February 19, 2013

Sewing a Hopeful Future for Rwanda

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Studying abroad can be one of the most transformational times in the college experience. That was certainly true for students who traveled to Rwanda during May term of 2012, and the impact of that trip has created change that still resonates with students and those they met.

The course, Kwizera: Restorative Justice, Healing, and Hope in Rwanda, was an extension of a first year seminar entitled, Amahoro: Genocide, Justice, and Peace in Rwanda, taught by sociology professor Melissa Embser-Herbert. The aim was to explore the landscape of Rwandan culture and restorative justice efforts following the genocide in the early 1990s, and to help students develop skills and friendships beyond what a classroom could offer.

Between 1990 and 1994, genocide carried out by military and paramilitary groups killed at least 800,000 people, one-seventh of that country’s population. However, in most cases the perpetrators were ordinary people—neighbors and co-workers of the victims. As an extraordinary example of how people have come together following those horrific events, Hamline students visited a village where both perpetrators and survivors of the violence lived together. Students listened to the stories of the people there and realized they had created a peaceful community together.

“Language is inadequate to characterize the kinds of things one experiences in that setting,” Embser-Herbert said.

Seeing first-hand how the people of Rwanda survived and moved on after such a devastating period in their history was an emotional and enlightening experience in itself. However, it was during an excursion in the town of Musanze that the lives of the students from Minnesota and women from Rwanda became solidly intertwined. In the marketplace, student Angela Mehr met a woman who was working on a sewing machine with her baby strapped to her back. Through a translator Mehr learned that Umuregwa Beatrice Safina crafted traditional African clothing and baskets with a group of about ten other women. Safina had to rent a sewing machine, at a cost of half her total earnings, because she could not afford to save up to buy her own.

“The price for a new sewing machine was $120. I was floored,” Mehr said. “My cell phone bill for one month is about $120. Look at the difference in our lives.”

Despite that difference, Mehr began to see the similarities between them too. Safina was doing what she needed to for her family and to take care of her children. Mehr thought of the difficulties of Safina's life, and about the huge difference the small amount of money could make for her.

“The second day I was there I just thought, ‘I don't know, I just love this woman and I want to do something to help her,’” Mehr said. “The advantages that I have been given versus the advantages she has are drastically different.” 


Mehr had heard about local associations of women having success in raising enough money to help their communities. These associations collaborated with tourist guides in an effort to bring in more costumers. The additional revenue was then used for community projects, such as building an elementary school. At first, the women who worked with Safina were not very taken by the idea of starting an association, but after a few visits the idea took hold. Mehr saw her chance to make a real difference. Recently, an international ATM network had been set up in Rwanda, Mehr found her way to one, and withdrew the required funds to purchase a sewing machine for Safina. She brought the money back later that day, when there were fewer people around. As one would expect, the transaction of the money was extremely emotional, with tears of happiness from both parties.

Mehr was glad she could help, but felt called to do even more. She had previously received a grant for an independent research proposal that she had submitted as part of an anthropology class. Mehr had intended to use the $100 to hire an interpreter to interview survivors of the violence in Rwanda in order to learn how it affected them. However, due to the sensitivity of the subject matter Mehr intended to research during her brief visit, her professor advised that if she couldn't find a way to make her proposal pan out, she should donate the money to an organization there instead. Now Mehr she believed there was a better purpose for that money. She decided to buy a sewing machine for another woman she had met in Safina’s sewing group. The group was on the bus, heading back to Kigali, but they made one last stop in Musanze to allow Mehr to give the money for the second sewing machine to Safina. Understandably, Safina couldn't express her thanks enough, but attempted to show gratitude through making Mehr a traditional African dress.

Since then, Mehr has been working to start a nonprofit called Begin which she hopes will provide women in Rwanda with the beginning steps towards a more fulfilling life. Money raised will be used to purchase sewing machines that will allow the women to build capital and a better life. Mehr is currently crafting a mission statement and purpose for the 501 (c) 3. If you are interested in learning more about the organization, you can contact Mehr through her blog or Facebook page.

“This was, I think, a life changing moment for Angela,” Embser-Herbert said. “The study abroad trip to Rwanda created the space for her ideas to flourish. Sometimes the smallest ideas can make the biggest difference.”

Another idea born out of this trip that aims to make a big difference is a scholarship program created by Embser-Herbert and Kari Richtsmeier, director of Hamline’s International and Off-Campus Programs Office. The scholarship would allow one Rwandan girl to attend Hamline University for four years, with tuition and room and board covered. The girl would be chosen from the Gashora Girls Academy, a group visited during the trip abroad. The money for the girl's room and board would have to be raised, and the project is still in its preliminary stages. You can find out more about the project on Facebook, and through future updates on Hamline’s website.

To read more about the student’s amazing experiences in Rwanda, visit their blog.