This photo essay is by Sarah Buchanan, the founder of Kula Project, a non-profit organization empowering women to lift their families out of poverty through sustainable coffee farms.
This is my friend Maria. She is one of the 18,000 people that live in Ruli, Rwanda, and she is tall, beautiful, and kind, but she is certainly not afraid to put someone in their place. I met Maria last May when we she was applying to be in Kula Project’s coffee program, and despite the language barrier, we felt to be kindred spirits. We had almost nothing in common, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Two days after we first met, she shared her genocide story with me.
Maria is the only surviving member of her family. Her six sisters were killed in the beginning of the genocide, and her mother would later die of HIV/AIDS that she contracted during the war. While her story is heart-breaking and gut-wrenching, today, Maria is anything but those things.
Like 89% of Rwanda’s population, Maria depends on her farm for the income her family needs survive. Her farm is about a thirty minute hike from her home, but it doesn’t seem to phase her. The days are long, full of back-breaking labor, but you will be hard pressed to hear her complain.
Much like the majority of the population, she grows coffee, bananas, maize, and sourgum. The farm is decently healthy, but not nearly profitable enough to provide all the income she needs to send her two boys to school and to make sure everyone has at least one meal a day. Maria’s circumstances are not unique. In fact, they are more common than not. The irony is that the majority of the world’s hungry are also farmers.
After the genocide, Maria was too traumatized to return to school, so she has survived on a sixth grade education. She says one of her greatest fears is that she will not have the academic capacity to help her boys with their studies by the time they reach secondary school. That is what keeps her up at night.
When I started Kula Project two years ago, I wasn’t passionate about agriculture. In fact, I had never planted a thing. My passion was with children. I hated that so many children went days without food and lifetimes without education, but the more I traveled and the more I studied, I quickly realized something very important. If I wanted children to eat and to learn for generations to come, I needed to equip their parents to afford it. According to the Gates Foundation, investing in agriculture is twice as effective at alleviating poverty than investing in any other sector of development. That is why I started Kula.
We help parents put food on the table and provide an education for all of their children, and we do that by investing in the family farm, particularly female-led farms. By participating in Kula Project’s program, Maria will soon have the income she needs to put both boys in school until they graduate. She can barely contain her smile when she talks of the possibility of her boys going to college.
One afternoon, Maria and I were making the hike to her farm, and I asked her if she forgave everyone that hurt her and her family during the genocide. She said, “Working the land with one another allows you to see how similar you really are. You know, Rwanda found forgiveness on the farm.”