women of Rwanda take economic control of their lives

In the evening, the green leaves of the verdant hills of Lake Kivu turned black against the orange sky, and a calm settled across the water. And then, out of the silence, came a call: “Here we go! May God watch over us!” It’s a refrain that is a tradition here on Lake Kivu, where for generations, men have cast out at sunset in small wooden boats to fish through the night. But that night, it was chanted by women.

Zawadi Karikumutima, 32, readied her boat for a night on the water. She was not alone. Several other women loaded wooden rafts with supplies and prepared for the long night ahead while their children watched from the muddy banks. “I am very tired when I come back,” said Ms. Karikumutima as she pushed the boat around in the muddy shore. Sometimes she comes back with enough fish to sell to support her family for weeks. “But sometimes I return with pretty much nothing.” Some fishermen and women on Lake Kivu cast their nets at sunset and return before dawn to collect their catch. But that method can be risky: The nets can be tampered with or the contents scooped up by thieves while everyone is asleep. Instead, many of the fisherwomen choose to spend their nights on the water.

Zawadi Karikumutima braves pirates to fish at night on Lake Kivu in Rwanda
Zawadi Karikumutima braves pirates to fish at night on Lake Kivu in Rwanda

But nights on the lake, which is nearly 60 miles long, can be uncomfortable and even dangerous, for any number of reasons — wind and pirates, among others. Last year, as a single mother, Ms. Karikumutima had no choice but to take her infant baby out on the wooden boat with her at night, laying the baby down on a blanket in the hull of the canoe while she paddled from one net to another in the cold and the rain. For generations, the intense physical work, the danger and the reinforcement of traditional gender roles kept women from fishing. Instead, they would tend to backyard farms. But in post-genocide Rwanda, that seems to be changing. Today, women are an essential part of the national market for Lake Kivu fish known as sambaza. Besides fishing on the lake at night, women gather along the shores in the early morning to buy the fish the fisherwomen deliver. They then haul those fish home to their small villages, or sell the fish to cooperatives. At the cooperatives, other women manage drying stations, where the fish are turned into a more compact, shriveledup product that’s easier to transport. Women transport the fish across the country, in buckets and sacks, and sell the fish in urban markets all around landlocked Rwanda. The fish economy has created opportunities for women to form collectives and earn income.

Bonifrida Mukabideri often fishes with Ms. Karikumutima and is a founding member of Projet Pêche, a fishing cooperative made up of 87 women in Kibuye, a resort town along the banks of Lake Kivu. “A lot of women have used the cooperatives to fight poverty. Here in Rwanda we now have the idea that women and men can do every job,” said Ms. Mukabideri, who supports 10 children. “I am very proud to be a part of the cooperative. Now a woman can say: ‘I can build a house by myself. I can look after my family properly. And even if my husband dies, we can live a better life.’” On a recent early morning at the collective, the sambaza had just been delivered from the night fisherwomen. Dozens of women at the cooperative meticulously arranged them so that no fish overlapped with another; the idea was to allow the sun to dry all the fish evenly, which takes about 48 sunny hours. Dried sambaza sell for a higher price than they do fresh. And in eastern Rwanda, they form a central part of the edible economy; almost every dish in the restaurants along Lake Kivu incorporates sambaza, perhaps most tastily as the crispy fried accompaniment to a sunset beer.

Rachel Nyirarvshisha is the top female seller
Rachel Nyirarvshisha is the top female seller

