarah is “a member of my family. She gives me work that I enjoy. I can crochet sitting down with no back pain. My hands are fast, it’s like dancing. With that I can feed my children and send them to school.” For Sarah, Shadia is more than just an employee: “An incredibly strong woman. She never gives up, trusts herself to learn everything that is necessary to get her children through. A role model for me!”
Rwandan women have been on the move for 28 years. It was they who, after the genocide of 1994, rebuilt a traumatized society that had been completely destroyed in their relationships. Between 800,000 and a million people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, mostly men, were killed. As a result, women made up an estimated 70 percent of the population. It was and is no longer possible without female participation. The patriarchy is crumbling. Female empowerment has been promoted since the early noughties by President Paul Kagame, who understood he needed active women for economic recovery. The fact that 64 percent of the members of parliament are women, almost twice as many as in the German Bundestag, may also be clever political marketing by an otherwise authoritarian ruler. They are not elected, they were appointed, they are not allowed to decide much. At the same time, however, Rwanda invests far more in education for girls and the empowerment of women than other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rwanda is committed to equal education for young girls
Sarah feels encouraged by Kagame’s course as an entrepreneur. “He takes women seriously. About the women’s quota, 30 percent of jobs in the public sector. He keeps what he promises.” With her fashion brand Wase, she brings bikinis, tops and dresses onto the market. She only employs single moms like Shadia. This is their social commitment. But their designs also catch the eye. They show more skin than is actually allowed in a conservative culture. Too sexy? “No, that’s just my expression of femininity. Women should wear what they want – as long as they feel comfortable with it.”
She can’t live off the sales yet. Earns extra money with small marketing jobs and babysitting for a diplomat. She is also a “self-made woman” in the sense that she does everything herself: create designs, procure yarns, train crocheters, do advertising, supply sales outlets. And she likes to model her creations herself. As she talks, in Shadia’s barn, finger and needle take on a life of their own. Row after row appears by itself. “Passion is the key for me. I believe I can achieve anything as an entrepreneur if I’m passionate about it. I enjoy creating something out of nothing, just with my hands, out of my head.”
She owes her self-confidence, she says, to her mother, Yvette. Her luck was that she grew up in the Congo. She was able to flee there during the genocide. That’s how she survived. She also works with her hands, as a hairdresser. Sarah has been on her own since she was two years old. She had met her husband as a wealthy militiaman. But he turned out to be a drunk, making ends meet with other women. No support could be expected from him. They separated and still managed to finance good schools for Sarah and her two brothers. One morning Sarah visits her in the salon where she works. An energetic, plump 42-year-old girl deftly braids her client’s head while chatting with her daughter. “It was always clear to me how important good degrees are for you,” she says, “I believed that you could learn. You will be successful, no matter what you start.” That’s why she liked to do her hair from morning to night. “And, wasn’t I right?” she asks, laughing. Sarah was able to attend not only primary school, but also a private secondary school. Swimming became her first passion in life. Backstroke, front crawl, breaststroke. She will be in the national squad and has the prospect of a place on the Olympic team. “It wasn’t just a physical workout, it was also a mental one. I’ve learned to aim high and do whatever it takes to achieve them. Discipline! Stay tuned!” A man slowed her down: a sports official embezzled the Olympic tickets. She was frustrated when she learned that roped parties can be more powerful than achievement.
From then on, Sarah concentrated on school. She remembers that her high school had a debating club. “That’s when we girls learned how to speak in public. to express one’s own opinion. To assert ourselves against the boys.” Competing with male competitors was taboo in Rwanda before the genocide. Like equality at all. The authoritarian President Kagame has enshrined it in law. This includes a three-month paid maternity leave, promotion of women in administration. Marital rape – formerly a trivial offense – is severely punished.
Education policy in Rwanda is showing success for equal rights for women
The successes of this policy are impressive. In the “Gender Pay Gap”, an index for unequal pay for the same job, Rwanda is in a good seventh place, well ahead of Germany in eleventh place. The proportion of female students at the universities is one third, and the trend is rising. The national education strategy strives for a 50/50 target in all school types for the future. And in the capital, Kigali, the Akilah Institute trains exclusively female future leaders. The bosses of tomorrow study hotel management, business administration and information technology.
The greater educational opportunities for Rwandan girls and women compared to Africa cannot be explained solely by the genocide and its consequences. So says the sociologist and psychologist Assumpta Mugiranzea, 55. She heads Iriba, a center for the preservation of cultural heritage. Here traditions of oral tradition are combined with modern audiovisual formats in order to commemorate and learn from the catastrophe of the genocide. Assumpta sees historical roots that go back to pre-colonial times as an explanation for the strong position of women: “Back then there were male kings who were young and strong in battle, but inexperienced. Mother queens were assigned to them. They brought goodness and wisdom. So men and women always sat on the throne at the same time.” First the colonial conquerors, followed by white missionaries, all men, promoted a patriarchal culture. Girls didn’t have to go to school because they got married anyway and then ran the household – sentences that were still valid in post-war Germany for a long time.
Today’s report from Rwanda is part of the FR series entitled How Education Changes Lives. Based on this question, the Frankfurter Rundschau, in cooperation with the Zeitenspiegel reportage team, researched a year in twelve countries around the world and talked about people for whom education has enabled them to lead a self-determined life. With their stories, the reporters and photographers want to provide insights into how education can promote personal advancement and also be an important step in the development of entire societies. All texts can be found here.
