Several things strike you on arriving in Rwanda. First there is the heat, which hits you like a wall as you step off the plane. Once clear of the airport the next thing you notice is how clean the streets are. Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda and it shows.
I am here to meet some men and women I first met two years ago, men and women who are part of a joint program between Hand in Hand International and CARE International. The program brings together savings groups and then gives members business training so they can start their own small businesses and work their way out of poverty.
We set off early this morning from our base in Kigali for a three-hour drive to the Kirehe region of Eastern province. As we drove up and down hills and along winding roads it occurred to me that Rwanda is aptly known as the land of 1,000 hills.
Everywhere in the gently rolling countryside you see small homes and villages nestled in amongst lush green vegetation. Although as we headed east and away from Kigali the land became much drier - still lots of hills though.
First we met Gloria. It was like meeting an old friend. Two years ago this formidable woman had expanded her farming business to such an extent she was able to afford a water reservoir and a biogas facility to provide fuel for her stove and light for her home. As we chatted in the shade outside her small one-storey home, she told me that in the past two years the business had expanded even more to include a greenhouse for tomatoes. In other words, she has definitely moved beyond subsistence farming.
When I asked her what difference the income from her business had made to her life she said, "We all eat properly now. We used to only eat beans and bananas but now we have much better nutrition."
Photograph L-R: Ann Dickinson, Gloria and her husband, Geresim (photograph by Georgina Goodwin).
After I said goodbye to Gloria and her husband we drove on to meet Rahabu. I remember her well: she ran the local shop and had big plans for the future. Today, I found her in a new shop. She explained that she had rented the previous shop and felt it was a waste of money, so had been saving hard to build her own shop. It was clear this was her biggest achievement, and she was justly proud of this small but bustling building.
Business had suffered a little because she had been so busy with the build, but Rahabu has already taken the first steps to build the business back up again. For one, she has taken advantage of a government program to develop a nearby valley by growing rice. The first crop is due in December and she plans to invest the estimated 400,000 RWF (US $530) in profit into stock for her shop.
Before we left, Rahabu took us to see her home and to meet her husband who, it turns out, is a thoroughly modern man. They work in a real partnership that sees him help with the cooking and cleaning so she can run the shop. They also work together on the farm. When I said she was lucky to have such a wonderful husband, he replied he was lucky to have met Rahabu. They have been married for 25 years and it was obvious they couldn't be happier.
Photograph: Rahabu (photograph by Georgina Goodwin)
As we left, Rahabu gave us a gift of papayas from her own farm. It is an honour to count Gloria and Rahabu as my friends.
Tomorrow: more travels in Rwanda and a savings group in action.