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Strengthening Virunga National Park stitch by stitch

Craftswomen of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are sewing their own success against all odds in a country embroiled in conflict.

By Milo Putnam on February 28, 2024   duration

Nyanzira Esperance working in the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. Photo by Bobby Neptune.
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Virunga National Park has always played a significant role in Jeanette Aziza’s life. But for almost three decades, her home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been overwhelmed in violence from the presence of well-armed militias. Life in and around Virunga has been embroiled in conflict. This tension worsened Jeanette’s fear when her husband, Gasusa Salvator, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a ranger himself, dedicating his days to patrolling the park to help ensure the safety of the region. 

Cultivating peace and stability in the region is deeply tied to Virunga National Park’s mission for building new employment opportunities to support local communities. The park’s rangers stand fearlessly on the frontline of conservation for the protection of its wildlife and habitats. These rangers are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the local people, like Jeanette’s family, that live and travel across the park’s 3,000 square miles. rangers routinely face harsh physical conditions, injury, and even death. Sadly, Jeanette’s father was killed by rebels, mistaken for another militia-member in his ranger uniform. 

Rangers patrolling Virunga National Park. Photo by Bobby Neptune.

“My husband was a hard worker, we loved each other very much, even when there was no money,” Jeanette says. “He too died while working as a ranger, in October of 2007 in a car accident near Kibumba. Before his passing, he used all of his income to support me and my children.”

Since Virunga was established as a national park in 1925, over 200 rangers have lost their lives. These losses have tragically left numerous women like Jeanette to raise their children on their own without support from their late partners. 

The Fallen Rangers Fund

The same year as Jeanette’s husband’s death, Virunga National Park created the Fallen Rangers Fund to provide critical support, employment, and training to the partners and children of those rangers killed in the line of duty. This fund now ensures these families receive the financial support they need. Additionally, they set out to identify nearly all of those fallen rangers’ families, dating back to 1991, when the regional conflict began. 

Jeannette Sendegeya outside Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. Photo by Bobby Neptune.
Uwimana Hakizumwami Noella working in the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. Photo by Bobby Neptune.

“The dedication of Virunga’s rangers is unparalleled,” says Mary Brown, Re:wild senior manager of conservation partnerships. “Their devotion to protecting the communities and wildlife of this Key Biodiversity Area is beyond admirable. These rangers, as well as their spouses and children, risk a lot to ensure Virunga can continue to play a critical role in our planet’s overall health and the persistence of biodiversity globally.”

After the tragic loss of a ranger, a private fund is immediately established to gather support from the local community and all donations toward that fund are given directly to the ranger’s family. Additionally, for six months following their tragic loss, the park continues to pay the ranger’s full salary to their family. After those initial six months, they receive a pension that provides ongoing support. The park also ensures these individuals and their children receive free medical services and schooling, which are provided through the park’s facilities. Many women in particular have used those funds to start their own businesses and can now support their families on their own.

In addition to financial support, Virunga has developed opportunities for personal development for these women, allowing them to expand their skills and improve their families’ livelihoods. Work-based training within Virunga’s various departments includes: electrical engineering, supplying sustainably produced power to homes and businesses across the region, marketing professionals working in Goma, and even chocolatiers in the Virunga Origins chocolate factory.

Three women working in the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. From left to right: Bendandunguka Biyaga Marie-Chantal, N'habimana Munganya Domithile, and Kaneza Ntahotuburaniye Marie. Photo by Bobby Neptune.

Cultivating craftswomen

In 2016, Virunga established the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop where women can go to learn sewing skills to help generate additional income for their families. Dozens of local women from communities surrounding Virunga make products including curtains and napkins for the park, and even stuffed animals and other souvenirs for sale around the world. Furthermore, this workshop space helps to foster a sense of unity, strengthening community after suffering unimaginable loss. 

“Virunga National Park is one big family and place of refuge,” says Katungu Kawa Valerie, a member of the sewing workshops. “Virunga allows me to live in love, laughter and harmony with my colleagues, while mentoring the young adults on conservation of the park. This place employs hundreds of people that are able to earn a living, which supports our livelihoods, pays for our children's school fees, and provides free electricity and medical cover. If you ask me, Virunga is one of the best parks in the world.”

Masika Sakina Salambongo working in the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. Photo by Bobby Neptune.

Following the success of the original sewing workshop, in 2017 the park created the Mutsora Sewing Workshop to host women living near the northern sector of Virunga. In addition to creating quilts, this second workshop also mends ranger uniforms and shoes in need of repair. This is yet another way local community members continue to support Virunga’s operations and ongoing work to protect nature. 

“At the Sewing Workshop I was taught how to make various items, from cutting and preparation to sewing,” Jeanette says. “My life has changed, now I love to sew. Before I was relying on my vegetable garden for income, but since joining the workshop I have my own house and I’m even able to help my neighbors who are less fortunate than me.”

Now a yellow tape measure regularly hangs from Jeanette’s neck as she sews anything from bags to stuffed hippopotamuses at the sewing workshop. The ultimate goal is to support women like Jeanette, beyond bare subsistence living, and to help them regain control of their livelihoods. 

The lasting legacy of Virunga

“My husband’s legacy will continue through my children,” Jeanette says. “One of my sons hopes to be a ranger when he grows up and my second son plans to work for the park as soon as he finishes his mechanics training. Virunga is a special place giving back to the local community.”

Donate to the Virunga Action Fund to support the families of rangers who have fallen in the line of duty. One hundred percent of your donations will go toward Virunga’s rangers and the necessary operational costs to ensure they are well supported. 

Sekibibi Fifi Antoinette working in the Rumangabo Sewing Workshop. Photo by Bobby Neptune.

About the author

Milo Putnam

Milo is a communications manager for Re:wild and has a true love of storytelling and creating compelling content that mobilizes action for our planet. He's always looking to uncover the next best story to engage others in discovering the natural world and helping to protect it in the process. When he's not crafting engaging content, Milo loves going on adventures near and far with his husband.

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