How women on Gihaya Island are ‘paddling’ their way out of poverty

There’s a light breeze at the shores of Lake Kivu. I am at Gihaya Island in Rusizi District, and the women I encounter at the shore are the epitome of diligence.

On their canoes, they traverse the lake, grinding and paddling all day as they transport passengers, attend to tourists and other times; carry out fishing which they procced to sell on the market. 

Some are sole breadwinners of their families, whereas others were unfortunate to grow up in households infested by poverty something that limited their chances to a better livelihood.

The women are grateful for the women empowerment drive. Photos by Viviane Irabizi.

However, these women are determined to write their own destiny, to use whatever little resources they have to change their present and the future of their children.

Take Jeanette Nyiranzayisenga, for example. She lost her parents at the age of 12, and from then on she had no option but to fend for her survival. 

It’s been over twenty years since she started canoeing at the waters of Lake Kivu, and Nyiranzayisenga says this has been the only way she has managed to cater for herself and her young siblings.

Women traverse the lake in search of a better livelihood.

Even after she got married, the 38-year-old says that earnings from canoeing have helped her a great deal in supporting her family.

With her boat, Nyiranzayisenga says she does her best to attend to as many tourists as possible because this is how she makes good money.

 “I wake up early in the morning and go to the Lake. I make sure I do enough tours such that I get enough money. I earn enough money to support me and my family, and because I have witnessed how this has transformed my life I encourage other women to join,” she says.

At times she ventures into fishing where she gets some to feed her family and sell others on the market. Nyiranzayisenga prides in the fact that she can save over 2000 rwf a week yet her kids manage to attend school without worrying over school fees.

She appreciates the drive for women empowerment highlighting that it is the only way they (her and other women who ventured into canoeing) got the courage to undertake this field that is male-dominated field. 

30-year-old Laurence Mukagatare from Gihaya cell, Gihundwe sector in Rusizi District, shares a similar story. 

She testifies that through canoeing, her life and that of her family have been transformed for the better. And with this she refers to ‘canoeing’ as the path that has led to her destiny.

A stride towards gender equality 

In an interview with the New Times, Ephrem Kayumba, Mayor of Rusizi District applauds the women’s efforts of getting out of the comfort zone and venture into such activities.

He notes that this not only develops women and their families but the entire society at large.

Kayumba notes and appreciates how gender balance has advanced and with this he deeply pays his appreciation towards these women’s diligent hands for the remarkable job being done.

Jean de Dieu Nsengiyaremwe, Nyiranzayisenga’s husband appreciates his wife for the contribution she makes for the development of their family.

“Ever since my wife started canoeing, our livelihood has improved as a family. And right now, I can see the bright future of our family and this is as a result of my wife’s initiative,” Nsengiyaremwe says. 

Michel Habimana a resident of Gihaya Island says he has witnessed these women engage with canoeing and that their determination inspires him.

He says that when these women come together, especially when they form various groups, they learn a lot of things and access information that helps them to lead prosperous lives.

“I believe such initiatives have helped in reducing population growth in Gihaya Island. More women have now embraced concepts such as family planning; this is possible through the interactions they hold from their women associations,” Habimana says.

Improved livelihoods

According to Emma Marie Mukawera, canoeing doesn’t only help her to earn money, but also it is a form of sport she does that keeps her healthy.

She also says that canoeing has become a deep part of her life that she doesn’t even plan to quit. 

41-year-old Beatrice Mukashyaka, says she nolonger feels guilty for not affording her children’s school fees anymore because she can now earn a living through canoeing.

“I no longer feel guilty about not providing needs to my children. Life was really hard at first, I was alone and I used to cry alone because of the state I was in. I was so poor I could barely afford anything, but I am grateful that this has since changed,” she narrates.

Mukashyaka is now proud to say that she can see how bright the future of her children is.

What is the best way of improving rural women’s livelihoods?  

What they need is efficient training on financial issues, because with such skills they can find means of survival and also take care of their families. 

Moreen Sanyu, Administrator

They should be encouraged to join cooperatives because this way, they will have access to relevant information from their mates. It could be information on how to access loans or some other thing that could foster their development.

Lillian Mutesi, Cashier

They should be equipped with the knowledge about their rights. Regardless of the rights that support women, some of them don’t know what they are and this at times makes them victims of violence and abuse. 

Ismail Itinywe, Stylist 

Sensitise both men and women about the relevance of working together as a couple. What some of these women need is proper understanding from their partners where they can plan together, and fostering such unity prevents vices such as gender based violence.

Emmanuel Kanobana, Therapist

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