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Literacy: A Love Story

Varrène met a man and fell in love.  He was a soldier and stationed outside of Rwanda, but they communicated by letter.  The affair by love letter was difficult for Varrène – not because she didn’t love Paul, but because she’d never had an opportunity to learn to read or write.  Illiteracy was her secret; Paul didn’t know.

Every time Paul sent a letter, Varrène took it to a friend, who read it for her and helped compose a response.  But Varrène found it upsetting to have Paul’s secrets and her feelings so exposed.

Soon after Varrène and Paul got married, Paul was deployed again – to Darfur as part of a UNAMID peacekeeping unit.  Some of his salary passed to his wife through a joint account, but Varrène had no idea how to use a bank.  She knew how often tellers cheated illiterate women, giving them bank slips to sign for 500,000 Rwandan francs when 50,000 was requested and then pocketing the difference.  Varrène was also struggling to start a small hair salon to make income for herself.

Varrène heard about the Let Us Build Ourselves literacy project, which teaches reading, writing, basic math, and basic business skills to vulnerable women in Nyarugenge.  She met with project leader Innocent Baguma and signed up.  She wanted to write her own love letters.  She wanted to walk into a bank and know how to fill out a form, where to sign, and for what she was signing.  She wanted to get around town without begging strangers to read signs or store names to her.  She wanted to manage the bookkeeping of her struggling salon herself.

Varrène attended class every afternoon, learned quickly, and made use of her new abilities.  She realized that her employees at the salon had, indeed, been fudging the ledger and cheating her.  Under her own financial management, her salon began to do well.  She felt confident enough to open her own bank account and manage her husband’s without help.

Varrène recently returned to Let Us Build Ourselves to tell Innocent how much the ability to read has changed the course of her life.  She wanted to encourage other women to come, learn, and move themselves forward.  At that time, Let Us Build Ourselves was struggling to pay the rent for its classroom.  With profit from her salon, Varrène donated a month’s rent for the project’s classroom and office to keep Let Us Build Ourselves running.

Paul has finally returned from Darfur.  Today, the couple lives near Varrène’s salon in Nyamirambo, close to the market.  Paul still does not know that when he met his wife, Varrène was completely illiterate.  Both are heroes of this story.  Maybe they’ll live happily ever after; maybe they won’t.


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