The pacesetters; and they’re only in their 20s

WE ARE way past the era when young women were told that the epitome of happiness and success was marriage and that a woman’s sole place in society was in the kitchen. Ridiculous notions of girls getting an education were only whispered and dreams of girls growing up to be doctors and lawyers and what have you were only that – dreams. But as times changed, society’s mindset took a turn for the better, hence the increasing number of women in previously male dominated fields around the world, from the army to medicine and law and so much more. And, there’s probably no place in the world that best represents this phenomenon than Rwanda. Women Today’s Doreen Umutesi looks at some of the young Rwandan women who are making their mark; women who have set the pace for peers and inspired many others – and they are only in their 20’s!
Top (L-R) Agnes Mutoni, Esther Mbabazi. Middle: Nadia Uwamahoro. Bottom (L-R)Faith Uwantege and Naleli  Rugege
Top (L-R) Agnes Mutoni, Esther Mbabazi. Middle: Nadia Uwamahoro. Bottom (L-R)Faith Uwantege and Naleli Rugege

WE ARE way past the era when young women were told that the epitome of happiness and success was marriage and that a woman’s sole place in society was in the kitchen. Ridiculous notions of girls getting an education were only whispered and dreams of girls growing up to be doctors and lawyers and what have you were only that – dreams.

But as times changed, society’s mindset took a turn for the better, hence the increasing number of women in previously male dominated fields around the world, from the army to medicine and law and so much more. And, there’s probably no place in the world that best represents this phenomenon than Rwanda.

Women Today’s Doreen Umutesi looks at some of the young Rwandan women who are making their mark; women who have set the pace for peers and inspired many others – and they are only in their 20’s!

Odile Uwimbabazi, 28, movie maker

Odile Uwimbabazi is the vice president of Cine Femme, a local organisation known for its efforts in training young girls in the art of film making. She is a jack of all trades. In addition to her passion for writing scripts and directing movies, Uwimbabazi is an interior designer.

She has made it her mission to help Rwandan girls make their mark in the fragile local movie industry (Hillywood) where they learn and get to produce and direct their own movies.

“My source of inspiration in film making comes from my love for cinema as it gives me the chance to express myself. Nothing beats the time and the attention people give to hear my ideas. As for interior designing, I was inspired by the need to make people’s homes a place they can ‘hang their hearts’ after a long and hard day,” Uwimbabazi says.

Even though her childhood dream was to be a doctor, Uwimbabazi is content with the path she took. She has two role models in her life; her mother and the late Nelson Mandela. As far as advice goes, she is all for following one’s heart, not others.

“As young women, we should to be realistic when making career choices. It’s important to learn how to make a choice before you run out of options. Once you realise your passion maximise it,” Uwimbabazi says.

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Esther Mbabazi, 25, pilot

Esther Mbabazi made history as the first female Rwandan pilot to fly commercial regional jets for RwandAir – at the age of 24.

She lost her father in a plane crash when she was only eight years old.

“Being a pilot really was my childhood dream; I don’t think anything was going to stop it. It started when I travelled with my family and we would get the free things for kids, like the backpacks. I really liked that and I just liked to travel. The whole ‘big bird in the sky’ amazed me. That and the free backpacks planted the seed,” she told The Guardian during a past interview.

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Faith Uwantege, 25, caregiver

Uwantege gave up her job and used her savings (Rwf2 million) to start Faith Foundation, an institution based in Kinigi Sector, Musanze District. The foundation, which offers emotional and financial support to vulnerable children and widows, has been described as a godsend for many impoverished families in Kinigi.

The foundation kicked off with the distribution of uniforms and scholastic materials to 25 primary school going children. Uwantege says that her biggest inspiration came from the extended family she grew up in.  “I was inspired by my step-brother Charles Singaye who raised and cared for me and always told me to think big,” Uwantege says, adding that her role model is First Lady Janette Kagame because of her dedicated service to the needy.  

As a child, her dream was to make a difference in society, no matter how small. “My childhood dream was to make a difference in the Rwandan community, especially by impacting positively on the needy. And yes I am living it.”

Uwantege advises young women and girls to choose their career paths confidently.

“You need to believe in yourself when choosing your career path. Be confident and focused and you will live a prosperous life,” adds the 25-year-old.

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Christine Teta, 23, activist

Christine Teta is the co-founder of Idebate Rwanda, a youth organisation that empowers young people through the art of debate to enhance their critical thinking.

The 23-year-old graduated from Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (ISAE Busogo) with a Bachelors degree in agribusiness and rural development.

“Debate has been one of the greatest tools that has sharpened my thinking and opened my mind to a broader range of ideas. Not only does it provide one with greater understanding of the world we live in, but it is also a communication tool that allows one to share their opinions in a structured manner and remain open to opposing views and criticism,” she said.

Teta observes: “This inspired me to make an impact in society through providing the youth with debate as a platform to share and air out their views on various issues.”

“I have several role models or people I look up to who have used the art of debate and public speaking to create change, some of whom are Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Wangari Muta Maathai,” Teta adds.

As a child she always wanted to be a doctor and save lives. “I’m not a doctor but I must say I am living my dream by impacting the lives of many whom I have helped empower by sharpening their debating skills. I may not be saving lives directly but I am sowing knowledge in the young generation.”

A young woman signifies beauty and strength, she says. “It is up to her to let it all out by embracing who she is through acknowledging her talent. Ladies, you can only achieve your dreams by accepting the fact that you are unique and nurturing your strengths.”

