Athanasie Gahondogo cuts a figure of an accomplished academic as she clicks away on her desktop computer in her modest office at the National University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management. As a former legislator bracing for a return to parliament, she talked to The New Times’ Paul Ntambara about her work and what drove her back into politics.
Who is Athanasie Gahondogo?
I was born in 1954, in the current Nyamagabe district. Following the political upheavals that characterised this country at that time. I fled with my parents to Burundi when I was only two years old. I am the third born in a family of five. I went to school in Burundi where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Burundi.
I returned to Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi and embarked on the process of rebuilding the country. The same year, I was appointed the bourgmestre of the former Huye commune.
When the National University of Rwanda reopened in 1995, teaching was the natural thing for me to do because of my training. I taught in the faculty of education and also went on to further my education and obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Liege in Belgium.
In 2003, I joined parliament as a representative for women while I still doubled up with my teaching job at the National University of Rwanda. I continued to work as a visiting lecturer. I left parliament in 2008 after serving my term of five years.
How did you get involved in politics?
While growing up in exile, I always heard news about the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) from my friends but I never took serious interest in politics. I was resigned to living in exile because I didn’t believe that the RPF could mount a serious challenge to the then government.
Then one day while listening to radio I heard the infamous speech by President Habyarimana claiming that Rwanda was full. This was the turning point in my life.
That is the moment I vowed to return to Rwanda my homeland. That was the time I joined the RPF. I always tell my friends that I joined politics in protest.
I would have stayed in any country and lived a comfortable life but that speech changed it all. After my first term, I made my intentions of going back clear, that time has now come, I will be replacing Bernadette Kanzayire who is now the deputy Ombudsman.
What is your agenda during your second stint?
First of all my rich experience gained from my first term in parliament will serve as a positive background for me. I have an understanding of how our legislature operates.
As someone who has been out of parliament I have been able to follow closely the activities of parliament, few people do that out here, I have been able to understand the challenges people are faced with and I hope to contribute in addressing them.
What are some of these challenges?
Decentralisation is a good programme but it has not been owned by the local people, it is painful to note that when there is a problem, the local people do not realise that it is their problem to get to the root of the matter.
They don’t demonstrate what they can contribute to solving the problem but only look at government or other organisations to solve it. A good example is the development of Butare town -the local residents have not realised that it is them who will have to develop this town; many still think that someone will build it for them.
Parliament needs to mobilise the local people to find solutions for their problems.
Many local people do not understand poverty alleviation programmes, for example some people I talked to said that they were being forced to grow maize in place of potatoes but they could not understand why, from the brief discussions I had with them. It is very important to let the citizens at local levels to fully own some of these programmes.
What is your personal take on the position of women in Rwanda today?
What is exciting on the situation of women today is not the big number we have in parliament and other institutions but the fact that that people are now conscious of the role women play in society. It is not unusual to find a man asking why women are not represented at any level.
There is the political will to promote women. In the neighbouring Burundi, the law provides for a 30 percent representation of women but there is no clear cut way of how this percentage will be attained.
In Rwanda the way women are represented is clear cut, it is not mere rhetoric.
The rural woman is still plagued by poverty; women are still involved in strenuous jobs. We also still have cases of gender based violence (GBV).
The law on GBV is out but the law itself cannot stop this vice. GBV is much more pronounced in rural areas because most women don’t have economic independence.