Rachel Nyirarvshisha, 43, had spent the night fishing, and that morning, she was busy cutting deals on her sambaza at the Projet Pêche cooperative. “Don’t argue with me! It’s 2,000 francs. Dried is 6,000. Cash in person,” Ms. Nyirarvshisha said. She hung up the phone with a humph, and a satisfied smile. Five years ago, Ms. Nyirarvshisha’s life was very different. She’s from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, about a fourhour bus ride away, and took on odd jobs to support her two children. But in the past few years, women like Ms. Nyirarvshisha have broken into the world of fishing, with a focus on the business side. Though not even five feet tall, Ms. Nyirarvshisha stands out for her bullheaded business style; she’s the top seller among the women in the cooperative. Part of the reason women have taken up fishing has to do — as so many things do in Rwanda — with the country’s recent history. In 1994, Lake Kivu was a bloody place; the lush hills hid nightmarish scenes. The communities around the lake were ravaged by the chaos of the genocide, and Kibuye in particular was the site of some of the most gruesome incidents. In the church on the road into Kibuye, thousands of Tutsi were murdered; survivors hid beneath the bodies for days. Just a five-minute walk up the hill from the fishing cooperative where Ms. Nyirarvshisha now dries her fish, the remaining Tutsis gathered at the soccer stadium for protection a few days after the church massacre. But Hutus climbed the walls around the field and fired down into the people, killing another several thousand. Some tried to escape by lurching toward the lake in a bid to swim across the waters at night; an unknown number drowned. In the Kibuye area, 90 percent of the Tutsi population was killed in the genocide. The vibrant hills around Lake Kivu served as the backdrop for one of the darkest chapters in modern human history. In rebuilding the country, the new government insisted on policies underpinned by the concept of equality, and the slogan “We are all Rwandans.” That included women.

Zawadi Karikumutima, standing in No. 52 jersey, preparing to go out on Lake Kivu
Zawadi Karikumutima, standing in No. 52 jersey, preparing to go out on Lake Kivu

The genocide left Rwanda with a population that was 70 percent female; many women started fishing out of necessity, with so many primary breadwinners killed. But women in Rwanda also started fishing thanks to changing concepts of gender. After the genocide, Rwandan society opened to the idea of female labor equality. Robert Ngendahayo is a male leader at the top of Projet Pêche — the only man involved. Mr. Ngendahayo, 36, said the reason women were only now entering the fishing marketplace is that for many years, no one fished. “It was not safe to be out on the boat for many years after 1994. Someone would come and attack you and stab you,” he said. The dark water of the lake at night became a kind of secondary war zone, untouched by the new government controls and where you could still be killed because of your ethnicity. Mr. Ngendahayo estimates that night activity on the water started up again about seven years after the genocide, and then only minimally, and with caution for another decade, he said. Plus, spending the night on the boat with men was not considered suitable for women. “Women farmed instead, and fishing was for men,” said Albert Ngeze. Mr. Ngeze, 57, is a boat builder who bends wood by hand to make the boats used on Lake Kivu. A former fisherman and now one of the oldest boat builders in the area, he has seen firsthand the way things here have changed. “When I was young, and before the genocide, it was impossible to see women fishing,” he said. “But today we are happy for women to join us on the water. I think only a small percentage of men do not understand that. I think this century, everyone must understand that.” Today, Mr. Ngendahayo calls the lake “100 percent safe,” but that’s not entirely true. There’s the wind, which blows hard, especially during March and April. In the middle of the lake, a capsized boat can mean a long wait for help, if it arrives at all.

sambaza being weighed at the cooperative in Kibuye
sambaza being weighed at the cooperative in Kibuye

There are also pirates, who, depending on security conditions in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there has been armed conflict for over 25 years, will maraud with impuni-ty, leaving the already-poor fishermen and women with nothing, save their lives — if they’re lucky. But on a summertime morning the women smiled as they rowed smoothly across the water, their strong arms propelling the boats forward. These women once, not long ago, fought for their lives; a night on the lake, in comparison, and a chance to feed their families, is a risk many of them can take. Ms. Mukabideri said she is happy when she is on the water. “Nowadays, all around the world things are changing, and so are we here,” she said. “If I can go and spend a night out on the water, then it shows that things have changed.” As Ms. Mukabideri and Ms. Karikumutima set out with other women, they fell into a rhythm. Once out on the open water, they synchronized, and their chant became a kind of meditation, a hum as powerful as a drum beat, both soothing in its repetition and exciting in its rumble as it bounced off the hillsides.