Beyond coffee: How a Rwandan co-op united women after the genocide

GAKENKE DISTRICT, Rwanda -- The sound began softly, with just one voice. Then, as the women stood shoulder to shoulder at the drying table sorting coffee beans, another joined in. Then another. And another.

The voices of young women with babies on their backs joined those of older women, their deeply lined faces a testament to the lives they’ve lived, and what they’ve lived through.

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Their voices built upon each other, blending into a powerful, united melody as they worked.

"Ayi ayi yehe, nasanze morare ariyo yambere! Ngo niyo waba ubabaye ariko ufite morare, nasanze morare ariyo yambere. Ngo niyo waba uhinga ariko ufite morare, nasanze morare ariyo yambere. Ngo niyo waba ushonze ariko ufite morare, nasanze morare ariyo yambere." Even when you are sad, hungry or you don't have much, try to focus on the positive and have a good attitude, they sang.

Many of the women walk upwards of an hour to get to the co-op each day.

This is the Hingakawa coffee co-op, more than 500 women strong, located in the mountainous region of the Gakenke District. Each year, the women bring the coffee they’ve grown to the co-op to be sorted, dried and then sold. As a group, they make business decisions, negotiate for the best prices and support each other. Here, at Hingakawa, they know that they are strongest together.

Women of Hingakawa sort coffee after it's been washed, before it goes to the drying beds.
Once the coffee is washed, it's spread out onto tables to be dried by the sun. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
Women in Rwanda have power, said Colette, past president of the Hingakwa co-op. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
After the genocide, with many of the men dead or in prison, women learned how to grow coffee as a way to provide for their families.

It wasn’t always this way.

“When Hingakawa started after the genocide, we were facing poverty. There were people whose husbands had been killed – widowed women due to the genocide – and there were women whose husbands were jailed (for participating). We needed something that could help us meet,” said Colette,* a founding member and past president of the co-op.

Twenty-five years ago, Rwanda was torn apart during a genocide that began on April 7, 1994 and lasted 100 days. Hutu extremists, the country’s largest ethnic group, killed more than a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, who had tried to intervene. It was a time when neighbors turned against neighbor and the rivers ran red with blood.

One million people killed and multitudes of others gravely injured, both in body and spirit. It’s a number so vast that it’s hard to fathom.

It can only truly be grasped one story at a time, multiplied exponentially. Each of those who were killed left behind husbands, wives, children, parents, best friends – all now grieving the irreplaceable person who was their world.

Everyone in Rwanda of a certain age has a story. But how do you live with a story like that? Is it possible to forgive? Is it possible to trust again? And how do you stand, singing, next to a person whose family may have harmed or killed yours?

The answer – or at least one answer – is being lived out by Genevieve and Vestine*, one Hutu and one Tutsi, and the other women who comprise Hingakawa. These women are at the heart of the new documentary short, “Hingakawa,” by Starbucks Productions. Its theatrical debut is April 11 at the Sarasota Film Festival.

Genevieve (left) and Vestine were once on the opposites sides of the genocide and each experienced heartbreak in very different ways. Today, they are best friends.

‘The worst happened’

It’s impossible to truly understand what the genocide against the Tutsi was like, unless you lived through it, said Colette. It’s impossible to really grasp what it was like to see your family killed with machetes and to know the terror of being hunted. It’s impossible to know how to return to life again in a community cleaved from any illusion of safety.

“The worst happened in Rwanda. It’s as simple as that,” said Dr. Geraldine Mukeshimana, the minister of agriculture and animal resources in Rwanda.

But how a divided country slowly began to find its way back together again – maybe that’s possible to begin to understand, a lesson needed the world over.

"The origins of war are diverse. There are wars of people fighting for power, fighting for religion, there are many reasons for people to be in conflict." - former Hingakawa president Colette

The genocide officially began with an airplane crash. Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was in a plane that was shot down the night of April 6, 1994. Tension had been building for years between Hutus and Tutsis, the two largest ethnic groups in Rwanda.

The divide can be traced back to 1919, when Belgian colonists arrived in Rwanda and created ID cards which identified people by their ethnicities. The colonists considered Tutsis, whom traditionally were cattle herders, to be above Hutus, whom were known as farmers, and provided the Tutsis with more economic opportunities. In 1959, during a Hutu revolt against the colonial rule, thousands of Tutsis were killed. After Rwanda became independent from Belgium in 1962, Hutus took power. As years went on, some Tutsis who had fled to Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by a man named Paul Kagame; they planned to eventually come back to Rwanda to overthrow Habyarimana.

