Twiyubake Cooperative

Jacqueline Musabyimana is the president of the Twiyubake Banana Leaf Cooperative. Twiyubake means “to rebuild ourselves” in the Kinyarwanda language. Musabyimana is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Her family, like many in the area, struggled to survive in the aftermath of the humanitarian crisis.

Genocide survivors were faced with difficult circumstances, including the loss of many (mostly male) family members. However, women were determined to lift themselves out of poverty with dignity and confidence.

The Twiyubake Cooperative is made up of master banana leaf weavers and other master artisans who have been making and selling banana leaf products since 2008.

Musabyimana and other women in the area learned to make hand-woven banana leaf baskets and jewelry to supplement family incomes. In 2011, U.S.-based Songa Designs International came to their village. The for-profit “socially conscious” fashion start-up was fascinated with the merchandise weavers were making and decided to help sell them.

Musabyimana was able to buy a plot of land, build a home, as well as purchase a cow and goat — all with the money she made by selling her products through Songa.

The Songa Designs website states that the dynamic in many areas of the developing world is for women to be entirely dependent on their husbands.

However, the company seeks to change the status quo by offering opportunities to under-resourced women so that they can “achieve economic independence by using skills acquired through everyday life to make a living. Songa Designs provides jobs for these women who negotiate their own salaries and earn fair wages.”

The Twiyubake Cooperative is one of the groups that belong to Indego Africa, a group whose mission it is to empower women artisan in Africa. According to the Indego Africa website, a cooperative is “a legally recognized form of association in Rwanda that was promoted by the government after the 1994 genocide.”

Following the genocide, the Rwanda population was 70 percent female and the economy was a disaster. Women were left to rebuild the country, but most lacked education and knew nothing about business or export markets. Indego Africa helps the cooperatives develop business and become sustainable.

The Twiyubake Cooperative employs female genocide survivors as well as the wives of genocide perpetrators. All the steps involved in making products for sale in the Twiyubake artisan line are done by hand — specifically, the metal working, beading, embroidery and sewing. In addition, the natural banana leaf and other fibers are grown locally.

Rhonda Marrone

Photo: Flickr

President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address highlighted the growing imbalances throughout the world.  In recent decades, the U.S. has depended on its military strength as a substitute for diplomacy, but the President specified the need to shift the focus to fighting extreme poverty within Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific.

The President’s agenda is taking on the issue of poverty head-on.

He recognizes that to address the large inequalities we must reverse the decline of social and economic mobility.  Currently, 65 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of incomes stay in the bottom two-fifths income class while 65 percent of top fifth stay in the top two-fifths.

A major factor that maintains this mobility gap is poverty.

Families from poor backgrounds and low economic status are at a disadvantage right from the start.  Just 36 percent of kids born in the poorest households get a strong start in life compared to 70 percent for middle-income kids and 87 percent for the upper class.

With federal programs like Head Start and Race to the Top are putting an emphasis on early child development, it is critical that we create social policy that supports individuals throughout all stages of life.  The Brookings Institute has identified five major life stages that we can consciously cultivate in order to increase mobility and opportunity in America.

  • Strong Start in life: Being born to a mother with at least a high school degree increases the likelihood of leading a successful life. Only 48 percent of children in the bottom fifth are born to mothers with a high school level education.  Increased cognitive ability starts in the home and these same children will hear fewer words, read fewer books and are overall less stimulated than their counterparts.
  • Strong Start in School: Starting school with a disadvantage is a factor that only compounds as a child grows.  By the age of five, less than half of low-income children are deemed school-ready.  To get a head start, children must develop social and academic skills before they enter school.  This is the rationale behind the President’s early learning initiative.
  • A Strong Start in Postsecondary Education:  Postsecondary education must begin with a high school diploma.  The dropout rate among low-income students is six times higher than the rate of high-income students.  Students must not only graduate but graduate with sufficient skills to succeed in higher education.
  • A Strong Start in Labor Market: In today’s economy, the value of a postsecondary degree is tremendous.  On average, each additional year of school accounts for an extra 10 percent return in annual income.  This makes four-year degrees more desirable than one from a community college.  Over 50 percent of low-income students enrolled in community college fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year college.  A support system to encourage students to remain focused and finish their degrees will transform their chances in a sluggish labor market.
  • A Strong Start for a Family: This brings the cycle full circle.  Before getting married and having children, individuals need to consider their personal financial security as a prerequisite.  Marriage plays a critical role in determining the fate of a child. Proper parenting skills are often developed through the shared experience of marriage.  Crafting social policy that encourages marriage can offer more incentives for couples to stay together and create a strong family.

Sunny Bhatt

Sources: Brookings Institute, New York Times
Photo: Prague Post