Last week, I delivered construction materials to my relatives in Gisozi Sector in Kigali. When I got to the house, the workers were at it, but what caught my attention the most was a woman clad in safety gear busy painting walls. I later found out that her name was Jeanne Uwamahoro.
Construction work has typically been a male-dominated field for years. However, Uwamahoro did not let this stop her from immersing her energy in this industry. She has been working as a house painter for 10 years now.
The 35-year-old single mother of four was born in Nyamirambo Sector in Nyarugenge District. She now stays in Kigese Cell of Rugarika Sector in Kamonyi District in Southern Province, and recently completed her own house using the money she makes painting houses in Kigali.
Uwamahoro dropped out of Nyamata High School in 2005 after being impregnated. At the time she was in the first term of Senior Three.
According to official figures, some 17,000 girls aged between 16 and 19 years carried unwanted pregnancies in Rwanda in 2016 alone. Many of them dropped out of school as a result.
After giving birth, Uwamahoro decided to go back to school but this time, to a vocational training centre in Gikondo, Kicukiro District, called CEFORMI, which is under the Anglican Church of Rwanda/Kigali Diocese.
She pursued a welding and painting course and was the only woman in a class of about 40 students.
“I concentrated more on painting as welding seemed too demanding for women. Of course, I can do it, but there are people out there who do not believe in the ability of women to perform tasks commonly done by men,” she says.
In 2007, Uwamahoro got married and got three other children. Unfortunately, her husband left her in 2013 for another woman.
“Life was becoming hard; I had to work hard to find money to cater for my children. I managed to get small jobs here and there and some clients were good to me and would connect me to other people because I was good at what I do,” she says.
Uwamahoro’s first-born is in secondary school now, while the rest are in primary and nursery school levels.
“Painting allows me to pay school fees for my kids and we have never missed a meal since I was left alone with them. Although it is not yet fully furnished, I now live in my own house which I built from the money I earn from this work,” she adds.
Uwamahoro is proud that she has undertaken painting jobs for many prominent people.
“The national football team goalkeeper, Eric Ndayishimiye (popularly known as Bakame), is a former classmate of mine. I painted his home and he connected me to other celebrities. I have also done some painting jobs for many politicians,” she says.
Uwamahoro only knows three other women that are doing the same job, but is quick to add that working on big projects or with a big firm is always tricky for them.
“We are always left out when it comes to big projects. Most people do not believe that we can do what men can do. Big firms do not give painting jobs to women, arguing that we lack strength. But that is nonsense. The person who has seen and admired your work is the only one who will help you get the next job,” she adds.
Uwamahoro saves up to Rwf50,000 a month when jobs are consistent.
At the construction site in Gisozi, Uwamahoro was working with a man. She says, “I gave him a job on my site to get the job done faster because tomorrow he might have a job offer too and invite me over,’ she says.
“All the men I’ve worked with often offer me jobs because they realise that I’m good at this,” she adds.
The painter points out some of the challenges she faces.
“I once worked for a married man in Kicukiro. The wife quarrelled with him, saying the reason he picked me to paint the house was because I am a woman. I ended up being fired by the woman because she was jealous,” she says.
Uwamahoro says sometimes she is called to correct painting jobs previously done by men because she is known for perfection.
Uwamahoro says she always tries to get training from different paint-making firms in Rwanda to upgrade her skills.
“We formerly mainly relied on a roller for painting, but some of the foreigners employed here have since introduced painting machines. I need training on using these machines and, maybe, one day, I’ll buy my own. Machines accomplish the job faster, although most of my clients prefer the old model,” she says.