“Leaving my Past Behind” – Nehma’s Story
Nehma is one of those rare people who possess the gift for transforming pain and ugliness into beauty and gratitude. She has a love for language (and speaks four of them), but has a sense of humor that could make anyone laugh, no matter their language. As a 26 year-old survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Nehma has experienced more tragedy than most people will ever know. But while she carries those memories with her, she says she chooses not to dwell in the past. Instead, she celebrates her present: a dignified job, a caring community, and the opportunity to give her two beautiful daughters a better life.
Nehma performing a traditional Rwandan dance for Noonday’s Ambassadors
The Worst 100 Days
Nehma was just five years old when genocide came to her home in Rwanda. Over the course of 100 days, nearly one million Rwandans lost their lives, and several million were displaced. During the violence, Nehma and her sister were separated from their parents. Like many children, they didn’t know if they would ever see them again. The girls ended up in an orphanage, where they stayed until the genocide ended. As the violence subsided and Rwandans began to pick up the pieces of their lives, radio stations began reading lists of children who had ended up in orphanages, asking any surviving family members to come be reunited with their children. Nehma’s older brother heard the girls’ names on the radio and came to get them.
The girls began attending school again, and waited for news of their mother and father. “It took a very long time for us to see our parents,” Nehma remembers. “When my dad finally came, he had been disabled and had grown weak during the genocide.” It took four more years for them to be reunited with their mother. But even after their parents’ return, Nehma’s brother continued taking care of the girls. Their father had been disabled by the violence, and the family struggled to support themselves.
Searching for a Home
After a few years, the girls’ brother became unable to care for them and they went to live with another family. Nehma says that this time was very difficult for her. “I was vulnerable and I was looking for someone who could take care of me,” she says. “That’s when I became pregnant and had to leave school. I was 13.” Nehma had to leave the house she was staying in, and traveled with the father of her child to Uganda. She had never been there before, and knew no one—but she felt it was her only option.
Once in Uganda, Nehma began trying to put down roots in her new community and learning the local language. A few years later, she gave birth to her second child, a son. In the beginning, her husband supported her and the children. But after a couple of years, he disappeared and left Nehma to care for the kids. Absentee fathers are an epidemic in Uganda. In fact, over 80% of the Artisans in Noonday’s partner workshop are single mothers.
Nehma became desperate to find a way to support her children, but jobs were scarce and unreliable. She went to a local church, searching for a community in her adopted country that would care for her. There she met a pastor who became like a father to her—and who introduced her to Jalia and Daniel, Artisan Entrepreneurs who were just beginning to make their dream of using their crafts to create dignified jobs a reality.
“Your Night Will Become Like the Noonday”
Jalia and Daniel had recently connected with an American woman named Jessica who loved their paper bead products and wanted to help create a marketplace for them in the US. Back in the States, Jessica was working on making her own dream a reality: using fashion to alleviate poverty in vulnerable communities across the globe. That dream soon became Noonday Collection, and as demand for their paper bead jewelry grew, Jalia and Daniel joyfully began hiring more people in their community to help them fulfill Noonday’s orders.
Nehma enjoying the company of several friends during the workday
When they met Nehma, they knew that she needed a good job badly. She became one of their very first Artisans, and has seen Jalia and Daniel’s workshop grow from a small spare room to a thriving workshop that creates work for hundreds of local people.
“Before this job, I had nothing to do to earn for my children. I came here when life was not easy for me,” Nehma reflects. “I could not take care of my children and I could not afford food for them. But now I am able to take care of them, feed them well. I can also take care of myself. There is a big difference in my life.”
Nehma (right) with Doreen, one of her closest friends in the workshop
Through work as an Artisan, Nehma has found the peace that comes with knowing her children will be well taken care of. Not only is she able to meet their daily needs, but she is able to invest in their future. She sends her son, Emma, to school with her own earnings, a fact that makes her beam with pride. Her daughter, Tanya, receives a scholarship from Noonday to go to school and hopes to one day become a doctor so she can help others.
Leaving the Past Behind
Her job has changed daily life for Nehma and her children in countless ways. It has also changed the way Nehma feels about herself. “I feel good about myself now. Before I had no job and it was very hard for me. I was so worried about the kids and how I was going to manage to live. Now, I am focused, and I am leaving my past behind. I am focused on living a better life.”
Rocks in the workshop yard made beautiful with speckles of vibrant dye
Nehma’s reliable work has also allowed her to dream. Where once she only thought about how she would find food that day, today she is dreaming of purchasing her own land and building a house for herself and her children. To help her prepare for the future, she is part of a savings group at the workshop. Each month, all the members put in a small amount, and each month a different member receives the lump sum and is able to invest it as he or she sees fit. In addition to continuing her job at the workshop, Nehma hopes to use some of her savings to start her own business selling cosmetics to the women in her neighborhood.
Nehma sharing a favorite hymn in her native language, Kinyarwanda. She sings in her church’s choir and loves to sing hymns because she says it is a way to share what God has done in her life.
We are Better Together
This summer, 20 Noonday Ambassadors traveled to Uganda to visit the workshop and connect with the Artisans who make Noonday’s paper bead accessories. Nehma shared that the experience was a special one for her, and shared a message for all of Noonday’s Ambassadors and customers:
“It was a joy and a blessing to meet these women. We love the Ambassadors so much. I appreciate the work they are doing. It is through their sweat that we are able to hope and take care of our children. It used to be very hard for me to help others. Now, if someone asks something from me and is in need, I can give it to them.”
Nehma with Ambassador Deirdre during an Noonday trip to Uganda
Nehma’s joyful spirit is an inspiration to everyone she meets. She is a generous laugher with a smile that lights up whatever room she is in. Although she has experienced incredible challenges in her 26 years, she does not allow herself to be defined by them. Instead, she has defined herself on her own terms, and embraces the new life she has been given. Nehma is the definition of a woman empowered, and a testament to the power of opportunity to transform lives.
Meet Jenna Tanner
Jenna is Noonday’s Content Curator and loves to write about fair trade, social justice and Artisans around the world. She also enjoys marathoning her favorite TV shows with her husband, playing intense games of Ticket to Ride, and searching for the best tacos in Austin (let her know if you find them!).