Note – This story can also be viewed – with more information on The Women’s Bakery! – using the link below.
Nestled tightly on a Kigali-bound bus from Kayonza, I grasped my bananas as multiple passengers passed by. The scorching heat was undeniable and unsurprising; even as evening draws near, the Rwandan sun is often relentless. Thank goodness for sunscreen.
I watched as a woman with a purple dress entered and sat in a seat a few rows ahead. Instantly, I realize there was something calming, interesting, and warm about her. I look at my brown paper bag of bananas. At this point, there are just about five other passengers on the bus and so I think, “oh what the heck, let’s share these things.”
I offer each person a banana and they gladly and warmly receive it. Bananas are much like gold here, after all, and so there isn’t a time or place where bananas are not welcome.
This same woman turns towards me and we begin a light conversation in Kinyarwanda. However, as she learned more about me and in turn, The Women’s Bakery, her enthusiasm steadily increased. She explained that she was Flavia, the leader of Kayonza’s co-operative group for women. Raised in Kayonza, her heart beats for the area and for the women around. “Life is hard,” she remarks, “and so I seek to help them to build their livelihoods. Even if it’s a small difference.”
Thrilled, we exchange contact information. I wasn’t sure what the connection would lead to – but I had a sense that I had not seen the last of this woman.
Faithful to her word, Flavia called a few days later and arranged a follow-up meeting in Kigali. She was serious; she wanted more information about The Women’s Bakery. On her own volition and arrangement, Flavia traveled the 2-hour bus ride into Kigali to learn more about our model, our training, and our belief in business as a way to empower, ignite, and transform lives of women. We gulped tea together, and she nodded along as I explained the nature of our phased-program, the training fee cost, the hope for bakery start-ups, and our vision as an organization to have a presence throughout Rwanda (and beyond). “Yes…yes…” she repeated again, and again.
Her particular group in Kayonza includes 30 women who already have some experience in bag-making with banana leaves, but are looking to grow in their vocational capacity. Flavia, too, is a believer in business; this is what drew her in to learn more about our education offerings in the first place. And so, in our discussions, we tried to understand how our program could match with her group and what ‘next steps’ we would need to take.
Just two weeks later, I and Meg, our East African Programs Officer, found ourselves back in Kayonza. This time, however, we were in a red, stuffy room at a children’s educational development center that Flavia had helped initiate and get off the ground. This, in addition, to the other roles she has played as a leader in the Kayonza community; I felt as though the more I learned about Flavia, the more dynamic she appeared to be.
We did talk. We started the conversation.
But don’t be fooled, we danced. Of course. Always, always dancing in Rwanda.
The traditional Rwandan dancing came after our arrival and being introduced to the group of women Flavia helped to organize. Each woman shared their name and their home village. Some came in beautiful fabrics found only in these corners of the world, and as each woman presented themselves, I remembered how each one has a story. Each one has a vision. How humbling and grateful I am to work for an organization that blends these stories together for change. Wow.
We told them of what we do, of the trainings we have completed in other parts of Rwanda and Tanzania, and our vision for women, bread, and business. The women – attentive, excited, and numerous – listened and asked questions. We spoke of the materials for training needed, the kinds of lessons we teach, and the process of what happens after the training is completed. We explained that because of the informational nature of this meeting, our team wanted to better understand if the Kayonza cooperative was ready, compatible, and able to consider seriously entering the process for TWB training.
This is the general process we have as an organization right now – to begin a training, it is important to meet, discuss, share, and negotiate how it would work for each group. Every women’s group that we meet and partner with is different, and the question of commitment and feasibility is always on our minds.
As our team meets with different potential partners, groups, and women, we realize and recognize that the discussions and process are truly a building process. Empowerment, education, and transformational change don’t just happen overnight. It’s a relationship, it’s a discussion, and we were excited to begin those conversations with this specific group in Kayonza. Moving forward will be dependent on numerous variables, largely funding, and yet, the opportunity persists; the need remains. It’s a gap in the world that we are driven by – women’s empowerment – and this group in Kayonza (along with Flavia) was a reminder that because the need remains, we are able to offer opportunity and choice as market-based solutions. That, we believe, is bread power.
Our woman of the week is Flavia.
Flavia, a leader who is seeking, eyes opened wide, for access and opportunity for her women’s group. Demonstrating what strong advocacy looks like, the conversation for a potential group match would never have begun if she had not initiated the initially small, light-hearted discussion a few weeks back on that sun-soaked bus.
As an organization, we appreciate women like Flavia, as these are the women who are changing, renewing, and innovating their communities – more and more, we hope with bread. Because who doesn’t love a good loaf, right?