Africa: A day in the life of Rwanda’s first lady
A day in the life of Rwanda’s first lady
Rwanda is a global model for gender equality, and a stellar example of how communities can be mobilised for nation-building. In an exclusive interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, the country’s First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, tells us how the 15-year-old Imbuto Foundation has been taking Rwanda and its people forward. The article below first appeared in FORBES WOMAN AFRICA and is republished with its permission.
When does a country become synonymous with its community?
Just visit Rwanda on the last Saturday of any month, and you will see it here, in this hilly East African country, where the masses – from ministers to farmers, shopkeepers to entrepreneurs – rub shoulders to become one harmonious, homogeneous entity, laying roads, digging the earth, planting trees, and cleaning gutters and drains, holding broom, shovel and spade.
The only thing that counts is the richness of the earth, the fresh mountain air and a united mission to keep the streets green and immaculately clean as a contribution to nation-building and improving the living conditions of the country’s 11.5 million citizens.
It’s on one such Saturday that FORBES WOMAN AFRICA is invited to travel up country to Rwanda’s verdant Rulindo district, past Kigali’s bustling traffic and up the winding roads when the city’s modest skyscrapers appear no match for the country’s magnificent hills.
It’s the day the country observes Umuganda, a home-grown initiative that requires people from all walks of life, villagers and city-folk, to congregate for community work, once a month, from 7AM to 11AM.
Today, most of the action is in this northern province, where schoolgirls in blinding yellow and pink uniforms, rural women in colorful African dresses, and men in gum boots, form neat lines to take their turn planting saplings in the fertile earth.
Today, they are also awaiting a special visitor, who will dig the earth with them, under the hot mid-morning sun.
The earth is an apt way to introduce Imbuto Foundation – the word ‘Imbuto’ meaning ‘seed’ or ‘fruit’ in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s local language. And the special guest is none other than the President of this foundation, Jeannette Kagame, also the nation’s much-loved First Lady, wife to the country’s dynamic President Paul Kagame.
There is collective silence and adulation when she arrives, wearing denim pants and shirt and a yellow cap, getting to work right away with the shovel. A stone’s throw away, in a classroom, young girls aged 10 to 12 are seated in a circle on straw mats, ready to welcome her.
They call this ‘the circle of friendship’, and around them are their mentors, young women themselves, aged 18 to 25.
Today is also the launch of the third year of Imbuto Foundation’s successful 12+ programme in the area.
The programme, in line with the national plan under the Ministry of Health, has achieved significant milestones, reaching 52,000 girls nationally over the last two years.
The girls are taught about savings, discipline and confidence, in tandem with Imbuto’s motto to ‘engage, educate and empower’. The 10- to 12-year-olds are also taught about sexual health, ground-breaking by itself, as sex is still a taboo topic in the communities, and the girls are equipped with the knowledge about their bodies early, before they transition to adolescence.
In the classroom, the girls pass around a ‘speaking ball’ to each other, taking turns to voice their opinions in Kinyarwanda. They speak with supreme confidence – unfaltering even in the presence of the First Lady – drawing their hands on the charts in front of them, promising to never break their circle of friendship. Her Excellency listens to them keenly, before they pass the ball to her, and she politely introduces herself.
Her next stop is further down the dirt road, for a community gathering after Umuganda, where she is expected to speak to the thousands gathered on the hills, patiently waiting under cheerful umbrellas for a glimpse of their First Lady.
Greeted with music, ribbons and flowers, there is rapturous applause from the crowd when she arrives. The cool country breeze complements the convivial mood. The district mayor speaks about how the previous phases of the 12+ program have influenced the girls to open bank accounts, start kitchen gardens, and importantly, stay in school.
A 10-year-old girl, Amina Merci Dieu, steps up to the podium to speak about how she built a vegetable garden, sold the vegetables she planted and persuaded her parents to open a savings account. She speaks without fear, walking up to hug the First Lady when she is done.
I am seated next to Assumpta Ingabire, Director General in charge of Local Government Inspection, who was formerly with Imbuto.