When Habyarimana’s plane went down on that day in April, Hutus blamed the Tutsi. Tutsis said it was Hutus looking for a reason to trigger what came next. To this day, the true cause of the crash isn’t entirely clear.

Vestine washes clothes at home. When soap is available, laundry day takes priority as fabric is precious in rural Rwanda.

Vestine was 15 then and, living in a rural area, didn’t know anything about what was going on. She was walking home from school that day when a man walked up to her, slapped her and said, “The life of the Tutsi is in danger today. Now that you have killed Habyarimana, you will die too.” She didn’t understand. “I didn’t even know what a Tutsi was,” she said. “I just knew that I was like other people. We were the same.”

But not anymore.

A few days later, spurred by messages on the radio telling Hutus to “kill the cockroaches,” local Hutus came with machetes. Her family fled into the forest. They would hide in the day and after the sun went down, would try to find food. “The night was my daytime,” she said.  

Genevieve, with her two daughters, sits outside the kitchen of their home peeling potatoes for dinner.

Not far away, but seemingly worlds away, Genevieve, a Hutu who was seven years older and married, was waiting in the dark for her husband to return.

As a Hutu, he was out with other men looting the property of those who had been killed. Back then, if you were asked to join other Hutus and refused, you were viewed as suspicious. She feared each night that he’d be killed, she said. And she didn’t understand why the Tutsi were being hunted.

“They were the kind of sociable people we played with. I did not see them the way people described them,” she said. “… The fact that a person hunted another one and yet they bleed the same blood, this worried me.”

Genevieve in the doorway of her home.

A few weeks after the genocide began, Vestine and her family were tricked into going home, believing they’d be given materials to rebuild their house. Instead, she saw her family killed before her eyes. She remembers it all. The machetes. Her brothers begging for their lives. Her mother being hit in the head with a club.

She ran away, was caught and beaten and ran away again. Today, a scar maps her cheek where she was struck, over and over. “I am the only one who survived, just as you see me,” said Vestine, now 40. “I am a lone survivor.”

Vestine in the doorway of her home.

A tentative friendship forms

The genocide ended in July of 1994, when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front took control. Millions of Hutus fled Rwanda. The 100 days of killing were over. 

It wasn’t until months later that Vestine met Genevieve. Vestine, who had been raped, gave birth at the local health clinic where Genevieve worked.

Genevieve kept an eye out, knowing she had no one to help her. She stopped by her bed to visit, asking if she needed anything. At first, Vestine rebuffed her offers but Genevieve persisted, offering a basket of sweet potatoes, vegetables or flour for porridge. Slowly, Vestine’s heart began to open to her.

“She approached me and wanted us to be friends,” Vestine said. “She helped me in my life.”

Vestine was raped during the genocide and became pregnant. Twenty-five years later, she is helping raise her daughter's daughter, Giramata.

At home, Genevieve was on her own in another way. Her husband had gone to prison and had admitted to taking part in the lootings during a hearing in the community courts, called gacaca, and ordered to pay restoration.

He had grown coffee as a way to earn an income. Now, without him to tend the coffee trees, it was up to her.

Women of the Hingakawa co-op get together twice a week at sunrise to help harvest each other's land.

All across the country, women were in the same situation. Much of an entire generation of men had either been killed, imprisoned or had fled the country.

Coffee has long been an important crop in Rwanda, but it was primarily men’s work. Before the genocide, men worked in the farms while women took care of children, cooked and managed things at home. But after the genocide, with the men vanished, the coffee farms languished. Women, on their own, had to find a way to support their families – so they set out to learn how to grow coffee.

Alongside the staggering human loss after the genocide was deep poverty. In 1995, the year after the genocide, nearly 80 percent of the population of Rwanda lived below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank Group. It was up to the women who were left to change that.

“With support, training and with a movement toward women empowerment in the country, they got engaged,” said Mukeshimana, the agriculture minister.

And, the women had to not only learn how to grow coffee, but also the business of how to market it.

Women process the coffee by moving it through the washing station. Once coffee is harvested and the pulp removed, the beans are washed for hours before moving to the drying station.

‘Let’s grow coffee’

In 2000, Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who had been elected president after the genocide, came up with a government program, called Vision 2020, to lift his people from poverty. Among the core tenants were gender equity and developing agricultural programs, including coffee.

