I put my hopes in a bag

Self-help groupsRwanda

Sometimes the best ideas – moments of genius – come when you least expect them. For Marie it came on a building site in Kigali, Rwanda.

Marie’s husband died in 2007 and hard labour was her only choice to provide for her children. For many years she toiled, shifting bricks until her hands were red raw – sometimes so sore she couldn’t work. But despite her efforts, Marie’s six young children still went hungry.

‘When I lost my husband, I was shocked and felt hopeless,’ she says. ‘I’d never had a job before – I relied on his income. I feared it was going to be the end of my life.’

Bag to the future

Her lifeline came when she looked around the building site, and noticed something for the first time. Marie started thinking about the thick rubble sacks. They were strong, made of woven material that kept its strength even when the sacks were no longer needed. Marie thought about how they could be used again...

Marie at table (credit: Aaron Koch/Tearfund)
Marie sewing
Marie holding bag (credit: Aaron Koch/Tearfund)

Marie's innovation is a huge inspiration

But Marie’s inspiration had begun long before that moment. It started three years ago when she joined a church self-help group supported by a Tearfund partner. Each group member saves RWF200 (20p) a week, so that – as the money increases – they can offer loans to start small businesses. They also learn business skills together.

Marie took out a loan to buy a sewing machine, which she uses to stitch the sacks together to make reusable shopping bags. Her bag for life sales bring in RWF112,000 (£100) a month. With the money she saved, Marie has bought another sewing machine for one of her daughters.

Life sewn up

‘I am no longer lonely,’ Marie says. ‘I used to be very lonely and poor. Jesus has done great things. I used to be extremely thin – I couldn't find clothes that fit. They were too big. Now I’ve started putting on weight and feel good about myself. I can afford to buy what I need – even good shoes. I used to wear dirty, torn flip-flops.’

Marie plans to buy an electric sewing machine and teach more women in her community to sew and build a business. Her innovation is a huge inspiration to her self-help group, which is looking to expand.

Group members have been going house-to-house to find the people in greatest need, giving them food, bedding and help with medical expenses. One local villager was particularly touched by their generosity: ‘When I saw what the group were doing I got saved and joined their church,’ he says.

'This is the church at its very best.'

Emmanuel Murangira, Tearfund's Country Representative for Rwanda

News of its success has reached the local government. ‘We have many poor people here,’ says one official. ‘But this group is helping people overcome poverty. People are expanding their businesses. Paying health insurance was a problem before. Now it's not.

‘When people had problems they used to go to community leaders, but now they go to the church self-help groups. We are proud to see Marie’s bags for life everywhere.’

Emmanuel Murangira, Tearfund’s Country Representative for Rwanda, is equally enthused about the potential of self-help groups:

‘Shocking experiences, like Marie had losing her husband, can sink a person further into extreme poverty. But when we’re given a hand up – a lifeline – we can start to visualise a world beyond our affliction. 

‘Basic skills training and the possibility of pooling small amounts of money into group savings can make a world of difference for people like Marie. When a person who thinks poverty is their only way of life starts thinking that it need not be, it’s a great breakthrough. Even more encouraging is when the local church is at the centre of it. This is the church at its very best.’   

PRAYER FOCUS:

• Thank God for Marie and how her life has been transformed, and how she is now encouraging others.

• Praise him for the impact of self-help groups and how they are helping many people in Rwanda to overcome poverty.

• Pray for the number of self-help groups to increase and for more resources to be available for this to become a reality.

Andrew Horton

Andrew is Online News and Film Editor for Tearfund. This involves finding and writing up inspiring articles for the website, and capturing compelling stories on video.