My inspirational journey in architecture - Ntigulirwa


Women make Imigongo ornaments. Amelie Ntigulirwa says women should use their own inherent skills and capabilities to accomplish any given task, in any given field of work. (Courtesy)

Amelie Ntigulirwa

Everyone’s dream is to accomplish something big, even once in a lifetime. 

When I started my architectural studies in 2009, I was aware that it was a path seldom taken by women in Rwanda; I wanted to make a difference, to accomplish something big. But I could not figure out what that was. Being one of three girls in a class of twenty-five became the first of many signs that what I had embarked on was atypical, and I was reminded of that frequently.

Indeed, I got all types of mockeries and that has been a challenge throughout my University years.

No one expected us to perform better than our fellow male classmates. This idea frustrated me and I was determined to do my best, to compete with our male classmates —to show that I was much better than what people thought, that I could do what our male classmates can do, and even better, surpass all of them.

However, I soon realised that it was an error. In that entire struggle to compete with my male classmates, I realised that I couldn’t beat them, I would never be a like man. But I knew that did not mean I could not achieve something great.

Defying expectations: Meeting Kankwanzi

Still in the struggle to work out my way in a male dominated field that was Architecture, I met Kankwanzi in 2011 when I was working as an intern on the Butaro Doctors’ Housing construction site with MASS Design Group. Everybody was talking about her and her work; how she is more like a man than a woman. She was referred to as Igishegabo literally meaning, “ behaving like a man.”

She is one of those confident women, with a strong character; she was among the few women working on the site and she was among the best. When I got there I was impressed by the way she was respected by the other masons – mostly male – and appreciated for her work. I wondered what she thought so I asked her about gender equality. She stated clearly that women and men are different and that they should not be compared based on what they can do. Instead, women and men should be given the possibilities and opportunities to explore their respective talents and abilities.

I was impressed by her confidence in her ability to do what she was doing: doing the construction work and doing it well. I learned from her that I should focus and love what I know I can do, and do it well, rather than trying to prove some expectation of what I might be. I soon learned that she was not only respected because she was a good mason, but also because she had a family that she was taking care of: working while at the same time remaining faithful to her family.

Adding value to our work: Lessons from the Imigongo women at Rwinkwavu

I got another opportunity to work as a construction administrator on the Rwinkwavu Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Operation Rooms (NICU/OR), another MASS Design Group project, in collaboration with Partners In Health and the Ministry of Health. A completed redesigned space, the new wing of the Rwinkwavu District Hospital expands the existing maternity ward with two new operating rooms, includes a new pre operating ward, a post-op ward, kangaroo care and a neonatology room.

While working there, I got the opportunity to meet and work with a group of incredibly talented women that were working on Imigongo ornaments to be used in the building. I remember this particular day when I toured the building with these women, explaining the use and purpose of each room. Then, I showed them the drawings of the place where the Imigongo would be installed. I was impressed by their very clear and direct response of how these ornaments ought to be and the way to attach them on the wall so that it makes sense. They saw the space and how it could best be completed to improve the spirit and enhance the recovery of mothers and newborns. We had designed a medical space; they made it a caring space.

Anyone who has ever paid a visit to the building prior to the ornamentation by these women will notice how beautiful the building has become after these women have finished their artwork.

They left their signature on the building—they brought it to life. This simple detail made me realize that there is immense—and equal—value to the roles typically left for women, but they are often undervalued. We simply do things differently, each using his/her skills and talents to add value to the task.

As women of Rwanda

There is a saying in Kinyarwanda, UmugoreniUmutimaw’Urugo, literally meaning “the woman is the heart of the house”. This is said because typically women are the ones that take care of everyone and everything in a home. She is the one making decisions of how a house should be organized, what needs to be where; she is the manager of everything. But this Rwandan idiom also constitutes the basis for defining the kind of activities a woman can do, activities which are usually household oriented, or children-rearing oriented—those activities that have something to do with the welfare of a family and of the community. But also of society at large such as farming, teaching, nursing—this idiom defines those things a woman ought to concern herself with.

However in recent years, with broader discussions emerging on gender equity and wage equality, girls and women have been encouraged to explore courses and professions that were previously reserved for men. In Rwanda, these issues are still new, but recent developments have proved that when given a chance and motivated to explore their skills in male-dominated fields, women can excel like their male counterparts.

As a student in secondary school, I choose to study Mathematics and Physics because I was fascinated by the complexity of Mathematics and I believed that by studying Mathematics and Physics I would be able to choose any sciences subject at University, but I did not think that it would lead me to choosing Architecture. I did choose it because I realized that not only I loved construction but also I believed in my ability to do it and do it well. The whole academic experience coupled with internships I did at construction sites taught me that no matter what people think, women can do all types of tasks – even those that are traditionally reserved to men – and that it requires only the willingness and the ability to perform the task. Undeniably, working as a construction administrator at the Rwinkwavu NICU/OR required me to be myself and to use all my “womanish” skills—these were valued and distinguished.

In fact, I worked with a group of masons, who were mostly male, explaining the drawings, making sure that they were doing things as per the instructions; that they understood what they were working on; that there isn’t anything missing; and, that the timeframe was respected. This work requires patience, perseverance, as well as being very meticulous—all the qualities women often naturally possess.

The bottom line is that, as women, instead of striving to prove that we can do what men can do, why can’t we focus on what we can do and work to make society value our respective strengths equitably? When given an opportunity, women can perform as well as their male counterparts, without competing, but each using their own inherent skills and capabilities to accomplish any given task, in any given field of work.

The writer is an associate and architect at MASS Design Group based in Kigali