The following year, the United States Agency for International Development began investing in coffee’s infrastructure in Rwanda, providing financing for co-ops to build washing stations, provide training and more.

The Abakundakawa coffee co-op was started in 2004, for both men and women. Four years later, in 2008, an offshoot just for women coffee farmers, Hingakawa, was formed.

“We knew our husbands already had their coffee and we followed their footsteps and we got coffee,” said Genevieve, now 47 and the mother of five children. “That coffee I got gave me dignity. I met other women and we shared ideas.”

Its name, Hingakawa, means “Let’s grow coffee” in Kinyarwandan. It’s an exhortation as much as it is the name of the women’s coffee co-op. It began with 160 members, said Nakabonye, the former co-op president. Today, it has more than 500. Coffee companies around the world, including Starbucks, buy beans from Hingakawa. This summer, coffee beans from Hingakawa will be sold in select Starbucks stores in the Asia Pacific and Latin American markets.

Following the 1994 Genocide, Rwanda was a country of women. Over seventy-five percent of the men were either killed, in prison, or had fled. Families were left without fathers, wives without husbands and fields without farmers.

Both Vestine and Genevieve, who both own small coffee farms, are part of Hingakawa. To join the co-op, women needed to have at least 100 coffee trees of their own, said Colette, the past president of Hingakawa.

While women joined the co-op to help improve their financial lives, it was clear something else was happening. Neighbors, who had once turned against each other, were coming back together and learning to rely on each other.

“An important thing was to unite people in the problems we were facing,” Colette said. “Someone whose husband was jailed was suffering. Someone whose families were massacred was suffering too. … We met there and hence, an opportunity to reconcile.”

Once the women joined the co-op there were meetings once a month to talk about reconciliation and unity. Now, 25 years later, they work side by side as one.

It wasn’t always easy. She remembers some tense early meetings. “In the beginning there was a suspicion, where people did not easily talk to each other. People were afraid of each other. One of them may have someone who is prison, another one says he is the one who killed my relative and another says it is this one who caused the imprisonment of my relative,” she said. “It was bad. We told them that we would be meeting once a month.”

The women met and talked about everything. It was all on the table. Meanwhile, they were working together, washing coffee cherries, drying beans and sorting them together. They needed each other.

Together, the women realized that could sell their coffee for more than they’d been able to on their own. Women in co-ops increase their income four-fold from what they could earn individually, said Mukeshimana, the minister of agriculture. The women of Hingakawa also set up an emergency fund that could be lent to a co-op member facing an immediate crisis.

When women are empowered to make decisions about income, families are able to be more successful, Mukeshimana said. “We have seen it in terms of nutrition outcomes, for security outcomes, health care outcomes. … There’s confidence in being one of a community and having a voice.”

“These ladies needed to be together because, for those who experience depression, sadness, getting together and working together and serving together (is meaningful),” said Dr. Geraldine Mukeshimana, minister of agriculture and animal resources in Rwanda.

‘Everything is possible’

All around the country, in the years since the genocide, the struggle to move forward has continued. Kagame, the president, mandated in 2009 that all Rwandans come together on the last Saturday of each month to work on a community project. It’s called Umaganda. Driving is banned during that time so everyone will remain in their communities to work. Everyone who is able bodied and between the ages of 18 and 65 participates, including Kagame and members of the cabinet.

On the last Saturday of each month, community members all across Rwanda come together for Umuganda to work on a project together. Here, in a rural village in the Gekenke District of Rwanda, neighbors work on fixing a road that was closed by a mudslide.
Neighbors help each other rebuild during Umuganda. Together they choose what activity they will do. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
Neighbors catch up as they work together during Umaganda. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
During Umuganda, no cars are allowed on the road and everyone who is between 18 and 65 is expected to show up and work on the unified community project.

On a warm Saturday in July, Genevieve was carrying bricks made from mud to men and women working on constructing a new building – a health clinic that will serve her community. Not far away, Vestine was at home with a headache, one of the legacies of being beaten in the head during the genocide.

She’s grateful to have survived, but there is a price to living through the unimaginable. Sometimes, she has trouble thinking or remembering things. During the rainy season, she feels an ache in her arms where she was beaten with sticks. She remains terrified of machetes. If she thinks too much about what happened to her, what she saw, she can’t sleep at night. And she has dark days where depression and memories of trauma cover her like a heavy blanket, pinning her to the bed and making it nearly impossible to rise.

On those days, one thing that helps her, she said, is Genevieve, who comforts her.

