Jenny Ohlsson, the Ambassador of Sweden to Rwanda, will be completing her diplomatic tour in less than a month before she goes back to resume other political responsibilities in her country.
Ohlsson has arguably been one of the popular foreign diplomats in the country particularly because of her engaging dialogues on social media.
She is a high-level diplomat, having served in Rwanda before becoming an ambassador. She has also served as a political advisor to the Prime Minister in her country on different occasions; she was a political advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and has undertaken many political responsibilities.
As she leaves the country, Sunday Times’ Julius Bizimungu sat down with her to speak about her experience in Rwanda, being one of the most popular diplomats, personal life, and politics.
Below are excerpts:
You are completing your diplomatic mission in Rwanda where you have spent three years as an ambassador, but before that, you were also in the country in different positions. What has been your experience here?
It’s been two quite different experiences. The first experience was in Rwanda from 2007 to 2009. I think you could still feel that Rwanda was still a post-conflict country in a way, it felt very far away from the world.
Now coming back in 2016, so much had changed, Rwanda feels so connected, and sometimes leading in the region.
I remember we would go for weekends to Kampala, Bujumbura 15 years ago. Now there are many things in Kigali. It’s a different city in many ways and the country has also changed a lot.
Is that different from your previous experiences as an ambassador?
I’ve never had this experience of coming back to a country. I don’t think it is very common in diplomacy, but my experience has been great because then you can compare things and you have a little bit of understanding of where you are going.
You don't do rookie mistakes.
What were your expectations before coming here for the first time?
I think when I came my understanding of Rwanda was still very connected to the Genocide against the Tutsi. I was interested and thinking a lot about what happened, how could it happen, and what can you learn... that was a lot in my mind.
When I came back I think I had not expected things to be so different. I would feel it was two different places and experiences for me.
Of course, I still think a lot about these issues, but I think Rwanda is much more than only the history of the country.
Is that how people in Sweden still view Rwanda?
When it comes to Rwanda, people know about the Genocide. If you go to Rwanda people might ask you; isn’t it dangerous there?
But if you compare now to 15 years ago, people know much more about Rwanda today.
They might know Arsenal (and Rwanda relations), gorillas, Information Technology, development, women in parliament and they might know who the president is.
Last year, there was a lot of good news, good stories about business in Rwanda, environmental protection, reconciliation and a lot other good stories that people know.
I would say there is curiosity about Rwanda.
What has been your biggest excitement about working in Rwanda as a diplomat?
First of all, I have really liked working and living in a place where things are moving very fast and mostly in a good direction. To me, that is like an energy boost that makes me happy.
This time I had many Rwandan friends so it was lovely to get to know them and teach me more about Rwanda. One of them just gave me a cow. It’s been great.
And what’s been your biggest challenge living here?
One challenge has been that I am always going to be an outsider. You don’t speak the language so there will be things that you don’t understand and that is frustrating.
Personally, another challenge is that I feel sometimes there is a lot of hesitation when it comes to the intentions of the international community, maybe because of the past, because of colonisation and other things.
I sometimes feel people are sceptical at the beginning about the intentions. I think that is hurtful when you don’t have those intentions. I struggled a bit with that.
How have you been able to navigate through these cultural differences?
I felt sometimes that I had to tread a bit carefully; be careful with the words, ask many questions, and be very respectful. I understood quite quickly that it is very easy to make people a little bit upset.
The first thing I wrote on Twitter here was at Umushyikirano and I said: This is exciting. In most countries, they aim for the sky, in Rwanda, they aim higher. To me, that was a compliment and by the way, it was positive, but someone answered very angrily and when I woke in the morning (I found a reply): Why do you Europeans always think that we are so different and strange to you?
I was like, what?? I only said something positive that I really liked the higher ambitions during the National Dialogue, but someone interpreted it as if I was being superior. It made me nervous for some time.
So you deleted the tweet?
Yes, it was the first tweet I deleted and that was during my first period as an Ambassador. I thought maybe I wrote something which was really bad.
I have now learnt something about those things, but at the same time, I still try to talk about issues that maybe are sensitive sometimes, because I think if we take each other seriously and if we respect each other equally, I think we should then be curious and open enough to listen to each other.
So, I have continued to write about things that I know everyone won’t agree with.