“Our First Lady is such an inspiring role model. You can share your problems with her and she always sees things in a positive way,” she says, smiling.
Such memories and milestones are significant as Imbuto celebrates its 15th year in 2016.
“Imbuto does not work in a vacuum, it works in line with national priorities, working with communities. Without our communities, things would have taken forever [to rebuild],” says Sandrine Umutoni, Acting Director General of Imbuto Foundation.
It’s a pertinent point, as the country has had to reconcile and persevere to rebuild itself after the horrific genocide against the Tutsi that killed a million of its people in 1994. The only way it could turn around was by involving its communities.
Imbuto was initially launched as PACFA (Protection And Care of Families against HIV/AIDS) working to help families and genocide survivors with AIDS. It changed its name to Imbuto at the end of 2007 incorporating a holistic model for individual development, focusing mainly on educational projects.
One of Imbuto’s flagship programmes is a girls’ education campaign called Best Performing Girls (BPG).
“The girls who graduate from high school get training in IT, and also get laptops, which the First Lady hands out every year in March,” says Umutoni.
“They call her ‘mother’,” she adds. “In Kinyarwanda, when they call a person that, it means the person has accompanied you through difficult challenges, guiding you, counseling you, and providing support at specific moments in your life.”
Imbuto also organises a Youth Forum Series every year. In addition, the foundation works with 22 cooperatives across 13 districts, introducing women to income-generating vocations. With the money, they pay for school fees and medical insurance and enter new entrepreneurial activities.
The week that FORBES WOMAN AFRICA is in Kigali to follow the First Lady’s activities, is when the King of Morocco is also visiting, to sign an MoU with Rwanda on specific health and education projects. The Princess of Jordan, Sarah Zeid, is also visiting this week.
In between her packed schedule, the First Lady also attends a meeting with members of the 20-year-old Unity Club that she heads. The club brings together current and former members of cabinet and their spouses to promote unity and reconciliation in Rwanda. They also honor the country’s ‘torch-bearers’ every year in November, for outstanding social service.
The meeting with the Unity Club members, which I am also invited to attend, is at Imbuto’s temporary office in the President’s office complex in Kacyiru. Their office on the same grounds is being renovated. The complex is in a stunning manicured setting with frangipani trees, hibiscus flowers, ferns and foliage.
The First Lady is dressed in a smart beige and black suit and sits at the head of the mahogany table in the meeting room. She listens patiently and intently, speaking softly in Kinyarwanda as the ladies consult the files in front of them. She offers solutions and better approaches for some of the issues raised. It’s an in-depth discussion that goes on for over two hours, the seriousness interspersed at times with jokes by the First Lady – she clearly has an effortless sense of humor.
One of the ladies at the meeting is Radegonde Ndejuru, the First Lady’s advisor, who has been with Imbuto for 10 years now.
“We have a family spirit at Imbuto. Her Excellency is always so respectful. Her text messages to everyone starts with ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’. We put passion in everything we do as that is the way she does it. She also has a phenomenal memory and shows great attention to detail… I always ask her: ‘do you sleep enough?’ She is here in the morning, reads a lot and what I admire is she always follows through projects,” says Ndejuru.
In March 2016, at the 5th Kigali International Conference Declaration General Assembly in Algeria, the First Lady was presented an award along with United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of their contribution to women’s empowerment and their fight against gender-based violence.
Rwanda is a global model for gender equality. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2016 ranks Rwanda fifth globally for closing the gender gap in various spheres. The country has the highest representation (64%) of women in Parliament.
As part of gender mainstreaming, there is a Gender Monitoring Bureau in every institution in Rwanda, as the country works towards achieving a middle income status by 2020.
The First Lady works with a team of young, spirited, hard-working women, who exemplify the qualities of their leader. It is clear they have a great admiration for her work.
Before we settle for the interview, Mrs Kagame, as she is also called, begins by asking how I am, with a disarming smile. And that aptly sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. It’s easy to see how this mother of four has won the hearts of Rwandans.
We have seen the admiration people have for you – they call you Mother. You have been a First Lady for the last 16 years, what has taken you this far?
