It is 4 p.m in the remote village of Muganza in Karama Sector of Kamonyi District, a 30-minute drive off Kigali-Muhanga highway.
About 200 people are seated under a tree in a semi-circle.
A dark skinned, slander middle–aged woman, holding a microphone, is speaking to the gathering.
She’s talking about a very essential topic; care for pregnant women from conception to birth.
A close observation shows there are no children around save for a few toddlers, some of them being breastfed.
The gathering is a customary gathering known as Umugoroba w’Ababyeyi, loosely translated as “Parent’s evening” that happens once a week in all villages across the country where men and women come to deliberate on various community issues, from security to socio-economic and cultural issues.
In the Rwanda traditional set-up, this was initially an all-women ‘club’ where they sat after the day’s home chores to deliberate on social and family issues, before it was adopted as a national policy due to its impact as a home-grown solution in addressing a range of community issues.
The forum is structured at the village level where a team comprising of seven opinion leaders and elders is selected to steer discussions.
In Kamonyi, about fifteen minutes into the presentation, a man sends the whole gathering into laughter with a question; how do you know your wife is pregnant?
From health issues, discussions shifted to security related matters.
A middle-aged man raises his hand seemingly to make an urgent intervention judging from his impatience to speak. He is asked to move in front.
“Today, I want to thank all my neighbours for not forsaking me during the darkest period of my life,” says Denis Kalimbanya.
He goes on to narrate how, due to excessive consumption of alcohol, he had become a nuisance and an embarrassment to both his family and the community.
He thanks his village-mates for bringing him to Umugoroba w’Ababyeyi last year, which he calls his ‘turning point.’
The father of six was a drunkard with irrational behaviour, and could not provide anything to support the family. He habitually assaulted his wife and children and even took the little money earned by his spouse who was forced by the situation to do casual work to be able to feed their children.
This led their children to drop out of school, at some point resulting into another problem to the community as in some cases they would be tempted to steal to survive.
“I was a problem to my family and community,” narrates Kalimbanya.
Last year, Kalimbanya was summoned by community members to Umugoroba w’Ababyeyi, after his wife decided to break silence and seek intervention of community members.
It was during this forum that Kalimbanyi, together with others, were counselled and advised on proper conduct, reconciled and reunited with their families.
It was a moment of joy then as Kalimbanyi called out his wife and children, asked for forgiveness, and hugged as a symbol of forgiveness normally used in this community forum.
Today, Kalimbanyi is the opposite of his former self. He has quit alcohol, lives happily with his wife and the children are back in school.
It is these testimonies from past experiences that continues to be used in Kamonyi every Thursday evening, like in other parts of the country, in an effort to transform lives of people in the district,
Marie Murerwa, who is in charge of gender and family promotion in Kamonyi , says those handling the forums are given periodic training on how to handle societal issues.
“We bring together model and problematic families to share experiences,” she says.
“Normally, those found with deep rooted conflicts are taken through a six weekscounseling session,” adds Murerwa.
“We address issues related to domestic and gender based violence, child abuse, family planning, positive living; we discuss how to improve security in our communities like strengthening Irondo ( community policing patrols), information sharing with security organs on criminals like drug peddlers; ensure that all children go to school and hold parents and guardians accountable, ” she explains.
According to the Kamonyi vice mayor for social affairs, Prisca Uwamahoro, since the launch of Umugoroba w’ababyeyi, the number of men participating has increased, so is the impact.
“I must say, majority of the families were experiencing internal conflicts, some so serious that they could even result into murder.”
“Umugoroba w’ababyeyi has had an impact on unity, harmony, partnership and active participation in government development programmes like Umuganda, universal secondary education, subscribing to the community health insurance scheme and working with security organs to address threats to the social wellbeing of the people,” says Uwamahoro.
She adds that the forum has helped hundreds of families which experienced internal conflicts to reconcile using the same methodology of peer-to-peer discussions guided by social workers.
“The number of school dropouts and street children has also drastically reduced,” she says.
This, according to her, is attributed to parents understanding their role during the forum.
It is said that most street children in the City of Kigali are from the neighbouring districts, including Kamonyi.
According to Chief Inspector of Police Gisanga Ndahimana, the District Police Commander of Kamonyi, cases related to gender and domestic violence have reduced significantly.
“Umugoroba w’Ababyeyi has instilled the spirit of togetherness, a sense of belonging and responsiveness and, as a result, residents call us with information on conflicting families, drug dealers and abusers, families that employ minors as domestic workers, and criminals that are wanted for a particular committed crime, and all this fulfills the concept of community policing,” says CIP Ndahimana.
He says culprits have been arrested since informationis easily shared through these forums.”
The police also use the forum to sensitise the public against crime.
“We are often invited to talk to the masses and enlighten them about the dangers of illegal conduct and how abuse of illicit drugs and excessive drinking are the major causes of family conflicts,” he adds.
Gender based violence and child abuse, he says, reduced by 30 per cent last year in Kamonyi, which he largely attributes to Umugoroba w’Ababyeyi.
Statistics from Rwanda National Police indicate that crimes generally reduced by 12 per cent last year.