The Rural Women of Rwanda

I’ve visited Rwanda two times in one year, and both times I was able to explore different rural areas where the people work the land, carry their water, and provide for their children from the time they wake until the time they go to sleep at night. The women of Rwanda were especially impressive to me because they flourish even while living in financial poverty.

There is no birth control distributed in Rwanda, so the abundance of children is present in every area of the country. 

When a woman has a baby, she straps it on her back and resumes her work, whether it’s gathering firewood to cook for her family, gathering branches and grass to feed her pig or goat, or selling fruits or potatoes which she carries on her head. Often she walks many miles a day to deliver her products to the market, collect water from a well, or work in the field. When her children are able to walk, they are taught to gather firewood, grass for the animals, and carry the water jug to the well. I saw children as young as three years old walking by themselves along the main road with an armful of firewood. Other times, they were carrying a newborn baby on their back while carrying a sack of potatoes. The children are often the ones who must get the water each day from the well, which may be three miles from their home. Often, they are left alone all day while their parents work in the fields. Unfortunately, many children do not know their fathers, either because they have left or died. 

Many women work in the rice fields where they stand in the muddy water up to their knees while gathering rice all day long. The tea plantations in Nyungwe Forest are filled with women bent over and carefully selecting only the smallest leaves from the tea plants and placing them on a large basket on her head. 

At the end of the day, each woman walks to a weighing station to have the leaves weighed and recorded so she can be paid a small sum at the end of the week based on the amount of tea she harvested.

Charcoal is a valuable fuel for cooking, and I saw it being made at Nyungwe Forest. Women (and men) gather large logs and bind them. They bury the logs in hot ashes and wait for them to burn into charcoal. Once cooled, they’re wrapped in a mesh bag and carried on people's heads to sell on the road or in the market. At Lake Kivu, at the Rwanda and Congo border, women wait for the men to bring in the small fish from their boats so they can lay them out on mats to dry. Once they are dried, the mat is balanced on a woman's head, and she walks to the road or the village in hopes that she can sell them. In the markets, women sit on the ground scrubbing potatoes to sell.

Some are shelling beans, and others are weighing potatoes and bananas while their children play with rocks and sticks.

For these women, work is required for the survival of their families. I can’t imagine they don’t complain occasionally about sore backs, hungry bellies, crying children, and aching feet. But for most of these rural women, this life is all they know. Their children don’t know what it’s like to be rich with a full belly and television. They’re content with a stick and some rocks to play with their friends, and the women laugh together and help each other in times of need. I certainly came home with a new appreciation of the conveniences I have, and for the food on my table. I left a part of my heart with these women in Rwandan, and my hope is that more resources are provided to help them. It’s a special place with beautiful people, and I promise to return, and to be one of those who helps provide those resources.

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