Marie M’Bukiraine Ntakwinja is a mother of eight who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am a 28-year-old professional living in New York and I was Marie’s sponsor through Women for Women International. For one year, I gave $27 a month to enroll Marie in the Women for Women International program, where she received vocational and technical skills training, and education in leadership and human rights awareness. The money I sent also helped her pay for basic necessities for her family, school-related expenses for her children and seed capital to start an income-generating project.
A key component to the program is the bond that is created between the sponsor and her sister through letters that are exchanged throughout the year. They are letters of encouragement, friendship and information about how each woman lives. The letters and the financial support provide women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.
I first heard about the war in the Congo when I was a college student at McGill University in Montreal. I decided to write my final term paper for a human rights class on the Congolese crisis. That’s when I discovered the horrors Congolese women were subjected to on a daily basis. Reading such vivid accounts of the brutality taking place in the world and happening to real women right now was so shocking and unimaginable to me.
Around the same time, I saw an episode of Oprah about the Congo and the incredible work that Women for Women International was doing in the region. I had finally found a tangible way that I could help!
Marie’s story is nothing short of remarkable. She was forced by militias to flee with her family from their home. Marie continued to care for her family by selling soya flour and peas, yet it was difficult for her to feed and cloth her children. Fortunately, Marie learned about Women for Women International, where she received direct aid, emotional support and job skills training. Upon graduation from the program, Marie built a successful soap-making business and was selected to enroll in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program. She received additional training in business, finance, and management. With the skills she learned, Marie was soon successful enough to relocate her business to the local marketplace, where it is thriving. She is selling flour and soap and earns a profit of $200 per month in a country where the per capita income is $184 a year.
As often happens when women are given the opportunity to begin or expand a business, Marie’s success has spread to her village. Two villagers and several of her children have been taught how to make soap, and Marie hires porters to transport sacks of beans and other supplies. And Marie’s inspiring road to self-reliance was made possible by just $27 a month.
As connected as I felt to Marie through our letters and sponsorship relationship, I harbored no belief that we would ever meet. But one evening in late October, I received word that the woman who was selected to receive the Goldman Sachs Woman of the World Award at the annual Women for Women International Awards Gala was none other than my sister, Marie M’Bukiraine Ntakwinja. Marie would be flown to New York and I was invited to come and meet her – my sister – for the first time on stage as she accepted her award.
I think that most of us who sign up to sponsor a woman can’t imagine that we might actually meet our sponsored sister one day. I keep the photos of my sisters on my refrigerator so that I can have a more tangible daily connection with them. I looked at Marie’s photo every morning while I made breakfast and thought to myself, “I wonder what Marie is doing today? I wonder what the program has planned for her group today? I hope she is having a good day and I hope she is filled with happiness, hope and strength today.” It was a morning ritual to look at Marie’s face and connect with her while she was going through the program.
That moment at the gala on November 9th, 2010 when Marie and I met face-to-face was pretty indescribable for both of us. As we stared at each other Marie kept saying, “It’s you – it’s you. It was planned. We were meant to meet.” We just kept our hands held firmly together, I think, as a reminder that this is real: we really are standing in front of one another.
My belief in what the Women for Women International program can provide for women survivors of war and conflict can best be summed up in the words that I shared at the Gala:
“I think I speak on behalf of all sponsors when I say the reason we choose to sponsor women like Marie is because we believe so strongly in their strength, resilience and drive to be powerful, contributing forces in this world. Marie is one shining example of what a woman is capable of. Marie, I am so proud of you. And I am humbled to be able to stand here with you and call you my sister.”