Genevieve, left, and Vestine work side by side at the co-op.

Over the years, Vestine has unspooled her story to Genevieve, about how, after her family was killed, she was buried alive up to her waist before escaping, about the man who offered to hide her and then raped her, and how, the next morning, he called for his neighbors to come kill her. Genevieve understands about Vestine’s hardest days, which are particularly acute in April, the anniversary of the genocide.

Genevieve “has always been near me,” said Vestine, who is now married with four children. “She is always close to me, especially during the mourning period. That’s why I consider her as a best friend. She repeatedly showed me that everything is possible.”

Once on the opposite side of war, Vestine and Genevieve have become each others confidant.

While Vestine will never forget, she has forgiven, she said.

“We were not forced to forgive,” Vestine said. Instead, forgiveness was a choice.

“I realized that keeping on being angry and sad will cause pain in my heart, which would make me lose my mind,” she said. “There are some people who will never forgive. It is because they haven’t accepted yet what happened to them and that’s something which is really difficult.”

That choice to forgive is playing out across Rwanda in ways large and small. Government cards and papers no longer identify people by their ethnic group as they once did. “Divisionism,” a loosely defined law prohibiting “oral or written expressions that could generate conflicts among the general populations,” is considered a crime. Instead of identifying as Hutu or Tutsi, or the smaller ethnic group Twa, people now simply say “We are Rwandans.”

You can choose to see what divides you, or what unites you, said Mukeshimana.

“Human beings will find a way of being different,” she said, from her office, near a monument to those killed in the government building during the genocide. “They’ll say, ‘I belong to this family and you belong to that family’. If you prioritize what is making you different from the other, you will find it. But if you prioritize looking at what makes you similar to that person, you will find it. It depends on your choice about what you want – and the direction your country has chosen to take.”

As Vestine, left, and Genevieve sort coffee beans, they catch up with each on the happenings in the village. Vestine said she doesn't ever like to go more than three days without seeing Genevieve.

‘These are my sisters’

On a sunny morning at the co-op, several hundred of the women gathered on a hillside across the street from the coffee drying racks. Genevieve arrived via a hired scooter since she was cooking all the food for a neighbor’s wedding and there was no time to waste.

But she didn’t want to miss the co-op’s monthly meeting.

The meeting began with a song, a call and response. A little girl in a red dress danced and twirled, part of the next generation of female coffee growers.  

Then, the women delved into the business of the meeting. A man had recently sold them some property for more coffee trees. But it doesn’t seem to be as good a piece of land as they’d been led to believe. The women discuss going to pay him a visit. All of them together.

They had survived the darkest time in their country’s history.  “I have suffered a lot,” Vestine said. “But so far we have built ourselves up. We no longer worry about what happened and passed. We are rather making progress toward the development.”

The women of Hingakawa meet once a month to discuss community issues and their plans for the future of their coffee.

How to remember, but yet move forward, is a careful balance. Genocide memorials, large and small, bearing the names of the dead, dot the country. The Kigali Genocide Memorial, in the capital city of Rwanda, is the final resting place of more than 250,000 people. A small memorial is not far from Hingakawa, paying tribute to Vestine’s family and others. Outside the government building in the capital of Kigali, where Mukeshimana works, a granite memorial lists 184 names, all staff of the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources. The base bears the inscription: We “remember our colleagues … and join other Rwandans to say ‘never again.'”

“Remembering our history, our people, it shapes you as you go forward. You don’t take it and throw it away and completely forget it. It’s our history, it is part of us,” said Mukeshimana. “We move forward without necessarily burying it but using it to strengthen where we are heading.”

When the meeting broke up, Vestine and Genevieve paused on the road together, Vestine’s arm resting on Genevieve’s. A quarter century ago, in the midst of the genocide, it might have been impossible to imagine. Today, the two friends, along with the women of Hingakawa, many once on opposite sides of one of the worst atrocities in the world, find strength in each other.

“These ladies needed to be together because, for those who experience depression, sadness, getting together and working together and serving together (is meaningful),” said Mukeshimana. “They feel like, ‘Yes, I belong somewhere. I belong to this community. These are my sisters.’”

Women of the Hingakawa co-op dance together while taking a break for the rain to pass before they head back to the hill to harvest their coffee.

- Luanne Dietz, Peace Hillary Tumwesigire and Pacy Niyigena contributed to this report.

*For reasons of personal safety, in a country so focused on reunification that to speak otherwise can be a crime, their last names are being withheld.

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