AS FAR as life in a refugee camp goes, Sifa Maritine has seen it all. She fled the fighting between the Interahamwe and Mai Mai militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1997.
Her first stop was the border town of Gisenyi, before moving to Mudende. Thereafter, the American Refugee Committee (ARC) moved Maritine and other refugees to the Gihembe Refugee Camp in Byumba, Northern Province, where she still stays to this day. That makes it 17 years for her as a refugee.
The first years presented mixed fortunes for her – on the one hand, she was happy to be safe from the rampant abuse meted out on her and other women during the conflict, while on the other hand, life in the camp was anything but ideal.
It was not until the American Refugee Committee brought in some personnel to teach the camp dwellers about the benefits of forming cooperatives that things started to look up for her.
Enrolled members were given Rwf 2,500 each as start-up, from which the savings and cooperative culture in the camp evolved. Members could make contributions of between Rwf500-1000 every day. After a year, each member got Rwf 30,000 as interest on their deposits, to help with household needs.
For her part, Maritine used part of this money to start selling small stock in the camp. And she has never looked back since.
In May 2013, encouraged by the emerging savings and cooperative culture among the refugee community, the ARC launched a programme dubbed Refugee Women in Agriculture for Rural Development – REWARD at the Gihembe camp.
With some funding from the UN agency, UNWOMEN, the project sought to economically empower refugee women affected by HIV/AIDS in the camp, as well as to boost their nutritional intake. Hence the process to kick-start and promote medium-scale commercial agriculture was set in motion.
First, 1.5 hectares of fertile land was identified in the camp for cultivation. This land was fenced off and specially reserved for the REWARD project.
With the participation of camp leaders and the line Ministry for Refugee Affairs and Disaster Management (MIDIMAR), the identified land was designated for 2 sub-project activities:
Fruit cultivation (passion fruit and plums), and mushroom growing. This was followed by land preparation works including 1st and 2nd plowing, chemical and natural manure application, fruit plants sowing and cultivation, and daily maintenance works.
When I visited the REWARD project in Gihembe camp on a recent Wednesday mid-morning, there was little activity going on, with a few of the project beneficiaries huddled together in a group in front of their small liaison office.
I was informed that some of the members had gone to the camp’s nutrition centre for their weekly ration of food supplements. On the farm, there was little activity, with just a few of the women doing some pruning on the passion fruit plants. The women harvest the passion fruit every Tuesday, which is the busiest day for them.
After harvest, the baskets of fruit are taken to the adjacent farm house, which has a room specially dedicated to farm produce. Seventy percent of the harvest is then designated for sale, most of it in the nearby Byumba trading center, while the rest is shared among beneficiaries for their domestic consumption.
Earlier, I had wondered how such a project would thrive in the midst of impoverished camp dwellers, but my visit to the farm put my fears to rest; not only is it fenced off using barbed wire; it is also tended by guard dogs to keep intruders at bay.
The land, though fertile, is divided in radical terraces, with extension bands to prevent erosion and to allow water/soil humidity conservation especially during the dry season.
Furthermore, the women planted 370 agro-forestry trees (Alnus and bamboo) surrounding the project land to prevent soil erosion.
Adjacent to the fruit farm are two mushroom shelters, where I find about six of the women at work.
Maritine tells me that mushrooms were a natural choice for the project on account of their nutritional value, and their high demand on the market. What’s more, the mushrooms can be ready for harvest just seven days after planting. The passion fruit is equally good for their nutritive value, and the fertile soils and abundant rainfall in Byumba were just the perfect catalyst.
As chairperson of the women’s farming cooperative, Maritine has to see to it that good agricultural and business practices and cohesion thrive in the group. She also constantly engages other camp dwellers, especially women, on the power of ibimina (cooperatives).
Furaha Mutesi, another coop member had this to say: “I used to know that opening a business is about having something ready to sell, sit and wait for clients, close the business when it’s a bit late evening whatever money you made that day it is your money and the business will close if you can’t have more money to order stock.”
However, she still remembers the words of encouragement she got from one of the cooperative members: “With this project I learnt a lot about business management, customer care, and the basics of record keeping.”
The association boasts a modest three-room office facing the mushroom enclosures, with the first room used as office space/meeting room for members, while the second room serves as a harvest store. A third room is used as a store for farm materials and equipment.
To further hone their farming skills, the women benefit from periodic field trips to some of the country’s renown agriculturalists – names like Sina Gerard’s Enterprise Urwibutso, at Nyirangarama, and the Kigali Farms’ mushroom project in Byumba.
All of the above have contributed to the establishment of the association Ubuzima Bunoze (Good Health). The association members have benefited from training and support programs in financial literacy, association, and business management, and have obtained official registration at the district level as well as their own bank account.
The association has a leadership structure composed of 3 committees, each with defined responsibilities: the Executive committee (5 members); Auditing committee (3 members), and the disciplinary committee (3 members).
Later in the afternoon when we visit Maritine’s home, it easily stands out in the camp squalor for its relative neatness. It is one of the few houses with wall ‘paint’, and by paint I mean red and white clay soil used to cover the bricks. The house, though small, looks functional and home-like, with a living room, and two bed rooms – one for Maritine and her husband, and another for the couple’s two children. Her home is more of a meeting point for camp women and some of the older girls, both those in the cooperative and the rest.