“Emelienne Nyiramana!” With her name finally called, the 10,000 Women Program graduate sprang from her seat. Waves of applause cascaded over the LAICO Umubano auditorium floor. Radiant and almost regal in a stunning African print dress, Emelienne cut a dashing and purposeful figure as she strode onstage to collect her well-deserved Certificate of Entrepreneurship.
And then, without hint or warning, her practiced composure melted away, exposing a core of irrepressible and almost giddy pride. Flashing a mischievous smile as wide as the Grand Canyon, Emelienne abruptly bolted off stage (and off script) to greet the rowdy ensemble of Cocoki and Indego Africa representatives assembled front center.
She excitedly shook hands with each of us in turn until Cocoki’s president Jacqueline Muteteri, overcome by emotion and exasperated by her penultimate position in the receiving line, spun around the outside of the table and bear hugged Emelienne. The arresting sight of these two deliriously happy women locked in a fierce sisterly embrace delighted the crowd who acknowledged the endearing lapse in commencement decorum with even louder cheers.
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Emelienne’s inspiring rise from ferrying water for twenty-five cents per day to running a profitable export enterprise is rather well-chronicled in this particular forum (and increasingly in other fora as well), but her 10,000 Women Program graduation served up another powerful reminder of how far she has come. Undaunted by the 1994 Genocide, which claimed the lives of her father, her three brothers, and the husbands of two of her sisters in Nyanza, or by the acute socio-economic deprivation that confronted her in the years after, Emelienne tenaciously clung to hope that she could build a better life for herself and those around her.
And she has. She now not only supports her own family, but also applies excess income to help her widowed sisters defray their household costs, including often paying their children’s school fees. Moreover, her guiding hand at Cocoki has spurred the now-flourishing textile cooperative to unprecedented growth and, in turn, helped facilitate enhanced economic opportunity for its entire membership.
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Beyond symbolizing her extraordinary personal achievement, Emelienne’s graduation from the 10,000 Women Program shone brightly as a beacon of what is possible for an entire community of artisan women in Rwanda. You could already sense these ripple effects of Emelienne’s example in the responses of her colleagues in attendance from Cocoki – Jacqueline, Therese Iribagiza, and Anne-Mary Nakuze (flanking Emelienne bottom right). Each in turn spoke thoughtfully and candidly about Emelienne, collectively painting a vibrant portrait of her courage, fortitude, and vision.
For after all, it takes courage for a woman with little formal education or training to know with absolute certainty that she belongs in the austere university classrooms at the School of Finance and Banking. It takes fortitude for a woman raising five children to pile a rigorous academic course load onto her considerable familial responsibilities. And it takes vision for a woman entrepreneur to risk the present for the future, to withdraw from the steady stream of day-to-day workplace troubleshooting to enroll in advanced business training that could alter her and her colleague’s futures.
It is undoubtedly these among other attributes to which Anne-Mary referred when she exclaimed, “Emelienne is my role model.” So congratulations Emelienne, the seamstress, the entrepreneur, the mother, the survivor, the treasurer, the scholar, and now the mentor and leader. We at Indego Africa are in awe of you.
For additional photos of Emelienne's graduation, see the slideshow below: