Each woman’s journey in the self-help groups is unique.
Philomene’s journey perhaps lies further from the norm. When I first visited Philomene’s village, I was told by the NGO that it was settled by “historically forest peoples”. Only later did I realise that odd form of words meant the Twa people. Ethnicity is very sensitive in Rwanda, and officially is not recognised. However, it does help explain Philomene’s situation and perspective. “Historically forest people” are often not trusted and considered beggars and thieves.
On the face of it, after a year in self-help groups, Philomene has not enjoyed the material progress of the other women; but she is building relationships with the women, and with those relationships, mutual acceptance.
I met Philomene in 2016 through her young daughter Ishemwe, whom I photographed carrying water - in a green watering can instead of the usual yellow jerry can – up from the valley below the village. It was luck that Ishemwe’s mother was also one of the women joining a self-help group.
Philomene is a potter, making traditional water and cooking pots using techniques that would be centuries old. It is increasingly difficult for her sell her pots as Rwanda modernises and people use metal and plastic instead, although everyone says that beans taste better cooked in a traditional pot. Philomene will make up to five pots at a time, the making and firing taking one or two days. Each pot sells for around 120 Rwf and she needs at minimum 500 Rwf (less than seventy U.S. cents) a day just to feed her family. When not making pots, she seeks casual labouring work and sells the firewood her husband collects from the disappearing forests. With her husband and three children, she lives in a one room house.
Philomene first heard about self-help groups on her radio. Most women from her background avoid the self-help groups. In her words, they “look at [self-help groups] like they are away from you.” But Philomene joined, hoping that her family “could lead a healthier life, a clean life, a modern life like other people.” In common with the other women, she hoped that through the groups she would be given livestock, but she feared that because of who she was she would not be trusted.
When I met her again in 2017, Philomene was still making pots and struggling to sell them, and it appeared that not much had changed materially. When asked what stood out from the self-help group training, she replied “I loved how they told us to love each other [in the group]. People were not living in harmony before, we did not love one another.” This training is bearing some fruit, “Today I feel very good about the other women, because today I can walk into someone’s home and ask for something that I don’t have, like salt, or soap to wash my feet, or something to eat if I haven’t cooked for dinner.”
Philomene now talks to other women like her about the self-help groups, encouraging them to not think of the groups as “away from you.”
She dreams of operating a shop in the village that will sell small items, including the colourful cloths worn by the women. She can see that she has not materially progressed as much as other women in her group, but still finds optimism in the better relationships and connections she is building.
Maybe by next year, that social growth will have translated into material improvement.