TEN YEARS AGO, John Nzabarantuma was a casual labourer on neighbours’ farms, earning wages so meagre that he could not sufficiently provide for his family.
The 45-year-old father of five spent more than 20 years in the same life, tilling people’s land for a living, and the highest wage he ever earned from this tedious work was Rwf600 per day.
“The proceeds from the hard labour could not even feed my children let alone providing them basic needs such as education or healthcare,” he recalled.
But he refused to resign to fate. “I was poor but I had always had art inside me; I believed I was able to do various handicrafts but I had never gotten opportunity to try it,” he says.
In 2004, he joined Coopavu (Cooperative pour la promotion des artisans de volcans–‘Cooperative to promote volcanoe artisans’) that deals in artisan products from wood and stones.
The cooperative, with more than 70 members, was borne after Sabyinyo Community Livelihoods Association (Sacola) started engaging area residents to take part in activities that make them direct beneficiaries of tourism activities around the area, home to the rare mountain gorillas.
It also helps communities around the park to initiate development activities that will improve their livelihoods, without endangering the gorillas or other species in the park.
More than 50,000 residents of Kinigi and Nyange sectors of Musanze District are now both direct and indirect beneficiaries of tourism in the area through Sacola.
The doors to Nzabarantuma’s life had closed for years, but he had not yet suffocated in that house as he toiled his way. So in the artisan initiative, the window to his life had finally opened.
Nzabarantuma says in the world of art, he saw the opportunity of finally making a breakthrough in his long-held dream of unleashing his artisan skills.
“When I joined Coopavu, I started by keenly observing what other artists were doing. I knew I would make it and indeed three months later I started making my own products,” Nzabarantuma said.
He says since then life has changed for the better.
Through making wooden products and curving stones to make gorilla-like artifacts, which have gained popularity among tourists visiting the area, he started accumulating more money.
He makes traditional dishes, sticks of different shapes with gorilla shapes at the top, and also curves volcanic rocks to make different products.
According to Nzabarantuma, a gorilla-shaped artwork from a volcanic rock costs more than Rwf50,000 and they are sold off immediately to tourists.
“My products attract many clients, for example it takes me just a few hours to make a traditional dish and sell it at Rwf6,000, a stick costs between Rwf3,000 and Rwf5,000, and making them gets much and much easier with the growing experience,” Nzabarantuma says.
From these earnings, Nzabarantuma says, he can now save more than Rwf80,000 per month.
“Life in my household has changed for the better, I feed my children, buy health insurance and send them to school with all scholastic materials,” he said.
As a member of the cooperative, after selling his products, he pays 15 per cent of the proceeds to the cooperative.
Other members also say they have benefited a lot from community tourism attractions.
Leonidas Hatumimana, a 34-year-old father of three, says: “I used to do farming which fetched me so little income because of shortage of land, but having joined this cooperative, I can apply fertilisers on my small farm on which I employ other people and the produce is good.”
As part of community-based tourism in Musanze District, there are various activities that benefit the community.
According to Celestin Nsengiyumva, the president of Sacola, besides artisans, the cooperative has members who engage in other activities like brewing traditional beer and cooking traditional food which tourists enjoy.
Sacola also played a role in the anti-thatched housing campaign in the district, donating 2,600 iron sheets to 130 vulnerable and historically marginalised families that in the area.
The organisation also works closely with former poachers, some of whom have since turned into game park warders, while others are serving as guards against illegal harvesting of resources in the park.