As President of the IABM cooperative in Muhanga, Alphonsine Mukankusi is not simply focused on the figures. She has learned how to deal with people and how to take on responsibility. At the same time, her work helps her to come to terms with the past
When Alphonsine Mukankusi laughs – and she laughs a lot – then you see the slight gap between her front teeth. But it is not just Alphonsine’s smile that immediately wins people over – it is also her quiet, deep voice, as well as her gaze: fixed, clear and warm. It is with this gaze that she studies the visitors to her sparse, sun-bathed office, as well as the entries in the thick folders next to her on the table. Earnings and outgoings, balance sheets, member details – Alphonsine knows all of the names and numbers. And so she should, because the 54-year-old is President of the agricultural cooperative IABM.
Over the last five years, Alphonsine has risen to her task – and so has the maize cooperative that she leads: It now has around 800 members, 100 of whom are women. Alphonsine’s cooperative is supported by UGAMA, a local partner organisation of Bread for the World in Rwanda.
UGAMA has taken on the job of supporting the development of cooperatives so that the lives of rural families can be improved in the most effective way possible. Through its work, the organisation reaches around 220,000 people.
“It’s a good life today. Very different from the past."
Together, the members of Alphonsine’s cooperative farm the land that they lease from the government, using it to grow maize and soy. They sell a portion of the crops and distribute the rest among themselves. With her share, Alphonsine recently bought rice, sugar, oil, fruit and a small amount of meat at the market, and paid her first power bill – her house now has electricity. “It’s a good life today”, says Alphonsine. “Very different from the past."
For Alphonsine, the past means the years before 2007, before she joined the cooperative. “It was a bad time for me and my children”. When this tall, slim woman talks about those times, her voice loses its vibrancy and the smile disappears from her face – and so does that gap between her teeth. Alphonsine became a mother to five boys and three girls. She was married, but unhappy. The family had a goat but it belonged to her husband, as did the piece of land behind their hut – and he even considered his wife to be his property. “I had no rights whatsoever”, says Alphonsine. Neither she nor her children ever really had enough to eat. “We did grow potatoes, cassava and beans, but it was nothing like enough."
Work is like therapy
Her husband has since disappeared from her life. And so has the hunger. Since she became a member of the cooperative, Alphonsine and her children eat healthily, and there are vegetables on their plates every day. And there is enough money to buy clothes and pay school fees for the three youngest, who are now almost grown-ups themselves. But what is just as important to Alphonsine as the income and the work that she does through the cooperative is the fact that the group has helped her to regain her independence and her smile. Working there is a form of therapy for her. And the cooperative itself is a place of reconciliation in a country where, 20 years ago, a massacre led even to neighbours and relatives slaying each other with machetes, and where almost a million people were killed in three and a half months, with many more still traumatised today. After the genocide, the collective work in the cooperative gave Alphonsine hope again, and guided her back to her life. “The workers from CSC and my brothers and sisters in the groups showed me the way out of suffering after the civil war”, she says, pausing for a moment. Alphonsine managed to talk to other women about what they had experienced. And to share their grief for what they had lost. They learned to have faith in themselves again in this deeply divided country and to build a new society.
“I have raised eight children. A few hundred new members don’t scare me.”
“Today”, says Alphonsine, “I am a confident person." She gained this self-confidence in the cooperative, first in the field and then in her job as President. “The people from CSC said: You can do it." And they still say it now. Alphonsine is set to put herself forward as a candidate again. She is likely to win the vote. And that means her life will still be hectic. Appointments, meetings, conferences, searching for new members – and early every morning, she heads out into the field in front of the office. But none of this frightens Alphonsine. Quite the opposite: She would miss this job. Like her own children. Five of the eight now have a family of their own, and the house is slowly emptying. And that is another reason why Alphonsine is staying with the cooperative. It has become like her family. “I have raised eight children. A few hundred new members don’t scare me”, says Alphonsine, throwing her purple shawl over her shoulder as she gives a glimpse of that charming gap between her teeth.
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