Rwandan Women

Sarah Cobb

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

In this project in Rwanda there were three groups that had been funded by UNHCR and they wanted some kind of an evaluation done on the groups. So I went and met with the people. In one group there had been about 350 widows to the genocide that had formed an agricultural co-op that had gone on to do unbelievably interesting things including the development of a craft enterprise, a school for the children, they built something for grain and seed storage, and they were then training women in other communities. The women were just electrified, laughing and talking about building houses with pants on and showing me how even though they had on skirts they could walk up and down ladders. It was a quality of joy and possibility in this group that was just phenomenal. They had a lot of success besides the stories that they told about themselves, which were that they had overcome incredible hardship and have come together as a group and respected each other across these ethnic lines. They did it because they didn t have any choice. And they did it because it was the right thing to do. They benefited economically. 

There was another group that had gotten money from UNHCR and they had started a bottle co-op. They had collected bottles from all around and stored them in this shed that they built. They had been able to purchase these things that you carry the bottles in. Somebody broke into the shed and stole everything. They sat in front of me saying that they have had incredible hardship. Thank God somebody paid attention and tried to help us, but now the bad people have come and we have been victims all along. We are always going to be the victims. 

There was a third group of men and women of about 300. They had money from UNHCR to develop a sunflower press enterprise. So they had land that they were working on collaboratively as co-op and they worked like dogs. The land wasn t so great. They didn t have all the right things they needed like fertilizer and stuff. They managed to do an okay job but the UNHCR didn t deliver the press in time and the crop couldn t be processed properly. They couldn t get the product to market and the whole thing was a fiasco. They blamed UNHCR for this. This is again a story of an enormous amount of suffering but there wasn t a story of coming together. There wasn t a story of mutual respect. There wasn t a story of mourning together. There was a pragmatic count of what they had needed that they hadn t had. I asked all three groups what happened in the genocide? 

The third group said there was incredible poverty that then led to people needing to take control. They did that because they wanted money so the genocide was caused by power, but fueled by greed. I would then ask what s going on now? Well you know we aren t really sure and clearly nobody s thinking about us. Again we ended up with a story about victimization. Second group said well people went insane. Why did they go insane? We don t know. This is the bottle group. We can t make any sense of it. We watched our children and fathers die. We don t have any ways of understanding that. How does that relate to what s going on now? Well, it could happen again. We don t understand anything. The first group said that there was an enormous amount of poverty and ignorance. Then what happened? After poverty and ignorance people got terribly afraid. They were afraid over a period of years and they got more and more and more afraid. Then they became angry but they weren t really angry they were just really afraid. So the genocide happened because of fear. So how does that relate to now? Well, we are fighting fear, we teach the children how to do skills, we have a craft thing, we have an agricultural thing, we do training of other women, we are empowering people, and we are working to reduce fear. 

When I reported back to UNHCR it was really clear. The question is whether or not the group had that story in place before they got the money in the first place. You give all three groups money, they land in the context of the given story of what s going on and then it s no surprise that the money ends up following the story, not transforming the story. I think that s what happened in the first group was a combination of things. I asked them how did their group form? We had the possibility of a grant so we came together to see what would happen and how we could do things. This is just what they all said. But this group said in addition to that that they realized they didn t know each other. Then we realized we had so much suffering in common. We spent the first period of time just mourning. None of the other groups did that. I came away from this with a fundamental interest in thinking about mourning processes. I wrote to UNHCR that they should design mourning processes. They should in some way facilitate, not require, the possibility of groups mourning as a function or as a part of them becoming funded. I think this should be written into the projects.