“I got to fly for the very first time. And I can drive my own car too.”
Those are the words of Elsa Iradukunda, Miss Rwanda 2017 whose reign comes to an end next month.
By her description, a year is a significant amount of time in which one can transform and accomplish many things.
On February 25, 2017, the then 19-year-old Iradukunda was crowned Miss Rwanda. Two days later, The New Times visited her at her home in Gikondo. We were welcomed by a seemingly shy and soft-spoken ‘home girl’ with a passion for swimming and spending time in her bedroom watching movies, or talking to her mother whenever circumstances allowed.
She won a brand new Suzuki Swift as part of her long list of prizes as Miss Rwanda, but she shyly confessed to not knowing how to turn on the radio in a car, let alone drive.
“That was my very first interview,” Iradukunda told The New Times this week.
Fast forward. As is the norm every February, Rwanda Inspiration Backup, the official organisers of the Miss Rwanda pageant, will start the search for Iradukunda’s successor-Miss Rwanda 2018.
As the outgoing queen, what were her highs and lows during her reign?
“By the way, I drove myself here,” Iradukunda joked as she reached for a seat, as though to remind us that the first time we spoke, she needed driving lessons.
“Being Miss Rwanda has been a life lesson; an amazing journey to say the least,” she said.
In just one year, a lot has happened, but Iradukunda has three special achievements that she says were the highlight of her reign.
She paid medical bills for 200 blind people to be operated on. She also committed to paying school fees for 11 vulnerable kids till the end of primary school, and, she travelled across three continents promoting ‘Made in Rwanda’ products.
“Helping someone regain their sight after so many years was the most humbling experience of them all,” Iradukunda says.
Rwanda at Miss World
Now 20 years old, Iradukunda was the second beauty queen from Rwanda to take part in the coveted Miss World beauty pageant-with last year’s event taking place in Sanya, China.
Before heading to China, Iradukunda travelled to Europe and visited several countries including Germany, The Netherlands, France and Sweden during a month-long tour to promote ‘Made in Rwanda’ products under her Miss Rwanda schemes.
“The European tour was my first time to travel. I’d never been on a plane. Even my manager didn’t know that,” she said while laughing.
“I think the most challenging thing during my reign was convincing people that ‘Made in Rwanda’ products were of great quality. It was literally a struggle to change that mindset. But I can proudly say that I made my contribution to this noble cause and now very many people around the world know that Rwanda has high-quality products made locally,” Iradukunda said.
After a successful tour, Iradukunda left for China, joining 117 other girls for the Miss World boot camp.
The stakes were high. Iradukunda was determined to do even better than her predecessor, Jolly Mutesi, who was among the top 25 during the Miss World 2016 pageant. But she had different targets.
“All I wanted was to leave a positive impact at the Miss World stage,” she said, adding, “When I got there, I found that very few people knew about my country and even those who knew about Rwanda only associated it with the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.”
“I realised that my purpose was to teach them about Rwanda and the beautiful culture we have. Everyone was passionate about their country so I had to make a statement about Rwanda,” she added.
At the grand finale of the Miss World pageant, organisers picked five cultural dances to be performed. As luck would have it, Iradukunda was among the five chosen to perform. It was on that stage that she got the chance to show the world the Rwandan traditional dance.
“That minute-long moment of showing everyone my cultural dance was one the proudest of my life. Doing it wearing my nation’s colours was a moment I will always take pride in,” she said.
At the colourful event that was aired live in over 160 countries across the globe, Iradukunda, clad in the traditional umushanana that had the colours of the nation’s flag, danced to the tune of Abakobwa b’iwacu, a song by legendary folk musician Cecile Kayirebwa. And the highlight of that moment, she said, was how she was joined by other contestants who also made an attempt to dance.
“It was a moment that even thrilled the audience,” said Miss Rwanda manager and organiser, Dieudonne Ishimwe.
“I was seated next to a couple of people from different countries and they were amazed by the Rwandan dance. It is moments like this that leave a lasting impact on someone’s perception of you and where you are from, and I am certain that Rwandan values, tradition and grace were well captured in that minute-long dance done on the Miss World stage by Iradukunda,” Ishimwe said.
Ishimwe added, “Miss Rwanda is not just about beauty but making sure that Rwandan girls are exposed to the outside world and that they take pride in their culture and do things that will leave a lasting impact on other people around them while transforming their own lives. I have seen all this and more come to light not only through Elsa, but in other girls that have taken part in the national beauty contest.”
Although she didn’t win the Miss World crown, it is fair to say that Iradukunda left a good impression in Sanya that Saturday night.
And now that her term has come to a close, Iradukunda plans to enrol for a postgraduate course. She is passionate about mining because she wants to follow in the footsteps of her father who is also in the mining industry.
“I might not have done it all but I thank God I lived my dream of being Miss Rwanda. And I believe I did so in a way that brought pride to my family and my country,” Iradukunda said.