by Chrissie Mulindabigwi

Chrissie served in Rwanda (2002-2015) and works with the Inkuru Nziza churches of Rwanda. She visits regularly with her husband, Jano, and son, Mugabo.

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. This vibrant, compact country in the heart of Africa, the smallest in East Africa, 26,338km2, is densely populated by its nearly 13 million people. The genocide of 1994 left large scars. Many women suddenly became the main providers and grandparents were left to support their orphaned grandchildren.

‘We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again.’ – President Paul Kagame

Women in the Inkuru Nziza churches wanted to be able to provide for their families and support the local church. To meet this need, the vocational training centres (VTC) were started.

Most women have not completed secondary school and many have never attended school at all. Traditionally, the boys would have received an education, while the girls were expected to stay and help at home. Repeatedly, the women said they wanted to learn and asked for help to make small business cooperatives. However, these ventures often struggled as they lacked the literacy and business skills to manage them. It was obvious that many women and girls in the local communities desperately needed financial help for school fees, food and household items. With the proverb ‘teach a man to fish and you teach him for life’ in mind, we realised that instead of providing loans for small businesses, it would be more beneficial to teach the women practical skills. Then having the ability to provide for their families would lead to a greater sense of dignity. The vision for the vocational training centres was born.

Hope as Dignity is Restored

As the local women learn a marketable skill, they are given the opportunity to flourish. In each small facility, between 15 to 20 women anticipate that, through learning to sew, they will be able to transform their life and the lives of their families. There are 16 vocational training centres spread over the country. The women and girls, and a few men too, learn the theory and practice of tailoring over a 12-month period. For their final exam they are given the fabric to sew a new item of clothing for themselves, which includes pockets, hems, zips, shoulder pads and collars. After successfully completing the test, they will gain their certificate.

As I visit the centres, their concentration is visible, shoulders taut as they practise until they can complete the task; you can see the delight in their beaming faces at their success. This is grass-roots ministry, giving a hand-up instead of a handout. In the south, one older woman was so excited that she could now provide for her grandchildren that she gave me a small basket containing eggs in appreciation. Another VTC has started a cooperative in the local market, where the women are able to use the space to sell and sew. It’s amazing what can happen when people have the support they need and know they are believed in. ‘She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future’ (Pr. 31:25).

Hope as Lives are Transformed

Transformation does not stop with the woman but continues into her home, with the family and children benefiting. It is visible as tatty shorts are mended and school uniforms are adjusted, again, but more than this, complexions become clearer as the children have better hygiene and are able to eat nutritional food. One woman proudly informed me that now their area needs to pay a higher tier health insurance, as their economy has improved. In 2017, 84% of Rwandans paid into Mutuelle de Santé, the local health insurance, which the VTC women are encouraged to do. Life expectancy is changing across the country, increasing from 49 years in 2000, to 69 years by 2021. ‘In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish…who through faith are shielded by God’s power’ (1 Pet. 1:3).

It’s amazing what can happen when people have the support they need and know they are believed in

Hope as Communities Advance

Hope is infectious and it affects the local area. On the Island of Nkombo, fishing was the income for over 90% of the community. However, after the earthquake of 2008, the local people realised the need to learn additional ways to make a living. They established a VTC and when the women graduate, lots of little eyes can be seen looking through the wooden slats. The vibrant patterns of fabric swirl as the women dance; their joy and hope evident. In another centre, the women bought a gift of several thermos flasks for the church to say thank you to God for the ability to learn these new skills. As they received they gave back, recognising that the vision for transformation came from the local church. ‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland’ (Isa. 43:19).

Rwanda has a 20/20 vision plan, with both vocational training and literacy listed as being needed for communities to move forward. ‘Made in Rwanda’ is proudly displayed on items either tailored or locally sourced, as the country seeks to become more self-sufficient. While the churches were closed due to new government building regulations, 14 out of the 16 centres were able to continue with their studying. In the south the main church door was padlocked, but at the rear the door was open for the VTC.

Hope is Gospel Focused

The VTCs are salt and light in the community. This is impacting the local church as more women and their families are coming to faith. At a centre near the rain forest, there was a baptism service for women who have become Christians through learning at the centre. Each day of learning always starts with a prayer before the official training begins. Some of the VTCs have added a programme called ‘Why wait’, which is about Christian life and values and some now offer the Alpha course. The gospel transforms lives by transforming hearts first.

The father of a Muslim girl told me that he had been hesitant to send his daughter to a church-based centre. However, due to lack of funds for her to finish secondary education, he agreed, as he wanted her to learn a skill. He is now grateful to the church and delighted that she has a full-time job as a seamstress. He occasionally comes to the church services. ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Mic. 6:8).

Each church with a VTC has noticed the congregation has grown numerically and that giving has also increased. In many rural churches, people give from what they have grown, be it wheat, corn or beans.

Hope to Cherish a Desire

The women can continue to learn once the tailoring course is completed. Many of the VTCs have a knitting machine, enabling the quicker production of cardigans, jumpers and ponchos; this is particularly popular in the cooler mountainous northwest region. One of the churches is linked with a compassion project where the women make school jumpers for the children. Centres with electricity also teach machine embroidery and how to create elaborate African patterns. Near the larger cities, customers tend to want modern items made, whereas in the countryside the need is more often to mend and repair.

The vocational training centres are equipping women with skills that are gradually transforming communities. We give thanks that, through learning to sew, women are coming to a saving knowledge of their Creator.