June 2024

Guest Blog: seamstress Ruth Mbonigaba shares her love of kitenge and tailoring with Donah Mbabazi

in Experience

Guest Blog: seamstress Ruth Mbonigaba shares her love of kitenge and tailoring with Donah Mbabazi

Donah Mbabazi is a writer and journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. A former reporter at Rwanda's The New Times, she has been writing and editing for almost 10 years. She enjoys working on articles on travel, interior design and stories of personal transformation.

Donah recently visited Singita Volcanoes National Park where she met with various local artisans and craftspeople to delve into the role their Rwandan heritage plays in the creation of their designs (from ceramics to carving and clothing design).

Seamstress Ruth Mbonigaba is one of the artisans based at Singita Volcanoes National Park, where she works from the on-site Akarabo Nursery

Sewing for Self Sufficiency

On a veranda looking out to the lush foothills beyond, seamstress Ruth Mbonigaba (26) shapes garments with a well-worn sewing machine and shares her story with Donah. Her designs – primarily in multi-coloured kitenge fabrics – add bright splashes of colour to Akarabo Nursery, her place of work. Here, the finished items hang by the window – an invitation for guests to pop in for shopping and conversation.

The nursery smells of new textiles. It is not only a place of hard work but also of hope and second chances. As a teenage mother, Ruth’s path to adulthood has been challenging, but training with The Foundation 4 Hope Amizero co-operative, one of Singita’s development partners in Rwanda, opened the way for new opportunities. Amizero was started in 2018 to support teen mothers in the Musanze district and offers skills training in weaving and tailoring to equip them for self-sufficiency.

Ruth learned how to sew through the work of a community co-operative and now her pieces are available to guests of Kwitonda Lodge and Kataza House

She loves working at Akarabo Nursery because it keeps her hands occupied and her mind focused. “When I am tailoring, especially when I get many customers, I like it so much. Because when I have nothing to do, I dwell on myself. But when I have a lot of work, I think about my job,” she says.

She finds inspiration in remembering her past, which inspires her to work even harder. Thinking about where she started helps her see how much progress she has made, motivating her to keep moving forward.

Working with kitenge fabrics as a tribute to her upbringing and culture, Ruth finds focus and purpose in her work

The Colours of Kitenge

As a tailor, she enjoys working with kitenge fabric as she believes the design best represents Rwandan culture – something she happily shares with guests to the lodge. "When I was a child, I saw my mom wearing it often. Many other women wore it too, and I thought it would be nice if everyone wore kitenge," she explains.

Guests show appreciation for the kitenge bags, dresses, and kimonos – and often buy for friends back home or put in orders between enjoying the gorilla-trekking activities and their time at Kwitonda Lodge or Kataza House.

Her time as a tailor has taught her many lessons. She has learnt that taking accurate measurements is the most important place to start. “That’s the first thing a tailor should know.” Working and mingling with other artisans has also helped her overcome solitude, and there's a great sense of community among the crafters at Akarabo Nursery.

“When I joined the team, I thought I was the only one with problems,” Ruth recalls. “After some time, I realised I was not alone and it helped me to think more positively. Life started changing like that, especially how I see myself.”

The artisans and craftspeople working from Akarabo Nursery have formed a supportive and companionable community

The Community of Akarabo

Work at the nursery starts at 9am and runs through til 5pm. It’s never a dull environment, with all the artisans working together as a team. It’s a wonderful mix of crafters, potters, weavers and tailors and creativity flows on a daily basis.

Meeting and interacting with different people around the world always comes with the opportunity to learn. She says, "It was hard initially because we are so different, but we have been encouraged to be open. Meeting and interacting with different people is always the highlight of my week.”

Ruth also prides herself on welcoming guests at the nursery. Not even language has hindered her from making their visitors feel seen and welcome – and sharing her love of kitenge and all things Rwandan comes naturally.

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