A graduate of Jain University, India, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Media Studies, Dominique Uwase Alonga started her company, Imagine We Rwanda, with only one thing in mind, empowering children and the youth of Rwanda. She spoke to Women Today’s Sharon Kantengwa about the health condition that nearly made her give up on life, and her zeal to empower youngsters at such a young age.
Tell us about yourself
I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but my family came back to Rwanda in 1997. I am the second born in a family of three. I am the founder of Imagine We Rwanda and I also recently started a project called State of Mind Rwanda.
How did you start the organisation?
After I completed high school in 2010 in America, I came back to Rwanda and worked with an NGO. But I felt that I was not the kind of person who wanted to work for someone else. I was very passionate about reading; I wanted to see young people attain their potential, become smarter and more informed. I always had this project in mind and I wanted to make it a reality. In August 2014, a competition called Tigo Digital Change Makers came up to support social entrepreneurs. It was then that I submitted the idea of Imagine We Rwanda as an organisation that can support and encourage a passion to read and write. In November last year, I was shortlisted as one of the beneficiaries of the project but during that time I was working with Never Again Rwanda, as the communications and public relations officer so I quit my job. I started the organisation on January, 1, 2015, but I got the funds in March and we have been growing ever since.
What does the organisation do exactly?
We go to schools and give them books and encourage them to read and write. I work with Presentation Academy in America where I studied my high school. They hold annual book rallies where people who have books just donate them. They are then shipped to Rwanda where we use them to build libraries. We have built a community library in Kacyiru where underprivileged children come and read books and are assisted to read and tell stories.
What have you achieved so far?
We have been able to donate books to four schools so far and have reached out to about 2,000 children. The new library in Kacyiru receives about 35 intakes per day and we see the kids changing. Through our books, we open a new world of imagination through fantasy stories because we want kids to have an imagination, so that they can dream. Dreams are valid and I believe if you can dream, at the end of the day you will be able to do it.
We have worked with eight schools so far and just recently, we have been able to publish our own book with eight original stories that were written by Rwandan children from different schools. We have just signed a memorandum of understanding with Australians and are very excited that the former Prime Minister of Australia will be coming to visit us in February. I am very grateful for the opportunity, given that the organisation has only been alive for a few months.
What is the motivation behind your passion for reading?
My mom used to inspire us to read a lot and would often lock us up in the library. We used to go to the French embassy which had a library for kids and I started getting interested in reading. When I went to America, I was purely “Francophone” and I didn’t know any English words so I had a very short time to learn English. I had no other way to do so but read. I was doing it for a purpose, so I wasn’t really enjoying it but when I saw that my grades were going up and I was getting more confident, I liked it and I eventually started reading for fun.
What challenges did you face starting the organisation?
When I had just started, I had no money. I only had $1000 in my account and that was my savings. I had quit my job and there was no turning back. I had my fears because I didn’t have enough funds and I wasn’t certain that Tigo would give me the money. When you don’t have money, it is hard for people to believe in you and so the people I had employed started leaving and it was scary. I started to think that maybe I wasn’t a good leader, or people didn’t like me. I compared myself with other successful CEOs and I started feeling weak. I tried to give up so many times but I am so grateful that my family kept pushing me. Another challenge was that I was fresh out of college and all of sudden I was in this new world where I am the head of an organisation and I had no idea how to manage it whatsoever. Google was my best friend and I was just surfing on how to go about everything. At the end, we set up an advisory board where we got real advisors who would guide me on what to do and slowly, I started learning. I still have Google as my very first help but I also have people who help me and I have become more confident.
Do you still receive funds?
I am hoping that Tigo will continue to fund the organisation. They do a monitoring process and if we meet their expectations, they fund the organisation for three more years. We are hopeful we will make it but even if we don’t, we already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Australians and we have also met with Ministry of Education to support us in terms of finance and expertise.
What are your future plans?
We want to build libraries across Rwanda and hopefully in the neighbouring countries. We want to train teachers to be inspired because if they are inspired, the kids will want to be like them. We are also planning to train parents on how to read books to their children before they go to sleep and encourage children to write more stories. I want every district to have a library where kids can go in and read.
I’m also passionate about helping young girls reach their full potential through my other project called State of Mind. In schools across the world, they learn very many theoretical subjects and when they go out to the field, it is not always easy finding a job. We need to empower the youth. We need to discover who we are by identifying our talents and what jobs suit them. I feel if I help young girls then we will have a better Rwanda.
I want State of Mind to grow as a training centre for the youth; where they can be equipped with the necessary tools for their careers and entrepreneurship, making them ready to face the world.
What is philosophy for life?
If you can dream it, you can do it.
What advice do you have for young girls who would like to follow in your footsteps?
I just want to share with them my story; I was born without lymphatic veins in my legs which is a very serious issue and could have deterred me because I went through self-esteem concerns and wasn’t sure if I was going to live. I remember there was a time when I didn’t even want to go to school anymore because I thought it was cancer and I was going to die. One thing that got me out of this is that I knew that no matter the situation, I had to be resilient.
I want them to always believe in themselves and know that every day we fight, we yield results. Don’t let people draw you back and don’t be lazy. Let’s work hard and build Rwanda.