LEAD Scholar SMAYAH UWAJENEZA reflects on her personal experience working as a specialty coffee professional in Kigali, Rwanda in a 25 Magazine online exclusive.
I was born after genocide (in 1997) and brought up by the lovely community who taught me the value of life and the treasure of generosity.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the good governance that put lots effort in education for all (boys and girls), to go to schools that strongly encouraged us to desist from using potentially divisive labels. I had mentors and teachers who encouraged us not to identify ourselves as Hutu or Tusti, who instead asked us to focus on the building of a common, peaceful Rwanda as the next leaders of our country – so I grew up knowing that education is the key to life.
Though, growing up without my extended family affected me. I was raised by my mother most my life as we lost our father in 2002. She has been everything to me – I grew up watching her struggling to educate 14 children, she couldn’t afford to support everyone in the family to attend university.
When I finished high school, I knew nobody was going to help with my college tuition but me. I started looking for a job the day I finished high school and I fortunately found an opportunity to attend trainings at Question Coffee (Sustainable Growers), the social enterprise that unlocks women’s potential to learn how to make coffee. It was at this time, I was introduced to coffee as a career. For me, it was a challenge even to drink coffee for the first time. My first sip of espresso will never leave my memory! Regardless, I needed to save money for college, so I had to transform this challenge into an opportunity. I started drinking and understanding the story and science behind coffee.
I was lucky enough to work for a company that works directly with women farmers, offering them free training on best agricultural practices (seed-to-cup trainings) and giving them access to trading partners. I started visiting these farmers and, whenever I’d be at the farms, the stories I would hear there helped me to understand that coffee was not just coffee, but is our life. They gave me a hope to begin the coffee life journey that I was just starting, and the need to save money for college turned into the love and passion I have for my job. Two years after starting at Question Coffee (2018), I began law school.
The government strongly encouraged farmers to work in cooperatives, not only for the sake of economic development, but also to work as a team and to bring back unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, which I believe it is one of the keys to our peaceful country now. Coffee exportation was one of the drivers to pull up the economy of our country. We coffee people understand very much that our quality standards should continually improve in both our supply and value chains, and we have high expectations for ourselves. Coming together again was a start; keeping together was a process; working together successfully allowed us to resolve conflicts within Rwandan society and rebuild our peaceful strong nation. It was once a chaotic dark, bloody nation that we all believed was impossible to heal. But it has.
I can smile – because the pain has gone – but still cry because it is where I am from. I am glad that we are one nation, one language, one message of love and hope. We are strong again.
Coffee has given me a professional focus: I feel proud, strengthened, connected, motivated, valued, and inspired by it. Now, I use it as a platform to inspire those around me to believe, work, and achieve. To give hope to the hopeless, and to help our leaders to forge the future for Rwandan society. And of course, to contribute to the development and sustainability of our coffee industry that played such a big part in helping my nation to rebuild itself, so that I could also build a life I wanted for myself.
SMAYAH UWAJENEZA is a Senior Barista at Question Coffee in Kigali, Rwanda and one of the five inaugural LEAD Scholars. LEAD is aimed at increasing diversity of leadership within the global coffee community by enabling access to professional development resources to people from underrepresented or marginalized communities. The program is made possible thanks to the generous support of S&D Coffee & Tea.
Did you enjoy Smayah’s story? Learn more about coffee as a conflict development crop in Rwanda in Issue 08’s Spotlight Feature by Dr. Joseph King, “Growing Specialty Coffee in Times of Conflict: Case Studies in East Africa.”
Special Thanks to Our Issue 8 Sponsor, Bellwether
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