When women found life under bamboo in Masaka

Marie Liberathe Musengimana completed her A-Level studies at Groupe Scolaire APR in Kabuga-Rusororo in 2011.
Bamboo dining set. Moses Opobo
Bamboo dining set. Moses Opobo

Marie Liberathe Musengimana completed her A-Level studies at Groupe Scolaire APR in Kabuga-Rusororo in 2011.

Like many school leavers however, she soon found herself stuck at her parents’ home, with little else to do other than house work.

One day, in early 2012, she heard of a free training course in bamboo furniture making and cultivation. She immediately applied for a place and admitted a few weeks late. Unknown to her, she was venturing into a whole new world –that of bamboo.

The facilitator of the project, the China Aid Bamboo Project in Rwanda took Musengimana to the project’s Business Incubation Center in Masaka, where she joined the rest of the bamboo class.

The center basically functions as the project’s production line; a bamboo factory of sorts, where a range of authentic bamboo products are rolled out; from the rich, hand-made pieces of furniture (chairs, desks, beds, sofas, book shelves etc), to the smaller and finer articles like bamboo toothpicks, skewers, mats, curtains, flower vases, and fruit trays.

When we visited the project’s workshop on a Wednesday morning, it was the usual familiar sounds of drilling and cutting and smoothing and pounding of hammers that greeted us. The trainees, girls mostly, sat meekly around their Chinese instructors, learning particular tasks through observation, while others took on tasks they had already been trained in. 

They were all at various stages of assembling a piece of furniture like chopping up the wood stalks to bits, smoothing, and nailing.

Talking a break from assembling a small bamboo chair, Musengimana tells me: “I have learnt many things since I joined this center in 2012, but I am still learning. I can make chairs, tables, and stools of different sizes and models.” On average, it takes her two days to complete a fine piece, depending on the availability of the requisite workshop tools.   

“The most basic tools we use are compressors for nailing, smoothing planes, and drilling machines,” she says.

Having gone through all the basic drills in handling and processing bamboo, Musengimana is today more of an employee than a trainee. “I earn a commission from each of the pieces that I make,” she says proudly, in part explanation of why she is still at the center.

The other reason for her long stay at the incubation center is because she is yet to gather sufficient financial capacity to set herself up in business. The basic workshop tools that she will need to start with (compressors, smoothing planes, drilling machines) require some frugal saving from her modest income before she can eventually start her own furniture workshop.

The workshop sessions themselves are a sight to behold. A few minutes into my tour of the facility, it became evident that there was a language barrier between most of the trainees, who speak just Kinyarwanda, and the Chinese instructors, most of who speak only their native Chinese.

Somehow, communication goes on, to facilitate the teaching and learning process. The instructors rely more on nuance and body language to teach –even sign language where need be.

It is for this reason that Liu Yanqing, who acted as my guide, later stated her official position as the project’s “work and daily life translator.” Because she is fluent in English (and is learning Kinyarwanda fast), Liu acts as the central link between the two sides of the language divide.

For this reason, she spends a good part of her working day around the facility. So great is the desire to break the language and cultural divide, that Yanqing recently adopted the more easy-sounding “Joy Liu” as her new name.

“China Aid bamboo Project in Rwanda was started in February 2009,” explained Liu, adding that the program has had three different phases since its inception. “The first phase was February 2009-February 2011, the second was February 2011-February 2012, and the third one is February 2013-February 2015.”

She adds that each of the phases sets out to achieve specific goals: “In the first phase, the strategic target was to train the technical persons and to help alleviate the problem of unemployment among locals, especially the women. The program prepares them to become the technical training instructors and entrepreneurs in the following years. The program also takes advantage of the abundantly available local resources to teach bamboo processing technology, so as to make a contribution to the local export economy.”

Bamboo planting technology covers areas such as: bamboo nursery management, bamboo breeding, bamboo forest planting and management, bamboo cutting technology, while bamboo furniture processing technology includes basic training in things like bamboo cutting, and weaving.

Trainees for bamboo cultivation have to learn bamboo breeding, management, and cutting technology, while the trainees for processing have to learn to make at least two bamboo products, including the bamboo basket, bamboo chair, bamboo bed, bamboo sofa, and bamboo toothpicks.

“The first phase involved construction of a bamboo planting base (6 hectares), including Arundinaria Alpine for 3 hectares, Bambusa Vulgaris, and local bamboo species for (another 3 hectares).”

The second phase sought to address the issue of environmental and economic sustainability, explains Liu:

“We realized that to have sustainable development of the bamboo industry, on the one hand, you have to make a contribution to the countryside GDP, and on the other side, to help ease the crisis of soil erosion.”

For this purpose, the project imported three different bamboo species from China. Apart from timber-use bamboo, two other varieties, one with dense foliage, and another with far reaching roots were introduced to check run-off soil erosion.

As of now, most of the project’s field activities and beneficiaries are in Musanze, Northern Province, which has the most favorable soils for bamboo growth.

“In 2009 we planted 6,000 bamboo trees in Nyamagabe, which effectively protected the soil and improved safety for the people there. In Kabuye, we have a bamboo park of about 300 hectares with 4,500 bamboo trees, including Bambusa Bvulgaris, Arundinaria Alpine, Dendrocalamus strictus (Roxb.) and Nees.

Musanze has many bamboo farmers. Most of the bamboo in Kigali and Southern Province is not good for furniture because it is not straight, and the branches are very low.

Some facts about bamboo

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world. Botanically, it is actually a grass and not a tree. It grows rapidly and matures in 3-5 years.

Bamboo has been found to be a critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It produces 30% more oxygen than trees. Bamboo does not need to be replanted as it is self generating and can be harvested every three to five years.

Bamboo is flexible and lightweight, and actually stronger than most hardwoods. It is also more affordable than wood as it is easy to grow and one of the cheapest construction materials around. 

It can be used as a construction substitute for any sort of wood. It is common to find items like bicycles and bike helmets made of bamboo, because of its light weight and durability. The many uses of bamboo make it perfect for fencing, flooring, building posts and house walls.

The roots reduce rain run-off and has proven to be a very valuable weapon in the prevention of soil erosion in many parts of the world because of its extensive root system and large canopy. Bamboo works on greatly reducing rain run-off and preventing soil erosion, and helps control water pollution because of its high nitrogen content.

It is one of the most eco-friendly plants due to its versatile short growing cycle (it is harvested every three to five years as opposed to the 20 to 50 years of its wood counterparts), and its yield per year is about 20 times higher, sometimes more than timber.

Houses properly constructed using bamboo can sway back and forth during an earthquake, reducing the risk of damage.

Bamboo can sustainably provide building materials and edible products for many years or even decades. Its versatility of use outmatches most tree species.

 

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