A Chance: Story of a life changed by Imbuto Foundation

By Naswiru Shema
On 21 December 2021 at 10:40

February 16, 2019; a morning like every other - except that it was not. I had received a call, a few days prior, informing me that I was among the youth invited to visit ‘Intwaza’ - widows and widowers of the Genocide against the Tutsi - living in Bugesera.This visit was organized by Imbuto Foundation in partnership with the Ministry of Youth and Culture. Little did I know that it was about to be a life-changing day.

We arrive in the neighborhood and it’s filled with joy, hope, and zeal for life. Everyone’s wisdom far exceeded their grief and shared loss. Their energy was contagious, and we immediately started bonding. For people who had been through so much tragedy, the way we interacted with each other was a sight to behold. We played games, shared a meal, had rich conversations, and overall enjoyed ourselves beyond what we had expected. As the day was coming to an end, An Imbuto staff entrusted me with the task of giving closing remarks on behalf of the peers I had come with.

With vigor and excitement, I accepted. However, as soon as I realised the task at hand, fear and doubt quickly settled in. Who was I, Shema Naswiru, having never spoken in public or before an audience before, to address this crowd with something as moving and impactful as closing remarks?

As quickly as fear settled in, so did a tiny voice that whispered the old cliché “Try and fail but never fail to try.” Strangely, for the first time in my life, that line had never been truer. With a spring in my step, I went to prepare my remarks. The more I delved into what the right message would be, the harder it got; with an audience of young people and survivors who had gone through the worst, I feared sounding insensitive or ignorant.

There was a lot at stake and sitting there watching speakers deliver amazing speeches one after another made my nerves worse. “Could I do it too?”, those 5 words nagged me until I was called on stage. The Rwandan proverbs I had been learning for the past few weeks served me well and seemed to resonate with the crowd. At the end of my remarks, there was mild applause, but my insecurities convinced me that it was not meant for me. The awe I saw in my peers’ eyes as I stepped down the podium, and the questions that followed were enough to render me speechless.

As I reflect on the many opportunities I receive today: invitations to speak on national television, radio talk shows, conversations with leaders, and leading public forums, I am reminded of my humble beginnings. The day we visited ‘Intwaza’, any one of my peers could have been chosen, but the chance I was given changed my life for the better.

Imbuto is not just one person though, it’s the tale of an exceptional team. I recall it so clearly. The year is 2020, I’m attending a book launch at Marriott Hotel. We reach the end of the night and I step outside only to see the Director General of Imbuto Foundation, Sandrine Umutoni. In all nervousness and bewilderment, I approach her and introduce myself; telling her how much of a privilege and honor it is to meet her. In all humbleness, she returns my enthusiasm, by introducing herself too, and being a wonderful conversationalist. Internally, I can’t believe that this very moment is happening. After a few minutes, she reaches for something in her bag that turns out to be the least of my expectations. She hands me her business card and tells me to call her anytime I ever need something. I am baffled by her grace throughout our whole interaction.

On that day outside of Marriot, she inspired me even more than before. In networking, you learn that the connection deepens between two parties when each has something to offer. For a while, I didn’t contact her because I felt the need to do so once I had something significant enough.

Fast forward to 2021 and I am the Executive Director of Peace and Love Proclaimers (PLP), a youth-led organization that many know as the founders of Walk To Remember. As I look through my old belongings, I find her business card; so, I immediately call her. While the phone is ringing, I feel the doubt creep in telling me she is too important to pick up my call. To my disbelief, she picks up and speaks to me in a comforting tone. I reintroduce myself and she pronounces my first name, Naswiru, correctly - which is usually a hard feat.

During our call, I am once again amazed by how good of a listener she is when we have only met once. We finish our call, and she informs me that she will get back to me shortly. A week passes by, and I reach out to her to remind her of our business. Unexpectedly, she apologizes for not calling back sooner. While she apologized to me, I couldn’t fathom how to appropriately respond to such a puzzling situation. I said, out lack of better words, “It’s fine Madam director”. This moment has stayed with me, like a daydream. If anything, DG Sandrine inspired me to stay humble no matter how high I rise. To be a leader and to be respected goes hand in hand with how you treat other people. Humaneness & Humility goes a long way for a leader and those whom he/she leads.

My journey with Imbuto foundation resumes on a sunny day where I am invited to attend the 25th &18th anniversary of AERG & GAERG, being held at the Intare Conference Arena. Unfortunately, I couldn’t arrive on time, so I choose to sit at the back. Suddenly, a lady who works for the Imbuto Foundation approaches me and requests that I follow her to my seat. As I walk towards the front, I have this overwhelming urge to wave at the other attendees, which is something I have always loved seeing leaders do at such meetings. I arrive at my seat, only to find out I am seated right next to the Minister of Youth and the First lady. It was a lot to process, me being me and them being THEM. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an unbelievable moment. However, out of respect, I later gave up the seat to a much older and honourable person, in what is referred to in Kinyarwanda as “Guhagurukira umukuru”. The more I thought about my experience with the Imbuto Foundation, the more it made sense.

Imbuto aims to uplift the Rwandan youth and everything about my story was perfectly in line with their goals. In Kinyarwanda, there is a saying that goes, “Imvugo niyo Ngiro”, which translates to Actions speak louder than words. I believe that utterly embodies what Imbuto foundation manages to accomplish. Their work involves women and youth empowerment and that’s exactly what is delivered. When you visit their headquarters, you see women and the youth staff involved in every aspect of the foundation. Once again, their words become actions first and foremost.

I will never forget my second encounter with the First Lady.

I was so eager to attend the event in question, that I arrived two hours early. The MCs did a great job wrapping 20 years of accomplishments into one night.

At the highlight of the night, her excellency The First lady gives her speech and concludes it by announcing that awards are going to be given to young people and youth organizations which have strived to impact Rwandan lives over the years. My heart starts fluttering when I consider the possibility that I could be among the 8 winners. The pounding in my heart becomes heavier as the MCs call people out of the audience. When the MCs call out Peace and Love proclaimers, I hold my breath for a few seconds, out of pure shock and disbelief. As I stand to receive the award, I notice all the incredible leaders and entrepreneurs I have always looked up to clapping for me and nodding their heads with approval. It is both massively overwhelming and moving. I reach the stage and am handed the prize by the First Lady, who encourages me with just a few whispered words telling me, “Congratulations! Mukomerezaho.”

As ecstatic as I was, I still can’t help but realize the unfortunate situation Covid-19 has put us in. I can’t shake the First Lady’s hand, or even hug her respectfully. I only hope to work towards another moment in the future where I will get the chance to do so. When I get back to my seat, I start to reminisce on my humble beginnings. I never thought I would be leading such an organization that could get such a special accolade from the First Lady herself; it’s truly a dream come true for me. I look back at three years ago when I started this journey, working with young people; I remember taking it one step at a time. However, time and time again, life has proven to me that expanding your thinking is possible, and necessary. I would like to encourage my fellow young people to always remember that hard work pays off. Do not give up nor give in because, there’s always a worthy reward to everything if you put your heart in it.

Imbuto Foundation has inspired me in ways the version of me prior to 2019 had never envisioned. I have been guided into dreaming big, being of service for those who need it most, practicing humility, and turning my words into action first. I wholeheartedly hope to one day be for someone what Imbuto Foundation has been for me.

The writer (in the middle) is the Executive Director, Peace and Love Proclaimers.