I would say that it is always doing to others as you wish it be done to you… There was no way one could just sit and watch and not contribute to transforming the lives of the people.
Mostly, there is this perception that a First Lady is just a shadow of the President. To the contrary, you have worked a lot for the disadvantaged and for women and youth in particular.
How have you managed that?
First ladies are sensitive as well, aren’t we? (laughs) We are human beings as well at the end of the day… Each one of us has tried to do it, to reach out to the people in need… And I too realized the chances that I have and the proximity that I have with some of the decision-makers, I felt I could not waste them and sit down and be comfortable without using them efficiently.
You have a number of programmes to empower the youth; how do you think they will power the economy of Rwanda?
Naturally, being the bigger percentage of the whole population, Rwanda [should] benefit from this demographic, and if they are able to be enterprising, and be self-employed as opposed to being job-seekers, we feel we can quickly move to our dream of becoming a middle income country.
How do you feel when you are in a crowd and there is so much affection and adulation around you?
I get the feeling that they are giving back what I am giving to them (laughs)… It’s an amazing feeling when people start with small ideas but when we look at where we came from 22 years ago and what we can see now… I keep telling them that they only have themselves to better their lives; slowly and slowly they are getting to realize that they need to scale up whatever they are doing for them to be self-sufficient so it’s really a mind-set change we are witnessing that can allow us to really be optimistic.
What next for Rwanda in terms of empowering women and youth?
I feel the women have to seize the moment, and continue to be over-empowered.
You also co-founded the Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS in 2002…?
We are now more focused on mother-and-child transmission and different types of cancers that affect women, and if we had to narrow it down to our country, for cervical cancer, we are proud to look at the role we have done so far… all the young girls have been covered in terms of HPV vaccines… so hopefully, this is one way of [fighting] cancer.
And what about the financial inclusion of women in rural areas who are still unbanked…?
The women have been organized in different cooperatives, and they are trying to really make the different financial institutions very friendly to the women, to be able to approach them and benefit from the services… and [the women] have proven to be the best, better than even the men in terms of payment of credit and all…
You recently met with the King of Morocco. Can you share some details?
We tried to find some areas of cooperation that we both share in terms of the health and education sectors so I think that [we are] still defining the exact areas of cooperation.
The Princess of Jordan was also in Rwanda recently, to discuss refugee issues. Are you also closely involved in that aspect?
I was a refugee myself, that’s really the connection.
Your staff describes you as a very hands-on, pro-active person, and says you always come up with innovative ideas…
I guess we all have dreams, we aspire to a better Rwanda all together so I guess I afford to dream and I trust the team that they can be pushed a bit, just a bit (laughs).
You are head of the Unity Club, the Imbuto Foundation, you are also the First Lady, and you have a family… do you feel the pressure at times?
To have a semblance of a balanced and comfortable life, one has to live in a world that caters for its people… so I wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t play or contribute to all those roles…
Is it possible for a woman to do it all?
No one is superhuman.
Do you get any time for yourself? I hear you do a lot of reading…
I like biographies; right now, I am readingLà où le soleil disparaît, an autobiography by the Rwandan-Canadian musician known as Corneille (Cornélius Nyungura), and Petit Paysby Gaël Faye, a Rwandan-French hip-hop artist.
What is your sense of style, what do you portray?
One has to be comfortable in the first place, so style is unique to each person.
What is the next 15 years for the Imbuto Foundation?
We are still working on our strategies with the board, but we really wish to consolidate what we have achieved and continue giving confidence to these young people and just tell them to occupy their rightful place in this society that is so ready for them. In short, dream… they should realize they are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
What is it like working with the President and alongside him?
I keep watching him and then try to understand his vision, and make it as easy as it is for him to take a step.
Finally, what’s your message for young women in Africa?
Just to tell them they are capable and that they should really have the confidence that if they focus on whatever dream they have, they can always achieve it; it’s not always easy but with a bit of determination, they’ll get there. And at times if people are not willing to give it to them, they have to find ways of getting where they want to be.