I celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day by remembering a great Rwandan woman – Aloisea Inyumba.
I first met the late Inyumba in early 1998, during my long Senior Six vacation. Together with my friends, Christine Mutimura and Stella Umutoni, we were eager to find some holiday work before we joined university.
Christine’s father, Zeno Mutimura, offered to introduce us to a fellow RPF cadre, Inyumba, so that we could be mentored by her. Inyumba was the Minister of Gender and Social Affairs in the liberated post-Genocide Rwanda.
Before long, we were at Inyumba’s offices, where she welcomed us and immediately showed us our “offices”. We were excited to have desks and work for a lady who had worked very closely alongside His Excellency President
Paul Kagame, (who was Vice-President then) in the liberation struggle. We felt truly honored and privileged that Inyumba took us on. She talked to us about the Rwanda Patriotic Front and its values, how we must be serious citizens who love our country and who work very hard.
We did try to work hard, except we weren’t exactly sure what to do. How were we to help promote women empowerment? Were we expected to advocate, write stories about emancipation or just find ways to promote women?
We had heard about women emancipation advocacies as this was a topical theme in the 90s, but what exactly were we to do as young girls in her ministry?
Luckily, one of Inyumba’s staff gave us an assignment to collect data, aggregate them and summarize observations. We literally devoured this assignment. Finally we were busy. But before long, we discovered that Inyumba did not really expect the teenagers in us to generate ideas, she actually just hoped to expose us and instill in us a deep level of patriotism that was central to building the new Rwanda. Whatever the case, we were proud to tell whoever cared to listen or dared to ask what we did, that we were “Inyumba’s girls” working on women empowerment, a concept we hardly understood ourselves. When we visited her home opposite BNR headquarters in Kiyovu, Inyumba and her husband Richard always made us feel at home. I remember being touched whenever Inyumba, a Minister, served us with refreshments herself. She didn’t always let a maid do this. We felt valued. Inyumba knew how to make everyone feel valued.
One day, before we had even spent weeks working at the ministry (never mind that the term “work” is used generously here), Inyumba came up with what she thought was a brilliant idea, much to our disappointment.
They had organised a solidarity camp (ingando) at the National University of Rwanda in Butare and she had organised for us to go there for three months. She thought we would learn a lot, about Rwanda’s history and liberation which would contextualise all that we were witnessing in the country. We wondered how she would think such an idea was great given we cherished our “offices”in her ministry. We had heard about the equivalent – Kyankwazi in Uganda, and how tough an experience it was. Were we going to abandon our new found offices too quickly, we pondered? While we were wondering about all this, Inyumba kept excited and confident that this would be very important for us.
How correct she was! Ingando in Butare and later in Gishari was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Before long, I was thrilled by all the “mchakamchaka” and military-type drills we did very early in the mornings, the political science classes that followed and the evening social gathering. It was the best time of my life. We quickly integrated and became active participants even though we weren’t Butare University students. We were outsiders in a way and branded “Inyumba’s girls”. I started to read English news in the auditorium every evening for the rest of the students. We were given radios to follow news so that we could summarise them for the rest. One story I remember vividly reading were the political upheavals in Indonesia when President Suharto gave up his presidency. Later in the programme, we were taught how to “target”, an exercise I truly enjoyed even though I did all humanly possible to aim at the “bull’s eye” but failed miserably. We learnt so much about the history of Rwanda, including the liberation struggle – knowledge I will forever cherish.
On the last day during the “pass-out” ceremony, His Excellency President Paul Kagame (Vice-President at the time) officiated at the closure. Inyumba sat near him. I had a small role of reciting a poem I had written titled, “One Rwanda, One Africa”. At the end of the ceremony, Inyumba came to congratulate me on the poem I had read, which made me proud. Her decision to send us to Ingando, rather than hang out in offices, was great judgment on her part.
Later that year I joined Makerere University in Uganda. It became a habit, that whenever I got holidays, I went to work for Inyumba. I even followed her to the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission during holidays.
She was, as usual, always welcoming. And, of course, when the holiday ended, I would find a moment to bid her farewell and she would reach out for her bag to pick some very valuable pocket money to send me off with. She always wanted to give us something to take back. Once, she gave me a diary she thought was new but she had started to scribble on it.
I remember coming across some New Year resolutions she had in her diary, and before long I was writing my own targets akin to some of the ones I could copy from her.
After all, I literally looked up to her. She later reminded me, in 2011, as we were chatting with Michael Fairbanks a Presidential Advisory Council member, whom I told about the mentorship I had received from Inyumba, that one of the things she remembers about me was a question I had asked a delegation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from South Africa; “What they would do differently if they were to start their reconciliation programme all over again”. Again, I was honoured that she could remember such a thing. She took keen and attentive interest in people around her.
When I later joined Government, Inyumba told me often how happy she was about it. She told me how her husband Richard was the first to tell her about my cabinet appointment in Geneva as a diplomat.
Whenever she heard something we had done where I worked whether at the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Authority and the Rwanda Development Board, she would not hesitate to tell me how happy she was about that particular achievement. She invited me to many of the events she organised, especially those on gender. I was always amazed at her mobilisation skills.
These events would be full of women from all sorts of backgrounds. I observed as they greeted her. She would smile and hug each close. She seemed to have a special relationship with each of them. She knew how to encourage any woman. That was her passion.
One of the last memories I have of Inyumba was when we travelled together to Kampala where the President was going on a state visit. This was in early 2012. We had been chatting before we boarded, with other Government officials. When we boarded, she was embarrassed to sit in business class while the rest of us went to economy. She called us and pleaded with the hostess to let us sit in business class, which much to our surprise was accepted and we were upgraded. When we reached our hotel, the staff requested the Ministers to sit at the lounge while they did VIP check-in for them.
Inyumba instead walked with us to the check-in counter. I told her to go and sit down because they were going to check-in ministers and she replied “oh I keep forgetting that I am a minister, and in any case, I am used to doing these things for myself, let me come with you”. She was simple and down to earth, never one to just enjoy privileges. This is the type of servant leadership that I remember today, as I celebrate a great Rwandan woman, this Women’s Day.
The author is Ag. CEO, Rwanda Development Board.