Every year at the end of January, my family and I host about twenty visitors from Europe for a period of at least three weeks. They spend most of their time touring the many beautiful sites in Rwanda. As the time to host our guests approached, we decided to add a little beauty to our home.
“Let’s buy some flower vases as they will create a new look and feel,” Moesha Teta, my elder sister suggested.
I was unanimously appointed as the one to go shop for these vases. One fine morning, I embarked on the task. It was not long before I realised how rare these items were, as three hours later, I still had nothing to show for my search.
I was on my last leg and was just about to give up when a vendor suggested that I try some place in Kacyiru, a place neither he nor I knew, but I decided to look for it nonetheless.
My search led me down a steep slope. In the distance were groups of people, dotted all over a wide expanse of land. My search had finally borne fruit for right before me were potters, working effortlessly.
The product of their labour was evident all around. The potters were organised in cooperatives and as I moved from one co-op to another, I could not help but marvel at the possibility of moulding clay into such beautiful products.
There is a wide range of products, including, household decoration items in the form of animals, flower vases, cooking pots and cooking stoves among others.
Everything was very good to look at, and the effort and dedication to this activity is unquestionable. I could not help but wonder what difference this engagement was making in the lives of these potters and their dependants.
“Ever since we decided to engage in this activity, life has never been the same. Initially many of us were very poor but today we earn monthly salaries,” Jean Paul Rugemangabo, President of their cooperative said.
Salima Mukantwari, aged 44 and a mother of six is also a member of this cooperative and attests to the fact that this activity has changed her life completely.
“I would never have been able to meet the basic needs of life, if it was not for my skills in pottery. Today, my children are healthy and in school,” she narrates.
According to Rugemangabo, the art of moulding clay into anything artistic is a gift of nature but with practice anyone can master it.
“Since time in memorial, our great grandparents were known as ‘people of clay’. We therefore take after them and that is why to date, we are famous for this skill,” he adds.
After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the government encouraged every Rwandan to work hard and fight poverty, so as a means of answering this call, these gifted potters decided to mould products for sale. Most of them reside in areas of Kibaza, a suburb of Kigali and mine the clay from nearby swamps.
“At first it was not easy because immediately after the genocide almost every Rwandan was poor and all we did was peddling products on the streets and sell them for as low as Rwf100 or Rwf300. The activity however got better with the establishment of these cooperatives,” Asumani Rwamirera, another member says.
He also advises that Rwandans can kick out poverty if they struggle to earn income out of what they are good at adding that, it is the only way everyone can contribute to the country’s development.
Supporting organisations have also boosted these cooperatives. The Canadian Embassy for example funded the construction of their premises while the Ministry of Local government has supported them financially.
In the cooperative, the early risers start work at about 6:30 in the morning with a prayer session. The group of 46 members comprises of 29 women and only 17 men.
Rugemangabo attributes their perfect work to the fact that they practice division of labour.
“Each person has a speciality when it comes to pottery.”
Some build or mould the clay into a figure that we propose, others add design to it and finally the others ensure that it is smoked in the oven to produce a final product,” he explains.
After selling, the cooperative’s management banks 10 percent of the income and at the end of the month, members of the cooperative are paid salaries ranging from Rwf20, 000 to Rwf50, 000 depending on what role each one plays.
Apparently, all members have paid their health insurance and some have constructed houses that they rent out to complement their income. Despite their excellence at the activity, Rugemangabo cites major challenge.
“We do not have cars to transport these finished products to the market. Most of our buyers are those that take time to drive to this swampy place,” he says.
Alphonsine Mukanyubahiro also emphasises the lack of unique machines and paint that is used to produce state-of-the-art pottery.
Infact, Rwandans will not need to import clay products like cups, plates, vases and sculptures among others from countries like China and European countries if efforts are made to boost the local pottery business.