By saying nothing, Ms. Geek says everything about Miss Rwanda

It was the buzz about town. You heard it. So did I. So I felt compelled to go check it out at the Kigali Serena Hotel on Saturday April 30. It was #Ms.GeekRw2016. Ms. Geek is a competition that is organised by a group that calls itself Girls in ICT, an organisation that seeks to encourage girls to interest themselves in the area of ICT, and to generally consider taking STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and to ultimately pursue careers in those fields.

It was the buzz about town. You heard it. So did I. So I felt compelled to go check it out at the Kigali Serena Hotel on Saturday April 30. It was #Ms.GeekRw2016. Ms. Geek is a competition that is organised by a group that calls itself Girls in ICT, an organisation that seeks to encourage girls to interest themselves in the area of ICT, and to generally consider taking STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and to ultimately pursue careers in those fields.

And so, Ms. Geek is only a small part of this organisation’s larger objective: to bring women and girls in areas that have historically been the preserve of boys and men. They seek to confront some of the structural biases/mindsets that preclude girls from maths and sciences due to a paternalism that “protects” girls from the “hard” subjects like math and science.

Here’s are women who have not been harmed by science and technology: Akaliza Keza, Jessie Gakwandi, Crystal Rugege, Anita Kabatende, Vanie Umutoni, Aline Akintore, @LucyMbabazi (because her name is now a twitter handle).

I can’t list all of them here. But take my word that this is a collection of powerful women, most of them in their 20s and early 30s, who are passionate about ICT as a vehicle for empowering girls and for transforming society.

Some of them have advanced Ivy League – the best of the best – degrees but you would never know it because they don’t like to talk about it.

They prefer to operate behind the scenes. They let their work do the talking. Which is why I’m being intrusive by telling you that they are the brains behind some of the most innovative projects in the public and private arenas today, and that Ms. Geek is their way of giving back by inspiring others.

I digress, but for a reason. The Ms. Geek competition brought together over 130 girls from formal and TVET schools across the country. The contestants were asked to develop an IT based idea and to demonstrate its viability as a tool for solving some of the socioeconomic challenges facing Rwandan society.

At Serena that day, therefore, was an event to celebrate the finalists and to witness the crowning of Ms. Geek 2016. One by one the young “Geeks” presented their innovations: Samantha Manywa, 15, Gashora Girls Academy: “Hello Job” App that connects job-seekers to employers. Lisa Kirezi, 16, Gashora Girls Academy: “Easy Parking” App that eases vehicle parking headaches. Faridah Umutoni, 21, Akilah Institute: “Meet the Doctor” App for patient/doctor interface. Ange Uwambajimana, 22, Tumba College: “IV drip.” Rosine Mwiseneza, 22, Kepler University: “Ivomerere” irrigation control system.

Theirs were sharp presentations. It was now up to the judges, who told the audience that their verdict would be based on the criteria of innovation, viability, accessibility, and the extent to which the contestants had effectively presented their idea. Tough call.

The judges asked for extra time to deliberate. It turns out that they had difficulty deciding whether the contestant’s age should factor in their decision. Ultimately they decided that Rosine Mwiseneza was most deserving of the crown of Ms. Geek 2016.

Content matters most

The success of the Ms. Geek competition surprised many. It led to comparisons with the Miss Rwanda Pageantry, with some going as far as suggesting that Ms. Geek should replace Miss Rwanda because of its content and relevance to our society.

I think we need both. However, Ms. Geek has forced the hand of the organisers of Miss Rwanda: their competition must become innovative in content in ways that show its relevancy to our society.

The First Lady, Ms. Jeannette Kagame, hinted on this issue. In her speech she underlined the importance of competitions like Ms. Geek in informing the country’s readiness for the 4th Industrial Revolution, then she declared “Geek is the new cool.” She declared some more, “Content is everything, beyond looks.”

It’s about mentorship

If Miss Rwanda organisers are to take this advice, it would probably be wise for them to model their project on the culture of mentorship on which Ms. Geek is erected. It is how the formidable women of Girls in ICT-Rwanda have redefined the concept of success – what success is – that is driving the actions that are changing the way young girls are looking at the traditionally ring-fenced area of science and technology, and dismantling entrenched prejudices thereby.

The culture of mentorship is predicated on the idea that success is determined by one’s responsibility to send down the elevator when they reach the top. It is what’s driving success at Girls in ICT-Rwanda.

Its absence is what is killing Miss Rwanda. Asked to vote online for Rwanda’s representative to Miss Africa 2016, one of the members of the panel of judges that selected the immediate former Miss Rwanda was categorical, “She did almost no-thing for her Umudugudu; what can she do for Africa? Not voting, not worth my time.” That’s a bit harsh. But the real problem with Miss Rwanda is that the model upon which it is erected sets up its winners for failure. Something should be done if it is to be saved from itself.