For someone whose job title is ‘Artisan Expert’, the lady sat in front of me on a mat with her loom was remarkably reserved, unassuming and humble. Meet Eugenie (pronounced Yoo-ja-nee). When she’s not making music out of objects lying around the place, she can usually be found developing, communicating and training Azizi Life artisan partners in new product designs. You will likely see her in her makeshift workshop in among bundles of assorted plant fibres and kitenge material.
Want a beautiful yet functional handbag fashioned from sustainably sourced banana leaf? Contact Eugenie. Thinking of getting some fair-trade jewellery made from sisal fibre? She’s your lady. Dreaming of an elegant, fair-trade storage solution to declutter your home and give it some East African style? Look no further.
Eugenie is the creative genius behind the Azizi Life team, turning nebulous ideas into tangible reality. It is a gift that has provided and continues to provide for her five children. “My work has given me confidence. I am passionate about my work because it allows me to use my creativity, and I can teach others,” she told me. Her hands fed black thread through the teeth of the loom.
A jack of all trades, before working with Azizi Life, Eugenie cultivated land as well as lending her culinary skills at a local restaurant. It has not been an easy path to get to where she is today. Eugenie ended up becoming the sole wage-earner for her children. “I’ve had no training, and I didn’t go to school,” she said. Her gaze returned to her loom. The cloying warmth of an invisible sun occupied the space between us.
Eugenie’s self-taught skills and incredible focus on her work has attracted the attention of a government minister, who visited her to learn about women entrepreneurs in rural areas. Encouraged by her skills and vision, he provided her with a business loan to expand her enterprise. On International Women’s Day this year, Eugenie will represent women entrepreneurs on a national level, having been personally chosen by the Rwandan Government. She will give a testimony and add her voice to the throngs of entrepreneurs building up the nation.
“How has life for girls and women changed in Rwanda over the years?” I asked.
“When I was growing up, there was an expectation that you would get married and have children, and that was all.” She smiled. “Now there is an expectation for other things as well – education and good jobs.”
The Rwandan government is strongly committed to gender equality as one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Rwanda is a global leader in gender equality, having been ranked fifth best in the world in the Global Gender Gap Index, beating both France and the United States. It is a universal requirement that girls attend primary school, and Rwanda has the highest proportion of seats in Parliament held by women . How far gender equality extends to all levels of life is not entirely clear, and how far these changes are perceived as Rwandan-birthed or another Western import is debatable, but one thing that is clear, is that women like Eugenie are driving their nation to a better future despite the challenges that they have faced.
“What would you say to someone facing challenges in their life?” I asked. The sun pushed through the clouds ever so slightly.
“Work hard, with passion and confidence. Share your problems with a community of close friends; don’t deal with them on your own – in loving people, you meet God.”
 The Global Gender Gap Report 2016
 World Bank, World Bank Development Indicators