Janet Nkubana, 2008 Africa Prize Laureate
Thank you very much. Thank you Dr. Bourne, Ms. Lester and the entire Hunger Project team.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am thrilled to receive this award! I am so very honored to be named an Africa Prize laureate. This means so much to me. This award is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life and in my family's life. It means so much to the people of Rwanda, to my brothers and sisters, who have endured so much pain, so much suffering.
It is not just my award. Yes, this Africa Prize is a recognition of my work. But, it is also a recognition of a collective effort, particularly that of the women of Rwanda. It is the acknowledgement of the trassroots men and women throughout Africa, who are ending poverty and rebuilding their countries!
Friends, this Africa Prize sends a message to the world. It says that a girl who spent her childhood in a refugee camp can grow up to become a woman who can make a real difference!
What means the world to me is receiving this Prize from an organization that has a mission to help people end hunger by helping themselves.
You see, I myself grew up in a refugee camp. Every single day, I saw people suffer from hunger. I saw people die from hunger. When I returned to Rwanda in 1994, after the genocide, hunger was everywhere.
When I first went back, I worked as a hotelier. And every single day, woman after woman would come to me begging for food for themselves and for their children.
At first, I would share what I had. But it was so hard to see people beg. It was so hard to see my sisters suffer with no dignity. But then I saw something happen. The women still came to me, still asking for food, not with empty hands, but with baskets that they had woven.
I started to buy these baskets, really beautiful baskets. I opened a curio shop in the hotel I managed. I sold these baskets to the hotel guests - to UN officials, government people. People loved them and the demand for the baskets grew!
My Rwandan sisters were becoming entrepreneurs, even if they did not know it themselves!
But, we were not organized. We were not able to meet the demand.
So, I would go to where the women gathered. I went from one church to another. I would let them know that people valued their baskets and that if the women worked together, they could earn money and pull themselves out of hunger and out of poverty.
Groups of 25 to 50 women would weave together and then over time, I would bring the groups together. I realized that this was an opportunity to not just have women earn money, it was an opportunity to build peace. It was a chance to help heal the wounds from the genocide and war. And so, when I put the groups together, both sides of genocide-Hutus and Tutsis-sat under one roof. It did not matter if one woman's husband had killed another's.
I met with them, and I said to them: "Don't we breathe the same air? Speak the same language? Don't we all love our children? Let us just weave, and try to put the past behind us."
And so the cooperative, Gahaya Links, grew! We have grown to nearly 4,000 weavers.
Women are weaving peace baskets-baskets that are helping them end their own poverty; baskets that allow them to put food on their table and send their children to school; baskets that are creating peace and healing in a country that so desperately needs it.
I never thought that I would become the voice for the voiceless. But I am.
I hope that women and men throughout Africa see that they can take action and that they can make a difference. We do not need to rely on our governments. We do not need to be millionaires. Individual people, just like me, can follow their dreams and do what they think is right. And this can have an extraordinary impact on other people-on families, on nations and on the world.
I would like to thank the women of Rwanda, who have been my core motivation. I would like to thank my sister, Joy. We worked tirelessly together. I would like to thank my children and my mother, who have opened their hearts and home to the women in the Gahaya Links Collective. Many thanks to my friends at Macy's and Fair Winds. And, many thanks to the American people who buy our products and recognize not only their beauty, but recognize that they are truly symbols of peace.
I would like to thank the President of Rwanda, the Government of Rwanda and the Embassy, who have heard the voices of the women in Gahaya Links and who have been so supportive of us and so supportive of all of the women of Rwanda.
I warmly congratulate my fellow laureate on her leadership in mobilizing grassroots women.
And, I thank the almighty God, who has given me great strength and fortitude!
Friends, we have a tradition in Gahaya Links. Every year at Christmas, we give special presents to special groups of people. This year, we have chosen you!
So, as you leave this evening you will receive a small basket, woven by our women. Please accept this gift from the women of Rwanda. While it is small in size, it is big in meaning. That one little basket holds more love, more peace and more dignity than any words can ever express.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you very much.