Her peers call her ‘queen’ because that is what her first name means.
Being one of the very few and dedicated women in her line of work, Reine Imanishimwe goes by another title — Carpentry Queen.
Imanishimwe is a wood innovator and carpenter. Using her own designs, she can create anything from house to office furniture, sign posts and business cards.
I met with the 23-year-old at her second place of work, Fablab, a hardware innovation centre that enables inventions by providing access to tools for digital fabrication, located in Kacyiru, a suburb in Kigali, where we had a chat about her day-to-day struggles and thriving in a male-dominated field.
She was using a computer with a colleague, trying to create new designs when I arrived. She smiled and ushered me into a quiet office, away from the noise inside the workshop.
She struck me as composed and confident.
“I’ve been working with Fablab for two years. I really love to work with wood. At the workshop, we have many machines that I use to make designs made from wood,” she says.
Originally from Kibuye, Karongi District, Reine had always wanted to do something hands-on, something technical. After O level studies, she decided to join a technical school.
“At the time, I wanted to join construction and I was looking for a school that would give me the skills required. Instead, I met with someone from our home area who told me that he knew about a school that teaches carpentry,” she says.
So, she joined Rubengera Technical Secondary School in Kibuye where she completed with a diploma in carpentry and wood technology.
Her parents were supportive of her decision to pursue a carpentry course because they knew that she was an active person, and so they encouraged her to go for what she wanted. While in school, she says, her goal was to be the best in carpentry, both in theory and practice, and she was eager to learn new things.
“My parents pushed me to work hard because they always wanted me to be independent and learn more. They always reminded me that they were getting old and would not be able to support me at some point.
“I was always the top girl in my class, as well as the best in practice, and this made me realise that carpentry was my future. I kept working hard, trying to understand everything and see how I could improve my craft,” Imanishimwe says.
She emerged the best girl in carpentry in her district, and one of the best students overall. She reveals that during her time of study, they were only four girls in a class of 15 and sometimes, she admits, the fear of a career in carpentry crept up, especially when it required heavy work.
“It was sometimes tough during practicals and it discouraged us. Even now, I feel tired at the end of the day when there’s need to carry heavy wood, but I push myself,” she says.
Once Imanishimwe completed her three-year course, she started searching for a place where she could improve her skills. She got the opportunity with Fablab. The fabrication laboratory enabled her to learn about the machines slowly and meet many people who have shaped her work.
“I did not want to look for a job because I knew that I could be self-employed. However, I did not have enough capital, I was only armoured with skills and my hands. I wanted to be independent as early as possible.
“Although Rwanda does not have a university that offers carpentry classes, I did not want to mix carpentry with construction because my ultimate dream was to be a carpenter. Fablab gave me the experience that I needed. When in Kigali, I am always doing work that impresses my clients,” she says.
When the carpenter is not at Fablab, she is at her former school’s workshop in Kibuye, working on her craft.
“Our workshop in Kigali is not really big although we do have a variety of machines. In Kibuye, however, we have a variety of wood and so I sometimes bring it to Kigali to do finishing and engravings. Being at just one of the workshops is not enough,” she explains.
Her experience in the field
“Since I completed my studies in carpentry, my life has always been about woodwork. I always look out for anything wooden. I strive to make my clients happy, and they pay me well,” Imanishimwe says.
She adds that meeting various people has given her experience, and she’s learned lessons from that.
“Sometimes, I make pieces and some clients refuse to take them and I make a loss, so I work to be more innovative to satisfy them. Another thing is that I am a woman, and so people doubt my capabilities because they think that carpentry is for men. I have to explain to people that I am actually skilled and can do the work, but that has not deterred me from doing what I love,” she says of her challenges.
The woodworker reveals that her motivation is derived from her clients’ satisfaction. Using a variety of machines and computers has given her a whole new experience in different kinds of wood — high and poor quality.
“I make my relaxation period very short because I want to do something new that will attract customers. I am very proud to call myself a carpenter because many people like my work and recommend it to others,” she says.
She has done very many designs but her favourite piece of work was a high school project, an exterior wooden door.
“In high school we were tasked to do a final project. I made a big exterior door which had a window that you could open and close, and it had some grits. I chose it because I realised many people use metallic doors, and I thought ‘why not use a wooden door?’ Wood is also safer when it comes to electric shocks compared to metal doors, because wood does not easily attract electricity,” she says.
Going to France
In May this year, Imanishimwe was part of the delegation that participated at the Viva Tech Summit, a technology summit which took place in Paris, France. She was the only woman in the eight local tech firms that participated in the exhibitions at the summit.
“I was at Fablab and I received a phone call: ‘Queen we want to go with you to France because you are a hardworking carpenter and you have good computer skills.’ I was ecstatic,” she says.
While there, she met with many professionals and learned of their designs and the kind of wood that they have.
“I realised that going out of the country opens your eyes to new things. I visited other workshops and markets to see what they were selling, and I also met with the French President, which was so exciting for me,” she says.
“My plan is to be independent because I believe that if someone gives me a job, they will only tell me what to do, but will not allow me to exercise my creativity. I want to keep creating new things that are needed in the market.
“Also, I wish to have my own workshop but I know it is not possible for now because the machines are very expensive. My plan right now is to go to university and get a degree in carpentry, in any country. If all goes well, I will be starting next year,” Imanishimwe says.