“This is my most important possession,” the woman explained, holding up a shiny metal lock. Her name is Nadine, and she and I were standing outside her tiny, claustrophobic, windowless, one-room hut in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Inside, the room was completely dark, and the air was fetid. There was a straw mat on the dirt floor, and not much else.
“This keeps him out at night,” she continued, slipping the lock onto the door handle. “He drinks and tries to get into our home.”
Standing there, I tried to imagine what it felt like for Nadine, a slender woman in her twenties, protecting her three children from their violent father, lying in that tiny, hot room while her enraged former husband tried to tear down the door.
But she was not complaining about her modest circumstances, or the fear she felt when it got dark each night, hoping her ex-husband would not decide to punish her for ending their relationship. Instead, Nadine was telling me how happy she was to have found other women in her situation, attending the Aspire vocational training programme we support.
At Aspire, Nadine said, she had met women like her – vulnerable, poor, illiterate, but keen to learn and work hard to support her family. For the first time she had been able to talk about her life to women who understood and shared her fears. Aspire had created a safe and sympathetic space, she told me. Yes; she appreciated the chance to learn literacy and health and nutrition and hairdressing at Aspire. But she also found a home she had never had among people who were strangers until she had found the courage to walk through the Aspire gates three months before. “Now, I know I’m not alone,” she smiled.
As the world marks Mental Health Day today, I think of Nadine, hugging her children to her as their father is held at bay by a single lock. The stress she endures on a daily basis may not be text-book post traumatic stress disorder, but it is real and it affects every moment of her life. Mental health is not just about counselling; it is also about bringing people together to talk about their problems, helping them realise they are not alone, and reducing their isolation. In traditional, conservative societies where women are expected to bear their problems in silence, it is a vast relief to find other people who share the same feelings, and who offer support.
We at Network for Africa are proud of the practical training the Aspire project provides hundreds of women each year. But we are also proud of this life-changing element of Aspire; providing a network of mutual support and affection to resilient women who are struggling to make a better life for their children. Thank you for helping us to keep the gates of Aspire open to women like Nadine.