This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of Forbes Woman Africa
Rwanda, striving for gender equality, serves as an example of how a nation could be built by communities. 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.
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 upcountry 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-folks – to congregate for community work, once a month, from 7 to 11 in the morning.
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 the Imbuto Foundation—the word ‘Imbuto’ meaning ‘seed’ or ‘fruit’ in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s local language. And the special guest is none other than the foundation’s President, Jeannette Kagame, 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 a 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+ program in the area.
The program, 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. Such milestones are significant as Imbuto celebrated its 15th year in 2016.
The girls are taught about savings, discipline and confidence, in tandem with Imbuto’s motto to ‘engage, educate and empower’. The younger girls 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.
“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 Protection And Care of Families against HIV/AIDS (PACFA) 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 programs 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 organizes 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 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 memorandum of understanding with Rwanda on specific health and education projects. The Princess of Jordan, Sarah Zeid, is also visiting.
As part of 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.
The meeting with the Unity Club members takes place at Imbuto’s temporary office in the President’s office complex in Kacyiru – their office on the same grounds is being renovated – 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, displaying 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,” says Ndejuru. “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.”
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.