in Mutaho, Burundi:
Rema (Have Courage)--The Mutaho Widows Group
By Adrien Niyongabo
One of the
legacies from the interethnic killings that occurred in Mutaho is the
number of widows and orphans, both Hutu and Tutsi. The Friends
Church, one of the most inclusive churches in that area, has had to face
the challenge of supporting these members. In a country that is among
the four poorest in the world, even the married people are hardly able
to cover their family’s basic needs. Burundi’s economy is
doing poorly. The wage of a whole days work would is barely 1,500Fbu
($1.25) for unskilled construction workers and maybe only 500FBu ($0.41)
per day to cultivate someone’s field.
The main concern the Friends Church wanted to respond to was bringing
psychological support to the widows. In a patriarchal society like that
of Burundi, widows tend to be ignored and looked down at. Pastor Sara
Gakobwa, responsible for Mutaho Monthly Meeting, had the courage to gather
the widows from her church and start sharing-listening sessions on Saturdays.
The main activities were singing, preaching and praying.
In one of the pastoral meetings that are organized by the Burundi Yearly
Meeting, Pastor Sara, the only female pastor in the Burundi Yearly Meeting,
presented the request of supporting war widows who are so numerous in
most churches. She explained that these widows were struggling to feed
their families, to send their children to school, to access health care,
to rebuild their homes, and so on. Later on, relatives of some Friends
missionaries who were in the country at the time sent her some money
for the care of widows. Pastor Sara did not keep it for only the Mutaho
Church widows; she shared it with five different monthly meetings in
the area so that each one got $20. They used the money to start various
project but it did not go very far. Beside the singing and preaching
sessions, the group was able to cultivate a plot that had been offered
by the church. But the return was not very significant because they could
not afford to buy the fertilizers.
The Mutaho Widows Group, called Rema (“Have Courage!”) kept
up their weekly gatherings. In 2003-2004, when HROC workshops were conducted
in the area, the first women to be invited were impressed and reported
to the group that every one should try to attend these workshops. Pastor
Sara made a specific request for the widows to be given a chance to attend
these healing workshops. It would have been hard for HROC to only invite
the widows in the workshop. The whole community was and still is in a
critical need of healing. After a number of workshops, the Mutaho Widows
Group reported to HROC-Burundi that it had been easy for them to do a
follow up since they were already meeting weekly to support each other.
It was from those follow-up meetings that they finally made an appeal
to HROC-Burundi asking for financial support so that they could run an
income generating activity. Their suggestion was to raise goats.
Twenty goats were purchased for the forty-six widows. One goat was given
to two women, one often a Hutu and the other a Tutsi. Since the Hutu
lived in the countryside, the Hutu usually kept the goat and the Tutsi
woman would go visit her Hutu partner to see who the goat was doing.
Then when the goat gave birth to a female kid and it was big enough,
it was given to the second person. Again when this goat gives birth to
a female, it is given to another woman. So soon all the women will have
goats. The significance of the goat is that when the manure is used on
the field, the yield is easily doubled or tripled. This goats’ project
allowed the widows to lessen their daily suffering.
The group became more tightly knit and known by the community to the
point that other women joined them. The Mutaho Widows Group wants to
have a cooperative. Their plan is to build a conference room that could
be rented to people for seminars and workshops, rooms for guests to stay
overnight, storage for crops harvested, and a small store to serve the
neighborhood, which currently has no such store. The project aims to
help widows be self-sufficient as they are the head of the family. Through
AGLI, F(f)riends in Oregon and in Olympia, Washington contributed funds
to launch the Mutaho Widows Cooperative construction. The hope is to
finish the construction by the end of this year and then to open the
store soon thereafter.
I am a member of Rema, Mutaho Widows Group. I am really thankful for
what has been done since we started our association. You have been very
supportive towards us, you gave us goats, and the goats are doing very
well, and that has been very helpful. You have also been coming to support
us, that shows the love and care that you have, and now you are helping
us to build a storage area where we can put our harvest. You remember
that last year our beans were stolen because we did not have anywhere
to store them, so we look forward to having a safe place to store them
Mutaho is an area that witnessed the war first hand, and it left some
of us widows. During war, life becomes very tough. Normally the head
of a family is a man, but in his absence the woman becomes head of the
family. Things no longer go as you wish. That was the situation with
me. I need to look after the children, to provide whatever is needed
but I cannot do it as one person. I find myself incapable of being successful
in the two roles as mother and father, leaving me to watch hopelessly
at what is happening. We have to pay school fees for the children, to
buy clothes for them and ourselves. Sometimes we struggle to find a way.
Also sometimes our houses fall down and we need to rebuild them, but
to rebuild a house as a widow is a terribly difficult thing.
We are comforted when we are with other members of the association, but
once we are home and face all the challenges I mentioned, the sorrow
comes back. What can one do? You’re all by yourself, waiting on
God to do a miracle and provide the things you’re looking for.
So I am really thankful to Rema for the help they gave me, such as the
goat I received. I cannot afford buying manure to fertilize my fields,
but now I can provide it from the goat, which will help me feed my family.
More important is our weekly gathering. We meet and share about our life
and comfort one another. That’s really important. I like how our
Rema members work together. We grow beans and potatoes and such together,
and when we harvest them we share some of the harvest and keep the other
part for next season. That also instructs us in how to plan for our own
activities; not just to eat everything we harvest but just be sure that
next season we have seeds.
Do you see any future for Rema? Yes, for example the new building will
help us increase our harvest. If we keep the harvest safe, it will help
generate some cash. It will also be used to house some other projects
to generate income that will be shared among us.
Could you tell us about your family life? I am thankful my kids understand
our situation which we’re in. I lost my husband and two of our
kids died, now I have two daughters and one son. The youngest is in 5th
grade, and the two others are now at home. It’s terrible I could
not afford to pay for school for even one child, so at one point they
had to drop out. But she went back because of the government decision
to make primary school free.
We widows have many sorrows. I remember when my neighbors refused to
help me rebuild my house. But then they changed and they bought me some
tiles, but they broke and so when it rains now the roof leaks.
And since during
the war many bad things happened to me, when I remember my husband
or my two kids who died, it makes me sad but we have to carry
on. I still have hope. I have hope that one day I will have a good house
for me and my kids. I have hope that someday I will buy clothes so that
my children will have a second set. It’s hard to see your child
in only one set of clothes all the time when other kids can change. I
also hope we will be able to have enough food for our families.