On Monday, Rwanda bid farewell to one of its finest, Aloisea Inyumba, the late Minister of Gender and Family Promotion. We reproduce the excerpts from the interview she granted to Michael Fairbanks, for Daedalus Experiment, in 2011:
Michael Fairbanks (MF): Where did you grow up and what was it like growing up?
Aloisea Inyumba (AI): I lived in Uganda, in one of the refugee camps. And our life in the refugee camp was very, very difficult. It’s like I had lost everything in Rwanda. I had lost my father. Actually, I never knew my dad.
So I grew up with my mother in this refugee camp in Uganda, and I would just say that our childhood was difficult. Like any other refugee camp, but I think our own refugee camp was unique in a way that we were living in a foreign land with no facilities.
The very basic issues, food, shelter, and security: it was a struggle. And I come from a family of six. I had three brothers and two sisters with my mother. My mother struggled so much for us to survive. And two of my brothers are dead, so now we are four.
MF: What dreams did you have as a young girl?
AI: I think right at the beginning when I was a young child, I wanted to come home. I always had a passion. I always missed Rwanda. I always wanted to know how my dad looked like. I would always ask questions, stories, anytime I had someone who was a friend to my dad, I would go and say: Did you know my dad?
Who was he? How was he? People would tell me, your dad liked sports, your dad was such and such, so I think right at the beginning I knew that I would come home. I didn’t know how but it was like every time there was a discussion about Rwanda, and the possibility of coming home, I was always attracted. They were maybe not high-level discussions. But there was always a passion and a kind of a special feeling to listen to the stories of old Rwanda, how our parents were living, so I think in a way this worked to inspire us to come home.
MF: How did you get involved with the effort to come back to Rwanda?
AI: I really don’t know when I started developing these ideas, if it’s because of my background in the refugee camps. Sometimes when I discuss with my older friend, she says even when you are young, 11, 12, she tells me I used to tell her about the possibility of going home. I really don’t know the particular time, but I lived in this village in the refugee camp. Then I joined a girl’s school called Merry Hill Girls School. I completed my secondary school education; then I had an opportunity to train at Makerere University in Uganda.
I did social work and social administration and immediately when I finished my first course, my degree in social administration, there was this kind of wave among the Rwandan youth. They had heard about President Kagame and his colleagues. They had plans of taking us home. I was always searching, and I finished school.
Immediately when I finished my first degree, I didn’t go to work for money. It’s like I was looking for this organization. That’s how I was recruited. I joined the RPF and became a volunteer. I started with the peace education program. I was very, very much involved in the RPF schools. And we just had a special program in the schools, and this special program was tailored on three aspects: what were the problems of Rwanda, what are the causes of Rwanda, and what were the possible solutions?
And the solution part was my part of mobilization. So we did a lot of training and organization stuff and growing bigger, started expanding. We went to various countries, to Kenya, Europe, and the US. We were conducting organizing and building small cells, and at the same time educating. Later I was transferred to the finance department, which was a continuation of the work I had started, and I became the finance commissioner. I was in charge of raising money for our war and our reparation struggle.
Personally I would say it was kind of an excitement for us: a good message, a clear message and it was always very easy for us to sell because of reparation. A number of young women joined me in my department, and that’s how we got a number of women who joined the RPF as volunteers. While not working for money, we used to have something called a full time, and others were part time. Usually the youth opted for the full time. This was our life. This was our sacrifice. This was our commitment. We never worked for money after school.
MF: What gave you the strength to do what you did?
AI: It’s the lifestyle, it’s the suffering, the pain of our people, it’s like it was always a reminder that this was not the place for us to stay. When you listen to the stories of our fathers and our grandparents, and would compare the living conditions, you know. Like, my grandfather was a chief, was like a governor of the Southern Province. People know my grandparents. People know my father. It was a shift to see the life my parents enjoyed in Rwanda and the life we suffered in Uganda. There was no way to compare it.
