A lot has changed since last time I was here. This is my first visit to the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center since March. It is also my first trip out of Kigali since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown.
Desks of the neighboring primary school are gathering dust and so are the chairs in the local church. On the highway, police cars can be seen escorting trucks ferrying goods from the port of Dar es Salaam. This is in line with the new regional transport protocol.
Urugo Roadside Café is closed. The roadside gift shops are closed too. The entire center has been closed since late March, with the dairy production unit being the only exception.
I have been covering Urugo entrepreneurs since last year. Their individual journeys have inspired me. After a long confinement, I was looking forward to seeing them again but as mentioned above, a lot has changed since last time I was here. Our social interaction is now limited. Our customary hugs and cheek pecks are replaced by elbow bumps. It’s funny to see elder women doing the elbow bump.
There is no sign of life in the artisans’ workshops. The cultural experiences and the traditional dance spectacles have faded into memories. However, for the first time since March, the center is busy again. About one hundred women are sewing face masks.
The whirring sound of sewing machines is breathing life into the facility that hasn’t seen much activities in months. There are familiar faces in the sewing center. These are young women I have known since last year. I am glad to see them busy again.
There are many other women from other cooperatives outside the center. They are working from the big tent that used to host weddings and other events. The spacious tent enables them to sit at least one meter apart and avoid congestion. They wash their hands frequently. Their machines are sanitized on a daily basis. Their hair is covered and each one of them is wearing a mask.
These women are experienced tailors but producing face masks is something new to them. After a three-day intensive training program, they got down to business. The project, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, is set to produce 40,000 masks in ten days. The masks will be distributed to poor families in Kayonza area and beyond free of charge.
Mukayezu Odette from Mukarange Sector in Kayonza District is grateful for the opportunity to work again. She is a member of a cooperative known as Agakiriro Kayonza. "It hasn’t been easy to find work during these unusual times. I appreciate the efforts made by the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center and Gahaya Links to secure this gig for us. I am also thankful to the Mastercard Foundation for the much-needed financial support." She says.
After successfully completing her skills development program last year, Kabazayirwa Gisele started working at the center. This year looked promising before a dramatic turn of events that culminated in the closure of the center. During the lockdown, she turned her attention to her kitchen garden and other small-scale farming projects. When an opportunity to make masks for the benefit of destitute members of her community presented itself, she grabbed it. "I am proud to be part of this initiative." She says.
The author is visiting all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Kayonza is sponsored by Ikaze Rwanda Tours & Travel, Imigongo Art Center, Silent Hill Hotel, Jambo Beach, Ihema View campsite and Akagera Rhino Lodge.