Lucy Mbabazi: How a Rwandan Woman Uses Cell Phone Technology to Change the World

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When Lucy Mbabazi, now 35, first visited a refugee camp in Rwanda in 2012, she realized her mother was right: it’s easy to get lost. The identical little mud huts, she recalls, were close together and numbered in the thousands. And although smaller than most dining rooms here, they were shared by five to eight people who slept on blankets on the floor. Three years later, Lucy offers these refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, financial independence and a renewed sense of dignity.

Lucy’s mother, Janet Nkubana, grew up in a refugee camp – not this one, but a similar camp in Uganda – brought by her mother, a Rwandan Tutsi, who had crossed the border in an attempt to escape persecution from the Hutu majority. By the time Lucy was born, Janet had her own home in Uganda. And although Lucy’s childhood was normal, she heard her family talking endlessly about their homeland, Rwanda, a “paradise” they would one day return to. But in the spring of 1994, tension between Hutus and Tutsis erupted again there, this time in genocide – nearly a million Tutsis were slaughtered in the space of three months. “You would see bodies sink in Lake Victoria in Uganda,” said Lucy Charm, “and then the sadness we had [when] everyone started to realize, ‘Wait, these people must be from Rwanda.’ “

After the war, Janet decided it was time to go. Lucy was 15 years old. The devastation was worse than they could have imagined. There were no schools, said Lucy; bodies littered the roads, and the highlight of his day was going to the market or watching Coming to America on VHS. (“I think I’ve seen it 1,000 times.”)

Lucy watched her mother, undeterred, quickly get to work. Janet organized local weavers to create baskets, bringing together the Hutu and Tutsi widows of men who had killed each other. At first it was a challenge to bring them together under one roof, but the necessity brought them back day by day. “Everybody [was] trying to find food for their families, ”says Lucy,“ And it kind of got them together to just talk about these things and start forgiving each other, naturally, without probing. The program caught the attention of an American social entrepreneur, Willa Shalit, who helped bring it to Macy’s. The retail giant started selling the baskets in 2005, giving thousands of impoverished women a steady source of income, and still do today. What started with 27 local weavers is now a multi-city operation that employs over 3,000 women.


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