There was a growing recognition among the youth that this has to change. It was like I was the last born in my family. When I compare the struggles my elder brothers and sisters went through, there was a mindset and a determination that this was not a good situation for us, the Rwandese. That life really shifted our thinking about the vision and the future and the possibility of changing that situation.
We were working very hard in school. We were beating the other students. We were the leaders in their schools. When I joined secondary school, in Merry Hill, I was the chair of the young students’ organization. And all the way to the national university, you would always see that the Rwandese students were always trying to do and serve more than the nationals. We were always reminded that we were not welcome in Uganda.
There were a lot of chaotic situations in Uganda; there was a lack of local leadership. We benefited from their chaos. Nobody really paid attention to who we were and what we did.
MF: So now you’re in the finance arm of the RFP, you have a lot of women working with you. Why are so many women attracted to this?
AI: I think it’s not only the women. We had not only the women; this was kind of a national corps, a responsibility. And training the organization was not an easy thing. You would forget your home; you would forget your payments. We were not working for money. It was purely a kind of sacrifice we were making for our country. And I think that was the way of the time. There was a general feeling among the youth that you had to be part of this great project. So many of the young women who had completed university and the young men, they joined us and they started participating. We used to call it service, a kind of service for our nation.
MF: Tell me about Brussels.
AI: This is about our fundraising. We were organized, the way we were organized during the war; our organization was a clandestine organization. We were fighting a very dictatorial regime. So it used to go, everything was very clandestine. It was not public. We were always disguising who we are and what we are doing.
Maybe my style, none would know that I was in charge of finances. I had short hair. I was wearing jeans. So it was very easy for us to be sent on various missions, various fundraising missions.
Maybe about finances I need to explain that our sources of money were used to get something called individual contributions, a small amount of contribution. Then we had regional contributions, these would be like units, and people who were very poor would be organized into small teams. If we had 1,000 members in Tanzania or in Burundi, they were organized into teams and would give us a large contribution. That’s what we called a team contribution.
Then we had other forms of raising money. We had another form of materials. Some people would not give us money but they would give us clothes, medicines, specifically in Europe people would give us earrings, or their chains. We would be exploring a variety of ways to raise money. Some would give us food items; some would give us items to sell. For people to believe in us, we developed a very simple accounting system.
Our President, President Kagame, did not believe in this complicated balance sheet. He told us that we just needed a very simple report: how much money did you receive, how much money did you spend, and the balance. I would always have just one page of a report with these accounts. Very simple accounting – simple, very simple, it was not complicated for people to understand our finances.
MF: Tell me a personal story of winter in Brussels.
AI: So because of the style of organization, we were very frugal. We just knew there would be no wastage. Every time I went on this mission I knew I had to keep this money. I knew the pain and sacrifice that people had made to give it to us. My biggest preoccupation was like, how can I utilize it properly?
So things like shoes, winter coats, we’d look at it like a luxury. Maybe I also didn’t really know what winter was. This particular trip that I went to Europe, I was putting on sandals, and I was putting on my cotton dress. I didn’t know anything about the cold, and this one time the President passed by and saw me, that I was shivering, that I was almost dying. I remember also this particular time I was going to some place to look at maps. Some people were teaching at a particular university in Belgium that were familiar with Rwanda, they had promised they would give us money and maps.
This particular mission was very important, so I didn’t think about the dress, I didn’t think about the coat. At that particular time I didn’t even think it was wrong. And I met the President, and he said you should get a little money and get a coat. I remember I said, maybe I should just use your coat instead of spending money to buy a coat. Those are the kind of situations that we lived in. But it was not only me. That was the thinking at that time. People have sacrificed, they have given us their children, they have given us their money. The best way is to be accountable and keep it properly.
MF: Do you think people gave more money because women were in charge of the fundraising and the connection to supporting the children was more clear?
AI: I think it’s not really because of the women. I think it’s, you know, first of all, most of the men have gone to fight. The women knew that was the biggest responsibility. It’s like women today in a support role: logistics, finance. If you look at, the other day people were asking me, what was the contribution of women during the war process? If you look at the medical department, we had so many young ladies who volunteered in that, in the finance, logistics, and transport departments, the secretarial ward.
