I started a project in October 2016 with the Foxglove Project to document women just forming self-help groups in rural Rwanda, and to follow their journeys through their groups.  These six women live in villages near Nyamagabe, deep in Rwanda’s hilly Southern Province.

Kasebuturanyi is home to Immaculate, Philomene, and Ancille. When I think of Kasebuturanyi, I see the mist like soft silver filling the valleys just before sunrise.  Jeanette, Claudine, and Julienne live in Gakomeye. You can walk the paths around the top of the village and look down on the fish ponds far below, just off the main road.

To me, an outsider, the villages are similar in many respects. Both are situated around the tops of hills above the cultivated slopes and valleys. Both are in stunningly beautiful locations. Both villages are also hard places to live, without electricity and water that must be fetched from far down in the valleys.

I attended self-help group formation events on that first visit. The formation events are run over three days at each village. I photographed the events and, with the assistance of AEE Rwanda staff, chose three women from each village to be representative of a woman’s experience with a Rwandan self-help group. I was familiar with Rwandan villages from previous work, but not enough to understand the subtle signs that distinguish relative wellbeing among the women. The brightly coloured cloths used as wraps might be slightly better on one woman, or another might be in a ragged t-shirt at an event where best clothes are worn.

I was planning to follow three women at the lower end of the economic scale from each village. Through luck and miscommunication with the NGO staff, I started working with three women from each village who represented the range of economic well-being rather than just the poorer women. With hindsight, a good start.

Much as the villages are very similar to an outsider, so were the stories I heard from the women. Their ages ranged from 18 to over 70; some women had husbands, two were raising children alone; two had small livestock; one cared for a cow and had use the manure for fertiliser (I was surprised to learn that manure is the most valuable product of a cow). However, as I wrote up brief biographies from my interviews with the women, I felt I was writing the same story six times over: all (except the eldest) earning an income from casual labouring that might average around one Australian dollar a day, no health cover, and all struggling to meet their basic needs.

I saw hints of uniqueness in my time with the women. Philomene made clay pots for part of her living; Julienne was eight-months pregnant; Ancille, over 70, had greater health challenges; Claudine, with a baby daughter, was struggling to accepted by her family. But it wasn’t until my second visit in September 2017, this time with Kelley, that their individual personalities started to emerge from the bare economic summary of their lives.

A year after that first visit, I was excited to be going again. I knew from contacts with the AEE Rwanda staff that all women were still with their groups, that Julienne had delivered a baby boy and both were doing well. I was also a little apprehensive – would the women welcome another round of photos and interviews. After all, I am a stranger, dropping into their world to photograph (a little to the left please, closer together – ok, just keep doing what you’re doing and try to ignore me), sitting down with a video camera and asking a lot of questions, and then leaving. I couldn’t share what I had done with them, as they have no access to internet; I also couldn’t send back printed photographs as I wanted to make sure that the women I worked with were not seen to be getting an advantage that could then prejudice their position in their groups. I was also six months behind schedule, as I had originally promised to return earlier.

Their reactions ranged from the joyful excitement of Ancille to the taciturn acknowledgement of Philomene. All gave their permission to continue with the project, and all were excited to meet Kelley; another outsider, but an outsider who could talk with them as a woman and a mother.

The women’s individual paths become more apparent as Kelley spoke to them about their experience in the self-help groups. Philomene is establishing relationships with the other women in her group. This is important for her, as she comes from a group that has not always found acceptance within broader Rwandan society. Immaculate was so excited when she received her first loan of 1000 Rwandan Francs (AU$1.50) that she used a fraction of it to buy soap and have a proper wash – soap is often mentioned as an unaffordable essential. Ancille, over 70, now has health insurance and is receiving treatment for her ailments; she says she no longer feels anxious about the future. Julienne – eight months pregnant in 2016 – has a wonderfully robust and inquisitive baby boy named Eric and sees that her dreams might be reachable. Claudine, previously struggling in a bad family situation, is now closer to her mother, Marceline, also in a self-help group and both are working together more.

All the women want to continue working with their groups, and saw value in doing so. More than once we heard that the women had looked down on self-help groups, but could now see their value and were encouraging their friends not in groups to join. This was a level of candidness that wasn’t apparent a year ago, and shows their increasing confidence in speaking for themselves.

I had many photographs of the women working in fields and at home from my previous visit. This visit I wanted to take more formal portraits of the women. My idea was to remove the stereotypical development context of red-dirt houses and field work, and present the women on a par with a formal portrait anywhere in the world. To give the portraits some focus, we asked each woman to bring an object that represented her dream for the near future.

Equipment for a portable studio had consumed most of my checked baggage on my flight over, including 18 square meters of black backdrop cloth. I was within 100g of my luggage allowance. For each village, the first task was to find a space to setup the studio that was large enough, without too much sunlight, and reasonably private to allow the women to relax away from the inevitable crowd of children and onlookers. A nearby school offered a classroom in Gakomeye. It was stuffy with the doors closed, and the windows were filled with children’s faces, although only the stalwarts were still watching by the time we finished.  The shoot went smoothly, and the women posed wonderfully with their objects. Claudine brought a bag of potatoes, representing her dream to sell vegetables at the market rather than digging for a living. Claudine’s mother, Marceline, joined us with her hoe; she wants a field of her own to cultivate. Julienne brought a brick to symbolise the house she wants to own. Jeannette used the savings book to represent the health insurance she can now fall back on to deal with a chronic stomach problem.

Kelley noticed that Jeanette was looking distressed at the end of the shoot. We hadn’t realised that the women had not eaten all day and needed to get home to their one meal for the day. An example of what we just don’t see as outsiders, and a lesson learned.

Near Kasebuturanyi, I set up in a church across a valley or two from the village. It was an excellent space, dim, large, and secluded. The women arrived in the AEE Rwanda 4WD – the church being a long walk from the village – and all had forgotten to bring a prop with them. We improvised as we could. Ancille, who is beyond working age and looking mostly for a life with less anxiety about food and health, wore a crucifix that stood out beautifully against her folded hands. Philomene, wants to open a shop in the village, so we used a basket.

Looking at the portraits afterwards, I felt humbled by the modesty of their dreams; but I realised that my initial idea was flawed. I could not photograph these women as an every-woman, their context and circumstance leap out at me. Maybe though, the portraits showed more deeply who these women are.

I have spoken with many women, and some men, who have benefitted enormously from self-help groups. The material benefits are evident in the form of increased income and access to social services; but, the less tangible benefits of stronger social connections and a sense of belonging are often given equal prominence by self-help group members. Then there are the changes in community attitudes towards women, child rights, and social issues such as HIV. The self-help groups are a vehicle for delivering training to communities, and the local groups decide how to tackle these problems in their own communities. The speed and effectiveness of some of these changes are astonishing.

The self-help group approach works well in the Rwandan setting, and has achieved similar success elsewhere in the world. I hope that this project of documenting women in their personal journeys might promote the self-help group approach and draw the attention of donors – small and large – to self-help groups.

For Immaculate, Philomene, Ancille, Jeanette, Claudine, and Julienne – whose names are now so familiar to me – I am looking forward to following them and sharing their stories over the next couple of years.