Friday, May 8, 2009

"You people are like God!"

At a weekly team meeting, I asked Jane, the president of BURANGA to share how her meeting went with a new potential KEZA partner. The group she was meeting with was visiting BURANGA for the first time. They are another women’s cooperative that sews material based products that will soon come on as a KEZA partner. I asked BURANGA to meet with them to share ideas about what it takes to become a cooperative and run a business in Rwanda. Jane said, “Have I told you how they treated me the first time I visited their project a couple weeks ago?”
Uh oh, I thought to myself. What happened?
I said to Jane, “No I haven’t heard, tell me.” She smiled and said, “They were very rude.” I thought oh no, this is not going to be good. “But I prayed for them because I know I needed to just be patient. I understood the women just wanted to go home from work.” She said. “So I was patient with them.” She said again, with a big smile on her face.
I thought to myself, this woman is wise beyond her 32 years.
She proceeded, “So before they came to visit BURANGA, I gathered our women together and told them, ‘We need to honor the visitors that are coming to see us today. We need to welcome them very well and make them feel at home here at BURANGA. We have talked about being leaders and teaching other women. Now is our time to be good examples.” They all agreed and welcomed the visitors as warmly as if they were old friends.
After Jane showed the visitors around the BURANGA Center they sat to talk about business. The leaders of BURANGA sat with the leaders of the other cooperative and they shared ideas, problems and solutions. Jane shared that the BURANGA women do not get jealous of each other anymore because they have become a family, so when one woman makes more necklaces than another they celebrate in the accomplishment because it means they have all improved. If one succeeds they all succeed. The leader from the other cooperative said, “Wow you are very good people! That is amazing that you take care of each other that way.” She then asked Jane, “So what do you do when someone is sick and does not work at all?” (This is a common problem for both groups since many of the women are HIV positive). Jane answered, “We take care of her if she is sick. If someone has a baby she takes 2 months off and still gets paid. If she is sick we make sure she is ok, and she comes back to work when she is healthy.”
“You people are like God!” A member of the other organization exclaimed.
Jane laughed. “No, we are family. It’s simple. We take care of each other so that we all can move forward.”
I interrupted Jane trying to hide the tears welling up in my eyes, and said, “Jane this is huge. Yes it’s a simple story but you are living Ubuntu and you are showing others that it truly is possible to do so. You are true leaders and with humility and kindness you have shown others Ubuntu. When Jared and I first talked about what KEZA could be, this is what we talked about. We talked about you being leaders and being examples of Jesus to others through your business and the community you’ve created in BURANGA.”
Jared said, “Yes exactly. You are living like Jesus, you aren’t just talking about Him, but you are showing others his message by living it. Jesus lived the gospel, He didn’t just talk about it. And He expects us to do the same. The first followers of Jesus lived in community like this and took care of each other just as you are doing now.”
Jane continued, “At the end of the meeting the leader from the other cooperative apologized for how they treated me when I visited them. I told her not to worry, that I understand and that I forgive them.”
I couldn’t find the words to express to Jane how deeply her story had touched me. It touches a place deep in my heart where there is a reservoir of desire for how women are viewed in the world, especially in Africa. This simple gesture of showing kindness to someone who has wronged you. To welcoming others, not as a threat, but as family. And at last, of how the women of BURANGA truly care for each other.
They have come a long way in the 3 years they’ve been working together…and have made the biggest leaps in the last year. Through our tribulations last year we were forced to unite. Race or tribe was no longer an issue. No longer are cliques acceptable. No longer are the women competing in a way that harm their competitors, envious if one succeeds. But rather they learned that together they are stronger and can truly pull themselves out of the poverty that has plagued much of their lives. When one is strong, she pulls the weak with her, and in turn when she grows weary, the weak she once pulled with her can now pull her along.

Monday, December 1, 2008


As I look back on the last year, I am struck by a number of things. Sisters of Rwanda’s morph into KEZA has been so much more than a name change. In August we experienced a tragedy that shattered all of our hearts. The women of KEZA came to us to share a reality that has had immeasurably devastating consequences. Our gratefulness runs deep and wide for their courage to expose the reality that was taking place within the organization. They told us that Co-Founder & Pastor , Joseph Ayienga and General Manager, Margaret Karara were stealing from the organization, using the name to raise funds under false pretenses, pocketing money allocated for school fees and verbally abusing the women. The Directors of the organization and the remaining team members were both shocked and deeply saddened by this betrayal.

