As we talk with the organizations we are visiting, it is clear that the Rwanda government is taking a strong and bold lead in trying to improve life in Rwanda. Although there are still a myriad of issues, there is an comprehensive country plan, Vision 2020 has aggressive economic, education, health, and gender equity goals that some people think are not realistic.
The things that impress me is that most of the people we speak with are glad that they live in a safe country – that seems to be number one, especially after the horror of 20 years ago. Another is that the government is coordinating the NGO (non government organization) activities so there is little duplication of effort and the activities are congruent with the national plan. To people working here on projects, it may appear as excessive red tape to get approvals, but most are satisfied to be working with a common vision.
This morning we started out by visiting AVEGA – http://www.avegaagahozo.org, an association of genocide widows. Many of the members joined us. It was an emotional meeting as we heard about some of their experiences, and their hopes and dreams were touching.
The association was established in 1995 following the genocide. There are over 19,000 members which includes widowers and widows with over 61,000 dependents, many of whom are elderly, infected with HIV/AIDS and those who live with severe trauma issues.
The Association was formed under the notion that unity makes strength. The vision is to restore hope and life to genocide widows to help them be reintegrated into society and the Mission is to work for progress and empowerment of their members. They provide medical care, trauma counseling and have founded three health centers throughout the country, as well as advocacy and a socioeconomic program.
Members were affected by the genocide differently. One of the women spoke for the members and she related that they support each other, that AVEGA gave hope, helped them build houses and their lives. Social workers meet with them and some of the women create handicrafts and agricultural crops to support themselves.
We were charged by these women to be ambassadors and tell people about the genocide because there are still those who deny it happened or are not aware of it. The meeting ended with warm hugs with members of the association and shopping among their handicrafts.
Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion at the Gender Monitoring Office
The next meeting was at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion with Minister Henriette Umerlisa and members of her staff. The mission is to promote gender equity and family education. Their task is to coordinate all the organizations and activities to meet the country’s vision and goals. There are a lot of positive factors in play: political will, strategic partnerships, policies and framework and a legal framework. For example, the constitution has been amended to allow women to own land, receive inheritance, electoral rights and girls education.
They have made much progress towards their goals but there are still challenges such as a poor mindset (wanting to stay the same), low engagement of men, and ignorance of laws. They are working to address these challenges. We learned that the constitution states that a minimum of 30 percent of all decision making positions must include women. This is why Rwanda’s legislature has 67% women!
This was a sobering and uplifting meeting – they are doing so much in such a short time and still have so much to do, but I am in awe of the unfailing efforts to move this country into a healthy, productive environment for all of its citizens.
Our visit was featured in the Ministry’s Newsletter:
Akilah Institute for Women
The Akilah Institute for Women is a post secondary school that was established five years ago as a three year program (currently with 280 students) to prepare young women for Hospitality management, Entrepreneurship and Information Systems. Students come from all over Rwanda and the school focuses on empowering young women so they are confident and comfortable, even with public speaking as many of the girls did with us today.
I think this was the highlight of the day for all of us! We had lunch with a number of the students in the student government and had a lively interchange with questions going both ways. We were all impressed with their poise, confidence, great questions and comfort in speaking with us. We ended up deciding that we would each mentor one of the girls in the coming years. It was delightful.
When one of the girls expressed her hopes – she said “I hope I will be a part of Rwanda’s future ” I am confident that she will be as well as her classmates! The school also helps the girls find jobs and in the first graduating class 100 percent got jobs. There were two babies in the nursery and girls are encouraged to continue their education if they get pregnant and bring their babies to school. It costs about $3500 per year to educate a student, but the students are charged $500 with 90% of that a loan that they will pay back when they get a job. It is a wonderful school and the girls were delightful!
Me and my mentee, Marie Aimee
Our day ended with a cocktail reception at the Inema arts center
Inema Arts Center
Our day ended with a visit to the Inema Arts Center. I am charmed by the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda, that has such poetic translations for words. Inema means a blessing, a gift, a talent to cultivate, to give, to receive!
The center is a non-profit arts program created by two brothers, Emanuel and Innocent who are both talented artists. Neither went to art school because there are none in the country.
Innocent with his work Emanuel and his work
They have a passion for art, love for people, pride in Rwandan culture, sharing creativity, education, healing and cultural enlightenment. From the entrance, we were drawn by the bright colors and sculptures made from found objects, including two VW Bugs!
The center has a craft center in what would have been a garage for the beaders and sewers where women come to work together. In addition to two floors of gallery space featuring the work of the brothers and eight other local artists, there is a gift shop and at the back, a studio where they work and hold classes for under served students. There is also a gallery for the students’ work!
The beaders Trying to learn from them
The brothers call the center a social enterprise with about a hundred participants not only including artists, Musicians and but dancers. The delegation hosted a wine reception and invited many of the people we visited as well as other contacts that we were unable to visit in person. It was a very nice affair which concluded with the dance students performing for us. The center not only offers the dance lessons for free, but pays their school tuition out of proceeds from the center. We were delighted to be entertained by them and were very impressed by their skill and commitment. (Sorry, I only took movies of the dancers!)
Drummers Mixed media fabric and paint
This is a wonderful example of two entrepreneurial brothers who have a vision for Rwanda and want to help create a vibrant arts community that also is a healing experience for many of the participants. They have also partnered with Heaven restaurant and have a gallery space there as well. I had a nice conversation with Emanuel who told me he had been an artist in residence at the University of Scranton and Arcadia University which is about three miles from my home!
Hats off to these two energetic social entrepreneurs!
At the reception, I met Lauren Russell, an American who originally came to Rwanda with the Nike Foundation to evaluate the Girl Hub program. She fell in love with the country and its people and decided to stay and start a business. There is no scale retailers in the country and many goods are inconsistently available when people go to the stores. With limited internet (national average of 2.4% of the people have computers), and no real option to create an on-line mail order business, her concept is to create an ordering system using a simple function phone through a text request. Using USSD, a mobile phone system with menu options, people will be able to order through their phones a limited menu of staple supplies and things like sanitary products. She will warehouse these items and deliver them via moped. Because there is no formal addressing system in the country (most people live on ad hoc footpaths), they will use a GPS to identify the site and store it with the ordering phone number. The transaction will use mobile money, which is prevalent here, and the products will be delivered by moped. I love these young entrepreneurs and their creative ideas!
Lauren and Ishmael
Before dinner we had the opportunity to visit with Deanna Freedman, MD, a friend of one of the delegates, who is an American pediatrician who is here for a year working to train medical school trainers. The program is funded through the Clinton foundation, Health Access, USAID and the Rwanda government. It is a 7 year project involving over 100 doctors in four hospitals.
There is some good news: Neonatal mortality has declined from 23% to 7% after training 35 people. The most common issues are worms, rheumatic fever and malaria. Education is the most important need in the country. Children are still defecating out in the open and are not using the latrines – this spreads the worms.