Located near the market of Kabeza, Kicukiro, United Deaf Women Cooperative (UDWC) is a beehive of activity as women interlock loops of different materials, operate sewing machines and display finished products at their shop.
One thing that suddenly caught my attention after reaching the place is the absence of audible conversations, which one will usually expect at this kind of a setting that comprises of more than ten people.
Instead, what I could hear and see were unclear sounds and a lot of gestures. It is at this point that I realised neither of the women could talk nor hear.
One of the members offered a chair as she communicates to a gentleman at the shop, who apparently happens to be their interpreter in sign language, as I begun the interviews.
How it started
Before the cooperative came into existence, each of the women were doing business, a thing they say wasn’t easy because of the challenges that they faced.
In 2014, Micheline Nikuze, a member of Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD) decided to partner with other fellow deaf women to form the cooperative, UDWC.
RNUD is a national non- governmental organisation that advocates for equal opportunities for Rwandans with hearing impairments, and for their rights.
Theophile Binama, who works with RNUD, says the organisation offers training in sign language, and knowledge in line with the needs and concerns of the deaf, among others.
According to Nikuze, she wanted to help other women with hearing impairments to make a living while working as a group.
“Previously, we used to work individually, and it was hard to earn a decent living. Most of us lacked money for our upkeep, this was even worse for some of us who have families,” she says.
She continues to narrate that while working as an individual, it wasn’t easy to get customers, and since they are unable to communicate with a person who hears, using sign language is not easy.
These and other challenges inspired the thirty- year -old to form the cooperative, which she says has yielded good results.
Some of their made items on display. Lydia Atieno
What they do
The cooperative boasts of 20 members, in different age groups. 14 of them operate at the shop.
Nikuze explains that some make woolen clothes for babies, table mats and chair covers. They also make luggage and laptop bags, and attires for both men and women, all made from African print.
Some of the women are also visual artists who have made portraits of prominent people in the country.
Additionally, some women have hair dressing skills, and do pedicure and manicure. All of these, according to them, have helped them live independently.
Women share their stories
Beata Musabimana, a mother of four, says that in 2006, after she got her certificate in sewing, she was forced to stay at home and work from there; which made it difficult to get customers.
She says that although she could get little money occasionally, it wasn’t easy to manage taking care of her family, adding that sometimes they had sleepless nights because of hunger.
“Although we were doing small businesses because of the skills we had, it was hard to get reliable customers. This is because we didn’t have a specific place where they can find us in case they needed our services,” she says.
The thirty- four- year old says since she joined the group in 2014, her life has never been the same.
She notes that although the money she is getting isn’t as much, at least they are assured of a meal at the end of the day.
Musabimana also says that, through the cooperative, she has managed to cater for the educational needs of all of her four children who are in primary and secondary schools.
“Before, these achievements could never have happened but I am glad that just like any other person without any disability, I can take care of my family independently without relying on someone,” she says.
Thirty- one- year old Chantal Uwizerimana, another beneficiary, says that since she joined the group in 2015, she has since seen some changes in terms of financial capability.
After losing both parents during the 1994 Genocide against the Tusti, she grew up enduring a lot of discrimination and humiliation from people around her.
Uwizerimana says that after the trainings that she attended in tailoring, she failed to put her skills into practice because she didn’t have a specific place to operate from.
“After joining the cooperative I have found hope to live again. I no longer have depend on my brother, this makes me feel comfortable and gives me hope for a better tomorrow,” she says.
She adds that she has also been able to practice what she loves most and that her knowledge will never go at waste.
One of the members sketches a portrait for a client. Lydia Atieno
Achievements and challenges
Apart from the cooperative just selling their products at the shop, they also take them to different shops including Nakumatt and to expos whenever a chance arises.
Most of them reveal that they have been able to take care of their families, which is a milestone that they have achieved as far as working as a group is concerned.
After one week, the members always save a minimum of Rwf 30, 000, which after a specific period of time, they are able to withdraw and invest.
According to Nikuze, they have also managed to help other young deaf women by teaching them what they do, which has seen a good number of them become independent as well.
Nikuze reveals that although they have been able to achieve much, they experience communication barriers with people that don’t understand sign language and therefore sometimes end up losing customers.
She adds that, on the other hand, they still lack machines for making woolen clothes as the one they have isn’t enough.
This, according to her hinders them from reaching their goals, which is getting as many women in the cooperative as possible. Also, when they are working under orders, it’s difficult to produce a lot of products in a short period of time due to the unavailability of some machines.
Nikuze says, for all they are, they owe it to being pushed by their disability to reach towards achieving their goals.
“It all depends on how disabled people accept their disabilities, I believe it’s also an opportunity and those living in such a situation should use it to make it in life just like other normal people,” she says.
Binama however advises that people have to understand that any person regardless of their disability, can be able to do anything as long as they are empowered and given the skills needed.
He also urges the community to change their perspective on deaf people and begin to not only take them as part of their community but also involve them in different activities, just like other people that do not have disabilities.
For the government and non- governmental organisatsions, he says, when they want to help such people; gathering opinions and views from them is vital, as it helps understand what they really want and hope for.
Women share their views
After getting my training in Butare last year, I failed to get a job or a place to work from. Luckily, early this year I joined the group and the little money I get helps in taking care of my family. Besides, working in a group, has taught how to handle other people.
Chantal Uwizeyimana, member of the cooperative.
With my jobless mother and a young sibling, I have to work hard for them to survive. I am grateful for this group because it has enabled me take care of them. Before it was hard and most of the time we would depend on other people to get what to eat.
Aline Mutesi, 24
Through the cooperative, I now have hope for tomorrow, which wasn’t the case before. We share a lot apart from just work and this helps keep our minds occupied. It also unites us as one and helps us understand how to handle each and everyone in case of any issue.
Gisele Ituze, 26
As a cooperative, we always have photos of what we make on phone and it’s easier to share with customers, especially when they need some orders. This was difficult before we came together. Through the display also, it’s easier to get random customers.
Jeanette Mushimiyimana, cooperative member