The aftermath of this has been a tiresome journey, each of us trying to balance the uneasy volatility of their retaliation to the exposure, full of lies, slander and false accusations.

But the heart of this story lies not in the horrible abuse being heaped on the organization, its leaders and the women, the true heart of this story has left us humbled and awed by the strength, courage and resilience of our women yet again. Despite consistent threats and being kicked out of the church they’ve attended for almost 2 years, the women have stood their ground. They believe in KEZA…they believe in what we are doing together and in the family we’ve built. But most importantly they believe in each other. In our last newsletter I described walls being broken down as the women embraced a spirit of healing in their own lives. Little did we know how deep that spirit of healing would have to journey in each of our hearts over the next few months. But she has journeyed with us. Our family at KEZA has never been so strong. The women have defended the honor of our President & Founder Jared Miller as false accusations continue to fly at him day and night. They have stood in the gap, in a place where only they could stand. They fought hard, both on their knees and in local government offices telling the truth about the controversy time and time again.

In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

This quote spoke to me yesterday as I reflected on the journey Sisters of Rwanda…now KEZA, has taken over the last couple years. We have made mistakes yes. But we have learned from them, and though mistakes are seemingly devastating at the time we face them, their teaching is immense. We find ourselves covered in dust and sweat and blood often, not because we are doing something wrong, but because we are doing something each of us deeply believes in. The women of KEZA are daring greatly to overcome generations of abuse and poverty in their lives. They are daring to believe that they can make some of the finest fashion in the world. They are daring to embrace each other despite deep pain that once cause division amongst them. They are daring to believe in a God who will see them through anything. And alas, though few have in the past, they are daring to believe in themselves.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sisters of Rwanda becomes KEZA

Sisters of Rwanda started in December of 2006. We started this journey with just a few women, and together we have struggled, triumphed and learned what it is we are meant to do. Our family has ebbed and flowed with women and children for over 2 years, and we now have 43 women, just over 100 children, 2 international staff, 2 Rwandan staff, a handful of interns, an incredible team in the US, and a following of supporters all over the world. For the last 2 ½ years we’ve been researching alongside Rwandan women, but mostly we’ve been listening to the tears, the laughter, the challenges, the history…and in essence the hearts of Rwandan women and their children. Alas we are ready…Sisters of Rwanda is now KEZA.
Welcome to KEZA, “Where THEY become WE.”
At KEZA we believe that when THEY become WE, the world changes. We believe that when people cease to speak of “those Africans” living in poverty, disease and corruption, and begin to view human beings from all over the world as an interconnected HUMAN RACE, then the pain and suffering we so despise in the world will begin to fade away. This is the essence of Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu is described best by the honorable Desmond Tutu : ““Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is God's dream.”
KEZA exists to create high end careers in the fashion industry for oppressed people throughout Africa. We will ensure the highest quality products and the utmost in business ethics in each of our fashion producing partners, thus ensuring sustainability. We will exemplify and promote the Ubuntu philosophy in all that we do. Together we will show the world that Africa is a prime destination for investment and a producer of some of the world’s finest couture fashion. KEZA is where “they” become “we”, and each of our products shall exemplify the beauty and excellence of Africa.
*KEZA means beautiful in Rwanda's local language, Kinyarwanda.*

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Glimpse of Heaven...

Two weeks ago the women of SOR had a day of fellowship. In all honesty, when they asked if we could do this, I envisioned a relaxing day of sitting and talking and simply being together. You can imagine my surprise when I showed up and found each woman elaborately dressed in beautiful Rwandese dresses. The women spent the day cooking a meal that included meat and preparing for the afternoon "events". It's important for you to know that meat is not a regular part of our diet because it's too expensive. It's a luxury that one enjoys only on very special occasions, and no more than once or twice per year. They had each chipped in a little bit of their own money to buy this treat. And the fact that they could afford to spare anything for this meal holds more significance than you might imagine. Before now this luxury was not even considered an option. KEZA, our new product line, is finally starting to bear fruit. As these fruits begin to blossom, so do our sisters. You can almost see the burdens they carry lighten. Smiles are no longer a rarity but a constant part of the d├ęcor.

