However engaging, effective or compelling a storyteller I’ll ever hope to become, the Rwandan women I met this week will forever blow me out of the water.
They tell the hard stuff gracefully.
They share with emotion.
They name the Lord by name to each other when He has done great things—every day. And they have stories to be told!
I may never be that, but if you’ll permit me, I’d like to hobble my way through sharing one woman’s story with you today. And before I begin, I want you to know that I have her permission to share it—both her story and her beautiful face and home. I want to be a faithful and gentle steward of both. And I want you to know that I am humbly and gratefully excited to share it with you.
This is Teresa. (She made that outfit, and that painting in the background is of her and her husband when they were younger.)
Teresa’s husband was tall and “sympathetic.” He made her laugh. They “lived in harmony.” He loved God, and there was a time, she said, where he “came to love the Lord even more.”
They married in Rwanda, but when the pre-genocide massacres began in the early 1960s, they fled as refugees to Burundi (a neighboring country), where they stayed until after the genocide ended in 1994.
Some things get lost in translation, but when we asked about her children, she answered: “I was happy to have my first baby. And I was happy to have my second baby. But I was… unhappy for my third.”
“Three days after the baby was born, the doctor prescribed medicine for me, but he gave it to the baby instead, and the baby died.”
She was sad for a long time.
And when she found out why it happened, she was “greatly offended.”
Teresa and her husband both lived with HIV. They owned land and a good home and raised their family in harmony together with her mother-in-law until the sickness took his life in 2006.
This is where Teresa’s story shifts.
It will be difficult for you to understand what happened next unless I give just a bit of cultural background. Rwanda (and really, all of sub-saharan Africa) is an agrarian society. Your wealth is your land because it is also your source of income. Even so, people don’t always have legal documentation of their ownership, and it is especially uncommon for women to own land or to be named on a deed.
When Teresa’s husband passed away, she was devastated. They had been very happy together. She told her mother-in-law that she was welcome to continue to live with her and the children. Instead, her mother-in-law locked Teresa and the kids out of the house, saying the house had been left to her by her son. She even hired someone to kill Teresa several times.
Even though Teresa actually had documentation with her name on it, she had no one to fight for her or protect her. There was no justice for Teresa.
A happy home and family changed overnight for Teresa and her children. They were grieving, afraid, and homeless—unable to attend school.
Four years and many details passed, and Teresa was finally granted her land rights. In spite of everything, she graciously offered to rent a home for her mother-in-law to live in so that she would not be homeless herself (wow!), but the woman refused to accept the rented home and refused to leave Teresa’s home. With no one to enforce the ruling, and with her family’s safety at stake, Teresa gave up her case and found a home to rent elsewhere.
By now, her children were grown, her husband was dead, her home and land had been taken from her.
Teresa told us yesterday that he happiest moment of her life was the day International Justice Mission (IJM) came to her, told her they would intervene on her behalf without cost—that they would defend her and pursue justice on her behalf.
Best day of her life.
That is, until last Friday.
On July 11, 2014, Teresa’s 8-year battle for land rights was won with the help of the International Justice Mission! The land was finally and fully hers. Although she told us she still doesn’t feel safe to return to her home, she can now legally sell the house and land, and purchase a new place of her own. Justice has been done.
It’s not a perfect story. Teresa is much older now than she was when her husband died. Eight years of grief, legal battles and financial hardship are hard on anyone. Her children are grown and she lives alone now.
IJM knew Teresa’s solution would need to be more than a judge and a ruling. They understood she needed work and purpose and community.
It’s just so sweet how things come together sometimes. IJM knew that Noonday Collection supported a sewing co-op across town. Teresa, though her eyesight isn’t excellent and she moves a bit slower than she used to, has a background as an extremely gifted seamstress. She was able to get an interview with the co-op president (Grace), and was hired to become part of the team—of the community.
IJM and Noonday didn’t solve all of Teresa’s problems. But they brought order where there was disorder. They brought defense to a vulnerable widow, and purposeful work to a woman who strives to restore the steady, “happy life” she once knew.
Yesterday, Paige, Jan, Jen and I received a special invitation to Teresa’s home. We walked with her from the co-op and she quietly unlocked the padlock on the gate across her front door. She invited us in to her home and into her story. We mostly listened and asked questions, but shared common sorrows, too. The loss of a baby, the loss of a husband—when we shared our heartache, her eyes changed and she held us.
We prayed together for her eyesight. I prayed out loud the scriptures she had hung on her walls. And we all prayed in chorus—each in our own language— The Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Spirit must be well-acquainted with 2-room mud homes, because He was In. That. Place.
Hebrews 13:8 <– She Reads Truth, too!
Apart from our prayer time, my favorite moment by far was when we all went out to the front porch to cook supper together. She was hesitant to let us help (I think she didn’t want to impose?), but I assured her that nothing would make us feel more at home than sitting around with women, fixing food and talking together (It’s what we do!).
Teresa chopped an onion over the pot and added a little oil and garlic. It smelled just like home. When I finally finished peeling the potatoes (I imagine I was totally slowing her down!), she sliced them up and dropped them in hot oil. Best french fries of my life!
By the time she added the greens and the tomatoes, more than thirty people (mostly children) had gathered. Excited to play with Jan (the pied piper of children!), take turns with Emily’s iPhone camera, giggle with Kelle and pile into all of our laps.
It was a y’all-come afternoon. The neighborhood was in full effect. Songs were being sung. Good smells were rising from the pots, the sun was beginning to go down, and we didn’t even mind all the dust being kicked up by the dancing because the community in which they were including us was just breathtaking. We felt right at home.
To know Teresa’s story, and to know what a difference justice and employment can make in a person’s life, gives me hope for the many women and mothers we met today whose story is the same but different. They are afraid. They cannot protect or defend themselves. They need someone to bring the world to right, one Teresa at a time.
If you love what you hear about the work of International Justice Mission in Rwanda (and the world), consider becoming an IJM Freedom Partner for $24/month, so IJM can show up 24 hours a day in developing countries around the world. With a simple vision to: Rescue : Restore : Restrain : Repair, the International Justice Mission is blowing our minds over here. That they are superhero/prayer warriors is an understatement. They understand when helping hurts, and strategically prosecute offenders, support and improve systems, and provide aftercare for their clients. They’re real-life gladiators in suits. ;)
And what about Noonday? The sewing co-op near Teresa’s house is the very place where the love and heart of Noonday was birthed. It operates as an independent business in which they call all their own shots and vote on their internal leadership positions. They interviewed and added two women in the last three months (yes! Teresa was one of them!), supply loans to one another as needed, do all the material shopping/ordering/organizing/executing. They even hired a cook for the co-op. (Look at them go!)
Do you love this? What about becoming a Noonday Ambassador or hosting a trunk show so Teresa’s and other 28 artisan groups around the world can continue to grow and hire more women who are vulnerable for one reason or another?
Teresa’s story isn’t over. Even in her land theft victory and newfound employment and community, her troubles are not all behind her. She still needs help with her eyes—to find out why her eyesight is failing her so quickly. She still needs protection as she goes home to an empty house at night.
Rwanda isn’t fixed. But the ball has begun to roll and, one conviction at a time will continue its momentum. The legal system will mature. Public safety will improve. It all takes time, but the excellent news is that there are powerful, well-educatied, and praying “boots on the ground,” with the pursuit of justice for all people written on their hands and hearts and lives.
To hear another story from our day yesterday morning—a different case, but the same broken system— in invite you to read Jen Hatmaker’s post titled “Are you Taking My Message?”.
**photo credit Paige Knudsen and Raechel Myers