Kula Project: Eradicating Poverty Through Business
- Sarah Buchanan-Sasson, Co-Founder Kula
EXACTLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO…
…Rwanda was in the middle of a one hundred day period where almost one million women, men, and children were brutally slaughtered. We know it as the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. In Rwanda, it’s referred to as “94.”
For the average Westerner, that’s the only thing we know about Rwanda. I remember the first time I traveled to Rwanda in 2013, there was this feeling of extreme adventure, like I was doing something crazy that most people I know would never do. Rwanda would be a wild place of death and destruction, and I ran a list of terrible things in my mind that I might see or that could possibly happen to me. Then, I actually got there.
Most flights coming from Europe, you connect flying from the US, and land at night. The first thing you notice as you’re landing is what looks like a million fireflies outside of your window, the lights from the homes scattered across Rwanda’s thousand hills twinkling. Driving through the beautifully landscaped streets lined with cobblestone sidewalks, your assumptions of what this country would be start to fall, one by one. If you’ve traveled through other developing nations, one of the first things you notice is the amount of trash outside, but in Rwanda, there isn’t any, and when you finally notice it, your mind goes back to the flight attendant mentioning something about making sure to leave your plastic bags on board. Then, your taxi driver will tell you with pride that Rwanda was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags. It’s the first to do a lot of things.
SINCE THAT FIRST TRIP IN 2013…
…I’ve been to Rwanda almost twenty-five times. From 2014 to 2018, I spent almost half my time there. I’m the founder of Kula, a non-profit eradicating poverty through the development on entrepreneurs. We run a 15-month business fellowship that provides industry training, life and leadership skills, and business investment. Our goal is that when our fellows graduate our program, they will have the skills, knowledge, and assets they need to build profitable businesses that can support their dreams for themselves and their families. Working solely in Rwanda, mostly with women, we’ve found tremendous success there. And it’s not because of us, it’s because of them. The women we work with sometimes mention the genocide, and when they do, it’s more in a context of time. Similar to B.C. and A.D., they say “before 94” and “after 94”, because that’s when everything changed.
We spend a lot of time with a woman named Vestine. We’ve been working with her since 2015, and she’s become not just a beneficiary of our work, but an amazing friend with whom we’ve shared a lot of laughs and our fair share of Fanta. Vestine is fierce and incredibly strong, both physically and in spirit. One afternoon while leaving her house, I noticed a pile of rubble thirty feet down the hill from her home, and I asked her what it was. She said, “That was my house before ‘94. I keep it there to remind myself when I get tired of what I’ve already overcome.”
Vestine fled to Eastern Congo during the genocide after her family was killed. She was in her early twenties and made it to a refugee camp where she would stay for two years. There, she met a handsome man named Augustine. Augustine’s wife and daughter were killed before he was able to get them out, and over a couple years, he and Vestine fell in love.
…she was showing us her wedding photos, and I noticed that they were married in a United Nations refugee camp tent. I asked how she got it, and she said it wasn’t theirs, it belonged to the camp. She went on to explain that she was able to find a dress, and that’s where they were married.
Vestine’s life after ‘94 has been a series of tragedy and hardship, but nothing to her is an excuse. She has two beautiful children now, but she’s had seven miscarriages. She developed a heart disease that has caused lung problems, only to be lessened by medicine that is very expensive. Because of that, they had to choose between sending their youngest daughter, Valentine, to school or keeping Vestine alive with medicine. Before having to dropout of school, Valentine told us she wanted to study to be a doctor that specializes in fertility to help prevent other women from going through what her mother has. This is a common choice in rural areas, and that’s why we work there. Our hope is that, through our fellowship, Vestine will be able to earn the income she needs to maintain her health and lay the groundwork for a life of opportunity for her kids. In July, her daughter Valentine will enroll at our women’s center. She said her new goal is to start a hair salon in the village, and we’re confident we can help her do that. If she’s anything like her mom, we know she will make it happen. Rwanda is a place full of people making it happen.
In twenty-five years, Rwanda has built something beautiful out of devastating ashes. It’s one of the world’s largest contributors of peacekeepers, and the best example on earth of what forgiveness can do. Over sixty percent of Rwanda’s government is female, putting it at number one in the world. It’s a privilege to get to work in this place with its people. Rwanda has invited us into this story of redemption, and we constantly feel undeserving, but it’s the honor of a lifetime.