Anastasia had lived high in the mountains in a very remote rural area. An hour walk from the local village. And she was glad about that. She was deeply ashamed of her poverty. She was illiterate, dirty, without clothes to go out in public, and one pair of shoes that she would wear once or twice a year. For special occasions. Yet one year after joining a group, her life was incomparable. Her four children were in school, she fed them three meals a day, she had built a home of 42 corrugated iron sheets, had four goats and a cow as well as ran a petit trade business. She was a member of the village leadership group. But her proudest achievement was her shoes. She like shoes. Loved shoes. They kept her feet soft and she was very happy about that.
Now, three years later we were to meet again.
As we drove out of town, high up into the mountains, we were informed that Anastasia no longer lived in the remote mountain location. She had now built a home within the village for her children to attend school and her trading business to grow in the local market. This was surprising news but it didn’t stop there. We arrived at her house to find that she had built a brick home. A large home with 5 rooms. At the back of her dwelling, she housed a cow and calf, a pig waiting to give birth to piglets, rabbits for breeding and chickens running to and fro. There was a vegetable garden and a small planting of cash crops. It was a veritable paradise.
But this economic progress was not what stopped me in my tracks. Instead, as we sat across from each other eagerly talking about her present as well as her future, she said three things that took my breath away.
The first was her introduction to her husband. As he entered the room she declared, “Please meet my husband, the love of my life”. They looked at each other with the most beautiful sense of devotion and pride. Money had not divided this partnership. It had made it stronger and more united.
Anastasia then decided that a tour was in order. She took me through the house, around the backyard and back to the front of her home. Where for the first time I noticed flowers blooming in a garden bed. I rarely see this in Rwanda where land is limited and people use every available plot for agriculture. So I asked her, “Why have you planted flowers?” She responded, “Because they are beautiful. I love beauty. My poverty never allowed me to see the beauty in the world around me.” It reminded me yet again that poverty has many faces and many punishments.
We then settled in the living room to say our goodbyes and for the first time I noticed a single cord hanging from the open rafters. Attached was a light bulb. As I looked at the cord, Anastasia beamed with pride, “I have brought electricity to my home”. I was perplexed. I had never see this. It was a single light in her home but it represented another accomplishment. Another way she has provided for her children who gather around that light each night to complete homework. The look of wonder on her face said a great a deal about her capacity to dream and imagine a very different future from where life had begun.
Four years since joining a Self Help Group might as well be a lifetime. So much has changed. And not only externally. The woman standing before me was touched by love and beauty and wonder.
Now, that’s really worth celebrating this International Women’s Day.