Perhaps that’s one of the things that have made you popular on Twitter. You are clearly one of the popular Ambassadors here. Has the platform helped you pursue your work or risked jeopardising it at any stage?
No, I have actually been very happy with it. I didn’t like Twitter before, I thought it was too short, too superficial, but I realised in Rwanda it was a good tool to listen to what people discuss and also take part in discussions sometimes.
In my job, perhaps it was good to promote Sweden, promote Swedish solutions and values. It was much better than I expected; it was not a big plan but I adapted to the realities in Rwanda.
Amb. Ohlsson is taught how to weave a basket. / File
Of course, I understand it’s not all Rwandans who spend their time on Twitter, but for me, it is about government, media, and civil society.
I get nasty comments from people that really don’t like Rwanda and so they don’t really like me then. I find someone of them very rude, but I don’t respond because I don’t want to give them attention.
The latest statistics show Rwanda’s exports rose. What can Rwanda export to Sweden and what are other market opportunities?
I know coffee and tea have high quality here and you find Rwandan coffee in Sweden. Those are the two things that I think about immediately.
I think that Rwanda has higher ambitions in IT and entrepreneurship areas. Hopefully, those would be areas of possible cooperation and I can see that there is an interest.
There is another area which we have in common is that Rwanda is very interested in green technology and sustainable systems, and we have a lot of that in Sweden. I see that as an area of cooperation.
You are a strong advocate of women’s rights. Is that part of what you believe are the responsibilities of every diplomat or that is because Sweden is committed to advocacy?
It’s two things; one is professional. I represent something called the feminist government, a feminist foreign policy so it’s part of my job to promote these issues, but I have done it a bit more than needed maybe because I have a personal conviction.
I want to support some of the women and men in Rwanda that are really good promoters of gender equality. Rwanda is in many ways good but I know there are some struggles here.
What’s fascinating to me is that it’s not necessarily women that are always promoting women’s rights. In Rwanda, you have men that are much more progressive than women sometimes.
There are conservative women groups, there are very radical women groups, there are men in those camps, and that is interesting to watch.
What was your observation of Rwanda’s culture and its correlation with women’s rights?
My observation is that the laws are really good when it comes to advancing equal rights, but I have also heard from my friends that some cultural aspects might impact on equality.
If I go to a Rwandan family to have dinner, the daughters will be running in and out with dishes and the boys will be sitting down having interesting conversations. For me that is cultural and not part of the law, but if the girl can seek to be part of the conversation it means she’s important, she learns, she contributes...
We have those cultural aspects in Sweden and any country will have them. That is why I think it is not only about laws.
Gender equality is not about women only but definitely also about men, for example, being able to be good fathers.
You said, “one of the interesting political processes in Rwanda for you was to follow MP Frank Habineza and his opposition party, Green Party”. Why?
I didn’t know him before I came here but I had heard about him. He had this connection because he had been to Sweden.
People say in Rwanda there is no room for opposition, that you are not allowed to think differently and these kinds of things that portray Rwanda differently. Here comes the Green Party of Habineza saying we are going to run for the presidency, we are going to run for parliament, and I thought it was interesting that it would show there are possibilities in Rwanda that people didn’t think were there.
I was a bit enthusiastic to try to see if they managed and they did. They pushed a bit the barrier of what people thought about differently in Rwanda and it was interesting politically.
Does that not promote the idea that the West always leans on the opposition side of African politics?
I know it is risky but personally, I have no feelings about the content in his programme, I have no opinions on his policies, I just thought as an actor in democratic space that it was interesting.
It’s not about the content but about the fact that they came as a new party. I dare to say it was interesting to follow him. I always like people that are courageous to try new things.
For me, his party has not shown any violent behaviour. They don’t seem to promote any violence, divisionism or things like that. So people should be able to act in Rwanda like anyone else.
When we asked our readers what they wanted to know from you, they said they wanted to know if you are a married woman?
Oh, I am a mother of two children, a son is ten and a daughter is seven. One of them I got pregnant when I was in Rwanda; he is my Made in Rwanda boy. He has a Rwandan name also.
My job is a bit public so I have not really put photos with them on social media.
Lastly, where is Ambassador Jenny Ohlsson going?
Part of me doesn’t want to go but I have been given a job in Sweden by my government and they want me back.
My time was three years and three years are now over. I was thinking to extend it but now I have got a job and I will be the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Ambassador in Sweden.