Well if you read prior posts you will know I’m on a volunteering project here, sponsored by my employers IBM. It’s the end of day 4 proper of the four week exercise and my brain is somewhat fried (from the research, I hasten to add). There are four of us – Erica, Praveena and Noriko, plus me – assigned to what has colloquially been called ‘the Imbuto project’. This is centred on female economic empowerment through harnessing technology, and it’s fair to say that at this point I possibly (no, make that probably) know more about the Rwandan economic model than I do about the Irish version. Weird but true.
Interview One this morning was with the Irish-named (though I think she thinks I’m joking) Assumpta from the Imbuto foundation, and it was a bit of an eye-opener. Among many projects they sponsor, one is called the Imali project and it involves investing in a greenhouse, some tomato plants, and plant food and forming a co-operative venture around that. There are about 12 of these revenue-generating projects all around the country and the plan is that they will become self-sustaining after a reasonable period, and then lift these women and their families out of poverty. What was a bit heart-stopping was the description of the way the women were selected/grouped. One was a group who ‘became the head of household at an early age as a result of the genocide of 1994’. Another was women who were rape victims from that period. Another were HIV positive ex-prostitutes. And one were ‘just’ from a minority group – the Twa people. So this interview was a fairly graphic start to the day. And also a crash course in how this is definitely a country with a harrowing past, when you scratch a bit below the surface.
Interview Two was with a ‘gender issues expert’ from Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), our local volunteer partners (and invaluable helpers) and that focused, inter alia, on male attitudes to female empowerment. Enlightening. And I think we all heard echoes of the male-female relationship in our own ‘developed economies’. When you hear phrases like ‘men allowing women to be empowered’ it’s a place where you have to choose your words carefully.
Interview Three was with Alex, Bosco and Charlotte from the Ministry of gender and revealed that the Rwandan Government has multiple projects designed to focus on this area. So many in fact that I began to lose track. But the great thing is that there seems to be real commitment to pushing them through and persisting. Charlotte’s contribution was interesting. She’s a Rwandan College graduate now studying Economics and Sociology in the US. She was home working as an intern in the Ministry and preparing her thesis on – guess what – female economic empowerment. She seemed much empowered herself – to coin a phrase. Her view was that key to the whole discussion was creating employment opportunities in the country through inward investment. Because it’s pointless educating people, of whatever gender, unless you try to harness that by offering prospective career paths. Makes sense to me and I guess the parallel with Ireland is the number of young people jumping on planes and going to work abroad when the latest recession started to bite. She was running a mentoring program for girls while back in Rwanda – so on Facebook check out ‘100 women who will impact Rwanda’.
We’re based in the relatively new Public Library building on top of a hill (naturally) in North Kigali, and it’s interesting to see the large numbers of school kids reading books in the aisles and using the internet terminals. I guess the thirst for knowledge is strong. There’s a phrase written large on the walls – ‘Readers become Leaders’. Good line.As I perused the shelves I stumbled across a period piece – the manuals below…
My final research efforts for the day were to read the Imbuto latest annual report and then – the killer blow – the 85 page ‘Millennium Development Goals’ document produced in late 2014 by an independent World-Bank linked team of Nordic advisors. I will spare you the details (cue sighs of relief) but there were a few telling facts.
Gender empowerment is succeeding in some areas and stalling in others. Technical enablement (internet, smartphones, etc.) is strong in the capital but in rural areas many districts don’t even have electricity yet – or at least a reliable source. And finally the prediction was that in late 2015 – even though this was seen as a positive in the sense that ‘it could be worse’ – 20% of people will live in extreme poverty – principally as subsistence farmers in rural areas. Sobering stuff.
The follow-up what with Assumpta was even more sobering. As we built up trust she told us, with quite a lot of emotion, that her parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide and out of a family of eight siblings there were only three left. It’s rather hard to take this in, but yes it happened, and I think we all feel a duty to visit some of the many genocide memorials around the country, of which sadly there are several. She did tell us that she works with people whose fathers were locked up due to their brutal actions during 1994 (they are labelled ‘genocidaires’) but she said everyone feels ‘they have to move on’. So I think after that discussion we all felt a huge amount of admiration for where the Rwandans have collectively come from, and it does seem that the leader Paul Kagame is indeed ‘the father of the modern nation’. I hope to read up more about him in the weeks ahead.
Having said all that, the good news is that there is a sense of purpose from everyone we have spoken to, and hopefully some of the work we’re doing may contribute in a small way to the progress. On a more mundane level, a few initial observations about Rwandans. Many are very tall. Most speak extremely softly (or else my hearing is going) and are very courteous people. So far I have adventurously tried eating goat (fine), yams (bland), green banana mash (tasted like mashed potato), plantain greens (a bit like spinach) and worst of all, stuffed cow intestine. Let’s just say I won’t be trying that last one again…Outside the hotel, lots of people walk (Africans seem to be especially accomplished at this), pedal cycles are very rare, and motor cycles are used as taxis to ferry people from A to B. I have not tried that yet but time will probably conquer my misgivings. Below is the primary source of nutrition in the country, as far as I can see…
All the IBM team are getting on well together and no faction fights have broken out as yet. I think as the mission proceeds we’ll all get to learn each other’s ‘back story’ and that promises to be interesting too. Weather-wise, it’s the dry season in Kigali. I still am confused as to the city geography but maps of the traditional variety remain elusive. It’s really hilly though, and at night that becomes more obvious with swathes of lights dotting the hillsides. Power cuts are reasonably common but seem to ‘come back’ shortly thereafter – perhaps fall back generators are being employed.
So on we go, I think the plan at the weekend is to try to see some of the countryside and see the ‘real Rwanda’, so that promises to be interesting also. More anon as we get a deeper understanding and see what the real countryside looks like.