After our special meal there was a time to thank God and open our hearts to one another. Some cried tears of relief as if they were breathing for the first time in years. Some danced; each step, each clap, and each cry praise to God for rescuing them...for loving them. One woman sang and didn't stop until her heart had released its fill. We laughed and cried together, sharing each other's joy and pain.

Yet the most beautiful piece of this day was just beginning. There was an exchange. I believe it was supposed to be a simple gift exchange, each woman having picked a name from a hat the Friday before. The women sat eagerly, gifts in their hands, anxious to give. Maggie called each woman by name and then asked, "Who is it that you love?" The woman would stand and announce the name of the woman she had picked to the cheers and laughter of the group. What happened next, with each repetition of the exchange, is what represents the very core of who we are and why we are here -- they embraced...and held on...and you could see the healing taking place before your very eyes. Some of the women almost knocked each other over with their love, some hung on and wouldn't let go, others laughed and danced within the arms of each embrace with tears streaming down faces stretched with smiles.

When SOR began, these women were broken from the abuse they had endured the majority of their lives. Year after year bitterness and resentment became the protection they had used to survive, year after year hard walls around their hearts grew higher and higher. To love another prostitute was out of the question. The likeness that might have bonded them represented what they despised, creating a wedge between them. And so, with each embrace the walls crumbled. Bitterness, resentment and hate evaporated before our eyes as we witnessed miracle after miracle. The Spirit of healing gently wrapped its arms around each of us as we witnessed this beautiful gift. Our seeds of hope blossomed as we witnessed blossoms of healing. To think this is only the beginning is almost too much for me to comprehend. The small seed of hope planted two years ago when Jared and Joseph started this journey with seven women in a tiny shack, has grown into a family of 42 women, 5 staff members, and 116 children.

I've never before had the pleasure of witnessing such healing.
I believe heaven actually opened up that day and showed her breathtaking face right here on earth.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

family prayer

"If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in Spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. "
- Apostle Paul


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about paper beads in Beauty for Ashes, and this week we finished our first pieces of the new jewelry line – KEZA Beads (KEZA Beads). This accomplishment is just the beginning…
With KEZA Beads, a new gender equality campaign, putting together the new training facility, fundraising, and new interns, the directors at SOR felt as though we just didn’t have enough work to do. So naturally, we decided to take on another project…soap and candle making.

Becca Stevens ( and 6 other women traveled from Nashville to Kigali, Rwanda last week to share their wisdom and expertise in the skin care and candle business. Becca is founder of Thistle Farms ( a skin care line, and Magdalene House – a non-profit that works with prostitutes, female drug addicts and former prisoners in Nashville. They were an eclectic group, each with their own strong personalities and amazing gifting. And they were each a beautiful gift to us. These women didn’t just come to burn themselves with beeswax…they came to share their lives. The spirit of this group was raw and genuine. Their authenticity melted away pretense, and broke down walls.

We sat as sisters, barefoot on the floor, and talked. Sharing stories of humiliation, rape, life on the streets, abuse, prison, addiction and much more; realizing that our wounds are shared by women around the world. Realizing that together we can heal, day by day. Reminding each other that we don’t have to have it together all the time. We cried together. We laughed at each other. 

Together, we rolled beads from paper, messed up necklaces, melted beeswax, started electrical fires, poured candles, mixed soap, dug in the dirt, prayed, and praised God for His grace.
So we made jewelry, soap and candles last week. 

It’s the beginning of something and the air is thick with anticipation. We are low on funds and materials are scarce – but we have finally produced the first of 3 products that hold our dreams within each. That may sound silly – I know when most people are shopping for candles or soap or jewelry they aren’t thinking of other peoples dreams. Yet for us, these simple items hold the very livelihood of 43 women and their children. We’ve got candles that smell like honey and coffee, soap that smells like fresh cut flowers and clean laundry mixed together, and beautiful jewelry that is original and unique – all hand made. The smells from this week will remain with me. Varnish mixed with beeswax, roasted coffee, charcoal, clean fresh flowers, rain, mud, geranium, sweat, and the strong aroma of hope. These smells represent unity and community. They represent hurting women in America becoming a family with hurting women in Rwanda. They represent healing…healing together. They represent dreams becoming a reality.