Coffee ‘key to reconciling Rwandans’

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Coffee is being used in Rwanda to relaunch the economy as well as heal old wounds following the genocide.

The Rwandan government is encouraging the creation of coffee plantations where people from both sides of the ethnic divide work together.

This daily contact is seen as a means of speeding up reconciliation by fostering relationships and building communities.

Hutu militias killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the 1994 genocide.

Aimee Umuhoza and Beatrice Karigirwa are two of 100 women working at a coffee plantation in the capital Kigali, picking and cleaning beans. Understanding

Aimee, who lost both her parents in the conflict, said she needs to work to support her younger brother and sister.

While the pay is low, she says the coffee plantation is playing an important role in uniting people.

“I have been here for two years,” she told the World Service’s Outlook programme.

“I can’t hate. Even those who killed my parents later died so why should I create more enmity by sowing hatred. Here, we are friends because we have the same problems.

“Even the women whose husbands have been in prison as genocide suspects or children like me whose father are genocide suspects – we understand each other, we don’t have any quarrels.”

Fellow worker Beatrice Karigirwa’s husband and most of her relatives were killed in the genocide. She has one surviving brother who is in the army.

“My job has given me hope for a better future and enables me to live peacefully with other women,” she said.

“After the war, I didn’t want to live with anyone because of what was done to me. But as time went on and as I lived with people here, I gradually healed.”

She said hearing the stories of fellow workers, some of whom have no family left, has helped the healing process.

“I know my problems are not the worst,” she said.

“Coffee has played a big role in the progress of this country. We live in harmony with Rwandans from different areas.

“If we all stayed at home we would all be thinking in the same way as before but coming to work in the coffee industry has taught us a lot.”

High-grade coffee

Rwanda has decided to concentrate on speciality coffees – which became popular in the US and Europe in the 1990s – and to sell them through fair trade deals.

In 1990, Rwanda exported 45,000 tonnes of coffee a year, but that plummeted following the conflict.

With competition growing from newcomers such as Vietnam, the government has decided to focus on high-grade coffee with the aim of returning to 1990 production levels by 2010.

Fatuma Ngangiza, of Rwanda’s Unity and Reconciliation Commission set up in the wake of the genocide, underlined coffee’s importance to the country.

“You don’t reconcile in a vacuum,” she said. “There must be a practical programme, there must be something that brings people together.

“As they work together, cleaning the coffee, they talk together so they start talking business but later they start talking family affairs.

“It fosters relationships and reconciliation.”