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Stories from Rwanda: Solange

by Shannon Riesenfeld March 15, 2017

Stories from Rwanda: Solange

In 2015 I traveled to Kigali, Rwanda for the first time as an Ambassador with Noonday Collection. Our purpose was to visit a group of 17 ladies who are seamstresses in a co-op called "Umucyo" (in Kinyarwandan that means "Light").  On that first trip to Rwanda we spent time getting to know each woman and learning more about how they create beautiful bags using traditional foot pedal sewing machines. They graciously invited us into their homes and shared their stories with us. The Umucyo Sewing Cooperative now sews accessories for Mango + Main and we are honored to partner with them to support their goals and dreams! This is just one of the many stories from the trip to Kigali in 2015.

She sat patiently while all of her friends had their nails painted and their hair done.  Content to go last, Solange didn't seem to mind the wait.  The Umucyo ladies had arrived at the salon early in the morning wearing their favorite outfits.  They were surprised to learn that we were treating them to manicures, pedicures, and hair treatments, and then eating lunch together at a nearby restaurant!




Our knees were nearly touching as we sat across from each other.  Without a common language to speak, the best we could do when the translator walked away was speak the universal language: smiles and laughter. I playfully picked up one of Solange's hands and pretended that I was giving her a manicure, imitating the aestheticians next to me.

 photos by Jennifer Jensen

She giggled and leaned on her friend Serapia next to her, and then gently pulled her hand away from mine.  Looking up for someone to translate, she began to explain, "My wrist was broken many years ago."

Immediately I apologized if I had hurt her, to which she waved her arm in dismissal.  The room grew silent and time seemed to stop as she continued her story.  "It was the genocide.  They were running after me and I fell to the ground."  Solange held out both arms and made a motion to show how she braced for impact with her hands. "I didn't see the cliff there and I fell.  There were many of us running from them.  I lay on the ground for a long time and hid.  So my wrist stayed in this position and healed like that.  It still hurts sometimes and it's hard for me to sew."  Not sure what to say, I took both of her hands in mine and kissed her left wrist, wishing it to be healed.

photo by Sarah Ling

As we traveled through Rwanda, I tried to remember that every single person we encountered was impacted in some way by the genocide in 1994.  Anyone over the age of 21 was alive then.  Many have relocated from the surrounding countries of Tanzania, Uganda, DRC, Burundi, or Kenya where their families fled: either during the 1959 genocide or 1994.

Oh, so much hurt in one place... and so much healing.  What we saw in the faces of the Umucyo women was not sorrow, but JOY and HOPE!  Many of them were single mothers and several had taken in children who lost their parents.  They are strong, determined women who often travel over an hour each way to the sewing co-op, taking multiple buses to get there.

Never a complaint on their lips, always gratitude.

Solange: "I am so thankful for for this job. Before, my kids suffered so much from hunger and I could not pay school fees for all of them. Now because I am earning, they are well fed and they are all in school."

Mary Sunshine: "I want to tell you that we can thank God and wish you to continue praying so that we may continue with this job.... And we have this vision to increase (hire) more ladies."

Bella: "I am thankful to be here.  I really needed this job."

Friends, if you've ever purchased a bag, apron, or laptop sleeve from Mango + Main, this gratitude is for you!!  Every time we make a clothing or accessory purchase, we can choose to use our money to make a difference in someone's life.  Not by giving a handout, but by empowering women who are using their skills and talents to create something by hand to sustain their families.

photos by Sarah Ling




Shannon Riesenfeld
Shannon Riesenfeld

Author

Fair trade enthusiast, artisan advocate, and mom of 4 living in Annapolis, Maryland. I love traveling the world, meeting new people, and learning about different cultures... but when I'm at home you can find me biking the trails or kayaking on the river with my kids!


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