It’s like part and parcel of the whole struggle. It was also the nature of the organization. Our President was a very disciplined leader. He wanted us to succeed. No one wanted to fail. That was the kind of thinking; we can’t fail. There has been too much pain. Too much suffering. People have given so much. Just like it was in the individual interest to make sure that this was a special time for us.
Maybe we need to think about it. Why did people believe in this war? It’s because of this genuine cause. People have suffered so much. And also the connection that these were our children.
MF: Rwanda leads the world now in the percentage of women in Parliament. Do you think that the basis for that was laid during the revolution?
AI: I think also that if you look into the whole history of our reparation process. We had no major discussions about women’s participation. Like the fact that I held a permanent role, during that time, there was no resistance.
I remember one time in one of our big meetings there is an accountant who felt I shouldn’t be in that position. He said, this is just a young woman. So the President said, what is your complaint? He said, we need the balance sheet, we need the cash flow.
And the President said he thinks we should be thinking more about our capacity to raise money. This is not about storage. This is about bringing the resources to our struggle. And the discussion was like, people were convinced that was the right thing. We didn’t have big issues on our participation. It is very clear personally when I share my experience that I didn’t get any resistance.
We used to hear about other liberation organizations in Africa. We would meet with them. You would hear about abuse, about sexual harassment, but those things never happened to me. I looked at the commanders as my brothers. It’s so easy for me to hug them, you know. It’s like sometimes I used to come and we had issues of accommodation. I remember I had a sleeping bag, and just come and going into my sleeping bag. Depending on where the commander of this unit. I did not think of them really as men that could abuse me or exploit me, I just knew them as my brothers.
And this still holds up today. I look at them as my colleagues. I trust them. I love them. I can call them anytime. I can make jokes with them. You know, it’s like sometime we developed a special relationship of trust.
And, knowing that the women who were coming were also sacrificing. We were not just coming to be abused and we always have sessions to talk about that, this is a unique operation. The energy was so strong, and we knew the challenges ahead were so strong. We needed different kind of values. That’s why our organization was such a special organization. If you looked at the men you saw at the Serena, I knew them before and they are still my friends. We trusted them. And also I think the President protected us in a way. He was always asking where we were, do they have food? Do they have a safe tent? It was a special eye and care for us.
MF: Tell me about how you got involved in formal governance after the war?
AI: Yeah, it’s like my background during the war was raising finances. I was very much involved in raising finances for the war, which I think was very successful. There was no embezzlement; there was no misuse. So it’s like I think people had confidence in us. Women can contribute. Women are part and parcel of this nation building. After the Genocide in 1994, I was the first Minister of Family.
At that time it was called the Minister of Family and Women. It used to be, based on negotiations with the previous regime, that they didn’t look on it as a strong ministry. They looked on it as a very weak ministry. But the leaders of the RPF knew that key ministries would be the Ministries of Youth and Women. So I was entrusted with the Ministry of Family. I remember it was a very small ministry with very few staff. But it grew into a big ministry.
People started appreciating the work of this ministry. It kept changing names. Initially it was the Ministry of Family, but then it became the Ministry of Family and Gender. It’s as if all the social issues after 1994 were entrusted to this ministry. So it’s like I looked after the children, looked after women, all the vulnerable sections of our society. I would say in 1994 – 97, the biggest responsibility of that was for the vulnerable sections of our society. Even in terms of the budget, people had confidence in our ministry, to get a lot of support from the donors.
We also initiated a number of strong programs in the ministry. One was the National Network of Women. We realized that women didn’t have a forum, they didn’t have a voice. So we started with what we called the National Grassroots Women movement. This national women’s network has been incorporated into our constitution and is no longer an informal institution. It’s a constitutional network now with a budget, but when it started in 1994, 1995, 1996, it was a kind of a volunteer network. Now it’s a constitutional network. Then we started a club, called the Unity Club, chaired by our First Lady. We realized that up till 1994 there was a lot of mistrust after the Genocide. The women leaders needed to come together to form a network where we would influence the politicians, the policymakers.