the businesswoman

Chantal,35, sews and makes clothes at Rwanda’s Gihembe camp. The Congolese refugee would like to grow her business, but without electricity, she has to use a manual sewing machine, which slows down production. ©UNHCR/Hannah Maule-ffinch

Chantal is Gihembe camp’s beloved tailor. She is 35 years old, petite, with large, warm brown eyes. She meets you with both her hands extended, cupping your hand in her soft palms.

Chantal sews her garments in a small mud hut. On any given day, you can find her sitting behind the sewing machine, maneuvering the fabric through the machine. You could easily miss the pair of blue plastic crutches leaning against her chair. Chantal contracted meningitis as a child, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.

Despite her disability, she is agile, and fast. Her fingers work rhythmically, cutting the cloth, recoiling the machine’s wheel and making a stitch appear along the edge of the fabric.

Chantal was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She lived there with her grandmother until violence broke out in 1997. No longer able to stay in their home, her grandmother made the decision for them to flee. She carried Chantal as they fled their home and made the journey to Rwanda.

When asked what would make life easier, Chantal mentions a sewing machine she wishes to buy from town. The problem is the sewing machine requires electricity – something that is not available in Gihembe. She says access to energy would be life-changing. “I believe that if there was electricity in this camp, my business would grow.”