The series is part of an international project for which a total of eight media in Germany, France and England were selected. The European Journalism Center (EJC) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are funding the eight projects for reporting on the challenge of global development with a total of 900,000 euros. FR
Assumpta Mugiranzea did research on German history. She sees some parallels between the genocides of the Jews and the Tutsi. “Both times these were modern systems. Both genocides were carefully planned, organized and carried out with clear chains of command.” Another similarity is the role of women after this human tragedy. She sees a kind of Rwandan rubble women at work. They don’t have to clear away the rubble of bombed-out houses. But they tried to rebuild broken relationships and ruined trust. “The Tutsi genocide,” she says, “was also so disastrous because it was a ‘genocide close by’. Suddenly, neighbors with whom you had lived for a long time came into the house armed with machetes, killed the man, raped the woman and killed the children in front of her.”
The shock is still palpable. In omnipresent feelings of anxiety, in depression and widespread domestic violence, even in the body language of many people whose faces and gestures signal closure. If trust is the soil on which good relationships thrive, then Rwanda fell into the abyss 28 years ago.
The country seeks support in looking to the future and – another parallel to post-war Germany – in accomplishing an economic miracle. When the corona pandemic hit the country, it was in the midst of an economic boom, with annual growth rates of up to ten percent. In one of the poorest countries in the world, a similarly high proportion of the state budget is invested in education as in Germany. The Ministry of Education’s strategy for girls’ education formulates ambitious goals, but also shows obstacles and hurdles. For example, the fact that girls are more likely than boys to drop out or leave school altogether because their parents force them to do housework, the way to school is long and dangerous, or there are no toilets or hygiene items for menstruation.
Rwanda is not a “women’s wonderland” – but there are still opportunities
Rwanda is not a “women’s wonderland” as some development aid donors would like to believe. But young women are still opening up opportunities that many African women can only dream of. Sarah Uwase is determined to use them. She is sitting cross-legged in an armchair on the terrace of the Eagle View Lodge, with a wide view over the green, hilly cityscape of Kigali. Recordings for an internet video are pending, advertising for a new collection. Two photographers and a sound man scurry around them, microphones are installed, test photos are taken. Sarah, the focal point, seems to be immersed in deep meditation. Only fingers, thread and needle move. “That’s how I calm down,” she says, “my thoughts are organized, new designs come to mind.” A big laugh: “That’s how crochet meditation works.”
The interview for Sarah’s Instagram channel begins. The questions asked about collections, colors and customer requests are not enough for Sarah. She’s keen to talk about why she gives crochet jobs primarily to single moms like Shadia, who supports five children with needlework. Microphones on again, camera is rolling. “My mother raised us children all by herself. I admire her infinitely for that. I got the opportunity to study, to build a business. Now I want to give something back. The women who work for me are strong-willed. They don’t give up, keep at it, learn fast. They often surprise me with complex patterns that they invented themselves. We will continue to develop the project together.” Her surname Uwase means “just like her father”. Sarah never wanted to be like that, and that’s not what the fashion collection should be called. She crossed out the “U”: the Wase brand was born.
In Rwanda, a particularly large number of children grow up without a father. The men perished in the genocide, were imprisoned as perpetrators, and fled abroad. In addition, there are numerous children as a result of rape. In teenage pregnancies — seven percent of women have their first baby before age 19 — the father is often shamefully kept secret, in part because it was preceded by sexual abuse. How do women bear the burden of sole responsibility? How do children orient themselves in such a fatherless society? The catastrophe of genocide casts long shadows across generations. When Sarah speaks of her father, contempt is palpable, but also hurt. “He only calls me when he needs money.” At the same time, she is satisfied that she and her mother have become independent. You are among the many women in the country who have outgrown themselves.
The government’s policy of more emancipation collides with conservative attitudes, according to which the man is still the “chef de la maison”, the master of the house – especially in rural regions. This is shown by sociological studies in which interviews with successful women were conducted and made anonymous. The wife may be a respected politician or a wealthy entrepreneur: at home she still has to cuddle. If she makes more money than he does, she makes sure he doesn’t lose face. For example, by pushing his credit card under the table in the restaurant so that he can officially invite her.
Rwanda: The emancipation of women collides with conservative attitudes
“We women first have to get used to defending our cause aggressively,” says Sarah. She recalls completing a women manager seminar she recently attended. The participants were supposed to present their business idea to a jury, it was about a five-digit dollar sum as start-up aid. “I couldn’t sleep for two weeks beforehand, I was so nervous.” A male jury member managed to throw her off course with the actually irrelevant question about the Rwandan unemployment rate. “After that I just stammered around.” The next presentation will go better, she swore to herself.
Sarah was just talking about target groups, markets and supply chains during the interview. Then an abrupt change of roles. She is supposed to present her latest collection for the photographers. She sets up a jukebox, pulsating Afrobeats echo across the porch, and together with a second model, she gets herself in the mood. The two start dancing. Swaying hips. Catwalk Steps and Spins. Sarah slips into a cream crochet top and brown shorts, posing confidently in front of the camera. model? Manager? For them this is not a contradiction. Both belong to her. Is an expression of the feminine “that we must strengthen in our country”. Without defining exactly what that is, the feminine. In any case, for her, maternal care is part of it, protecting the vulnerable. Sarah is certain that if women in Rwanda had played a decisive role 30 years ago, “the genocide would never have happened”.