The humility with which she carries out her duties makes it hard for a first-time visitor to Aspire Rwanda to distinguish between the head of this institution and the lowest level worker.
When I visited, I found a jolly lady playing with children. That is Peace Ruzage, the founder of Aspire Rwanda, an organisation that gives women skills to use locally available resources to better lives.
Born in Rwanda in 1954, Ruzage fled to Kenya with her family where she was a refugee for more than 44 years. She returned to her ancestral home after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi to a country devastated by arguably the worst human tragedy in recent times.
The economy and the social structures had been decimated while poverty was the order of the day in a fractured population.
In addition to a million people killed, hundreds of women struggled to cope with life after rape and hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned.
Amidst the ruin, Ruzage chose to settle in Gisozi, a suburb of Kigali City, from where she internalised the aftermath of the Genocide, especially on women.
Back then, she recalls, there were many jobless widows and single mothers in the area, with no skills to provide for themselves and their children.
It is in the area of skills development that Ruzage found an opportunity to play a role in rebuilding her country.
She then offered women her verandah as a meeting place to share ideas and before long, 300 women were socialising there every day.
She taught them how to make beads from waste paper while Ruzage’s mother helped women to learn how to read and write.
Later when Ruzage crossed paths with social worker Sophie McCann from the UK charity, Network for Africa, the pair joined hands to develop a project that would support women. That is how Aspire Rwanda was born and its doors opened to charity work in 2009.
During the last five years, about 450 women have received training in vocational training and rights awareness.
Shortly after she settled in Rwanda, Ruzage realised that many people had lost hope as a result of trauma and other effects of war and the Genocide. Such people needed inspiration. For one to get inspiration, they however need to aspire to achieve something.
According to Ruzage, her organization evaluates the level of poverty among women from various areas and the poorest of the poor are selected. Every year, about 150 women graduate from Aspire Rwanda with various skills
“Due to the fact that education is the tool to development, we had to put in place a programme where teachers come here and teach these women how to read and write,” she says. Indeed by the time a year ends, most of the women can now read and write.
In order to make it convenient for all the women, Ruzage set up a childcare programme to take care of the children while their mothers attend training sessions. The Childcare centre provides porridge and lunch, malnutrition monitoring, social interaction development and pre-school education.
‘’When a woman is trained, the entire nation is trained,” she says. In order to re-affirm this, Ruzage started teaching vocational skills which involves cookery, handcrafts, agricultural trainings, business skills, English literacy and numeracy.
To ensure a healthy society, peace also decided to offer health-related courses such as family planning, family counselling and group counselling.
In Rutunga sector, Aspire Africa set up an agricultural project aiming at ensuring food security in families.
Ruzage says that one cannot afford to be poor and hungry as that means death. “So, the only way we can prevent that is by working with them in gardens; teach them the best methods of farming. After a year (of training), a woman is fully equipped with the techniques needed to cultivate and get very good yields to feed her family,” she adds.
She however cites land ownership as one factor that limits women from producing enough food, saying research has it that Women produce more than half of the world’s food, yet own only two percent of the land they till.
These inequalities must change, if we ever hope to break the cycle of poverty and hunger in rural areas of the developing world, she says.
‘’When women are given economic opportunities, they make investments that benefit not just themselves but their families and their communities,” she says.
The Rutunga project therefore aims at enhancing women financial advisory services and provide reliable economic opportunities for women, and to ultimately better understand how women help grow rural prosperity so that they can magnify their impact over time.
Umulisa, one of the pioneer graduates of Aspire Rwanda, says that the programme salvaged her from the vivacious circle of poverty that had engulfed her family.
“I had been married for over ten years, and for all those years I had never contributed anything to the family and was just watching my husband hustling to make ends meet,” she says.
The mother of five added that acquiring skills of life would have been the only way she would have been helped, but that she had not also got the chance for any such training.
She said that at times, she sympathized with her husband being the only person to provide for such a big family, but that she could do nothing to help or supplement his efforts.
One day, she said, a friend connected her to a group of women to learn how to make handcraft, mainly basket weaving. It took her three months to learn.
Women who have since acquired skills have managed to come up with a cooperative to collectively benefit from their skills. The cooperative called Tujembere started operating in 2010 with over 130 women with different skills.
The head of the cooperative, Jeanne d`Arc Mukamurerwa, said that coming together helped them in many ways.
Immaculate Banyangiriki, one of the students, says that for a few months she has been at Aspire Rwanda, a lot has changed in her life. “Even if I quit today, I can’t be the same. Aspire has taught me a lot and I am now very positive about life.”
“Before coming here I was a vendor and the highest I earned per day through vending was less than Rwf5, 000 or even nothing on a bad day. Today I can cook different types of food — Chinese, green rice, red rice and yellow rice which I believe very few women out there can do,” Banyangiriki says.
Ruzage says that her organization makes a follow up on their graduate students to ensure they are doing well.