Cards From Africa have been supplying Just Fair Trade with amazing handmade cards for several years, and in February 2014 Kerry and Sarah were invited to visit Rwanda to meet their card makers. While visiting Africa was a new experience for Kerry, for Sarah it was an opportunity to return to a part of the world which has had a significant impact on the lives of her and her family, having lived in Tanzania in the early 1990s.
Rwanda is small, extremely hilly and lush, and densely populated. The capital, Kigali, is surprisingly clean with smart roads and pavements, well-tended trees and plants and a distinct lack of litter, the result of the Rwandan government’s decision to ban plastic bags. Kigali feels like a city on the up with lots of evidence of investment and big building projects, home to both expats and a growing Rwandan middle class.
However, away from the centre of Kigali the poverty of the majority of the population is all too evident. Like its neighbours, Rwanda is facing all the challenges of development whilst continuing to come to terms with, and recover from, the 1994 genocide which saw 800,000 to a million Tutsis and Hutus massacred in 100 days from April 6 to July 16.
Cards From Africa (CFA) was with the vision of creating well-paid employment for those in most need – young orphans (mostly of the genocide) who have younger dependants to support. They create handmade paper from office waste and make beautiful colourful greetings cards; some are sold locally, but most are shipped to America, the UK and Europe. Car makers are also supported and trained in business skills so they can use CFA as a stepping stone to starting their own business and career so they can contribute to Rwanda’s economy, bringing a better quality of life for all Rwandans.
Kerry and Sarah spent almost a week getting a first-hand insight into life as part of the CFA family. Mornings began with ‘devotions’ – lots of singing – and then the paper making began, involving a lot of laughter and the very real possibility of getting very wet! Then there were opportunities to make greetings cards, with mixed results and a lot more laughter – it turns out they’re very hard to make!
But conversations also turned to more difficult subjects, and there were times when the laughter turned to tears as Sarah and Kerry listened to young people talk about things they have seen and experienced in their short lives that no one should ever have to deal with. It’s in this context that the work of CFA becomes most meaningful, as young people also shared something of the positive impact of employment which enables them to earn money to support their families.
CFA is supporting and encouraging young people to develop aspirations for the future, something that came out clearly in conversations Sarah and Kerry had with individuals. For some the focus is on family – John Paul, 24, didn’t get to finish primary school but he’s now been at CFA for 4 years and has saved for a little house that his sister lives in and now wants to provide for his brother too; Claire, 26, would like a house with a toilet; Immaculate, 20, says at the moment her focus is on her three siblings and her mother who has mental health problems and therefore she doesn’t have time to think about herself. Others, like Foster, 27, who wants her own business raising chickens, have career ambitions. Anita, 24, says she now has hope for a better future; at CFA she is around people with similar shared experiences and they understand and support each other.
Visiting Rwanda was a life-changing experience for Sarah and Kerry but it’s also been highly significant for the wider Just Fair Trade community. Shop staff and volunteers have a better understanding of the impact their involvement has on people they’ll never meet and there’s been a renewed sense of commitment to, and belief in, the values of fair trade. It’s easy to talk the talk of changing lives; in Rwanda, Kerry and Sarah saw it working in practice.