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Diana Teta, 21, musician

Diana Teta is a young Rwandan musician and only female singer in the famous Gakondo Music group.  She sings both traditional and mainstream music and says she derives her music inspiration from the late Kamaliza.  

Teta’s music career started in 2009 after coming in the top three in a local music competition that was conducted by a German group. In 2012, she auditioned for East Africa’s Tusker Project Fame Five but was eliminated in the first round.

On what it feels like to be considered among the fast-rising musicians in Rwanda, Teta said: “It makes me feel valued, honoured and appreciated. I get motivated to work harder whenever people appreciate my voice and my work although I still have a lot to learn. It also convinces me further that I made the right decision to join the music industry.”

Teta’s dream is to go as far as she can. After watching African divas from South Africa and Angola, to Uganda, she decided that she wanted to become Rwanda’s music diva. And she is determined to represent her country beyond borders, she says.

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Naleli Rugege, 27, fashionista

When you think of fashion in Rwanda, Naleli Rugege, the founder of Marion in Kigali, a fashion house associated with elegant custom-made garments, comes to mind. She designed the African outfits for Miss Rwanda 2010 and has showcased her designs at the Durban Fashion Show in South Africa in July 2008.

Regarding her inspiration for fashion, Rugege says; “I have always had a passion for creating outfits, from a light pencil sketch to a fully painted fashion illustration and finally a garment that mirrors the design with precision. This entire process becomes part of an exciting creative course.”

She says that her parents have been her number one role models.

“My parents have been my role models. They have been extremely supportive in my career choice and have mentored me through challenges and success, and behold I’m now living my childhood dream, which was to be a fashion designer. I was a child of the arts and I felt this from a very young age. Everything else I shall embrace when the opportunity presents itself,” Rugege says.

She advises young girls who want to pursue their dream careers to do as much research as they can on their possible paths.

“If possible, try to get enrolled as an intern during school holidays or meet with a professional in your line of career choice and ask them questions that will help you understand your career industry better. And look for a relevant mentor that you can always turn to for questions or advice,” Rugege advises.

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Nadia Uwamahoro, 29, entrepreneur

Currently the managing director for Data Systems Ltd, Nadia Uwamahoro co-founded Data System Ltd in 2009, a company which specialises in ICT solutions such as document management system and software development.

At the age of 24, Uwamahoro’s firm had five permanent staff and occasionally recruited university students from around East Africa to work on her projects. Then, she was still a student of Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, now University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology.

She graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.  She also offered other computer courses like Cisco and Mobile applications. She’s the brains behind the GiraICT project, which helps public and private companies acquire modern computers and computer laboratory facilities at an affordable rate.

GiraICT’s main objective is to put a computing device in the hands of every student in Africa. On her inspirations, Uwamahoro says: “I got inspired at an early age by the urge to be independent, thus the initiative to start my own company. President Paul Kagame is my role model. I like his philosophy: Agaciro (dignity).

“During my childhood, I always dreamt of being an important person in society. I wanted the world to feel what I am doing. I believe I am on the right path to realise that dream. I receive lots of feedback and compliments from the public, including my former lecturers.”

Uwamahoro advises young girls to choose careers based on passion because it is great to do something that you actually love.

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Harriet Ingabire, 26, mentor 

Ingabire is a psychology graduate from California State University of Northridge (CSUN) in the US who returned to Rwanda in 2013, and immediately started working with her brother who runs an intercultural exchange centre, known as Red Rocks, in Nyakinama Sector, Musanze District.

Under the ‘Hands of Hope’ project, Ingabire’s work is to empower vulnerable women who are living with HIV/Aids as well as children from disadvantaged families, with vocational skills, such as basket weaving.

“We make baskets with the women and then my team gets their products to national and international markets. The children make art and crafts that are also sold. I don’t believe in just giving money to people which for a fact I don’t even have, because it only makes them dependent and I don’t think that helps,” Ingabire explains.

She adds: “I believe one has to work because it builds self-worth, esteem, and above all, they become independent. We also get to tell their stories through their work, so when one buys a product, they become part of that story.”

Ingabire says that she always wanted to make a positive change in society.

“I grew up in a big family, my mum was always helping different people and I admired that about her and believed that someday I would do the same. I got a chance to go and study and get the experience that many don’t have, so I wanted to share it with other women, starting with my home,” Ingabire says.

On who inspires her, she says: “Definitely my mum and many other women are my role models; the strength each of them has inspires me every day and reminds me that I can do it as well.”

“I’m living my childhood dream.” Ingabire’s advice to young women and girls is that they can do anything if they put their heart into it. “One has to put her all and just follow her dreams, to believe in herself and also be positive no matter the situation.

Negativity kills, so avoid it because in every situation there is bad and good moment. “Importantly, we have a lot to learn from our mothers because they are wise, spending time with them is enlightening, I have grown so much in just one year.”

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Agnes Mutoni, 21, Air Force Cadet

Mutoni is the only Rwandan female cadet attending the United States Air Force Academy. She says joining the Rwanda Air Force was not a pre-planned career choice.

“Joining the military was an opportunity that came my way and I grabbed it. I have always wanted to be in a career where I can make a change or at least be the change and the military was offering that. For instance, I could feel the change just by choosing to be part of a male-dominated career.”

The young cadet says her late grandfather is her role model.

“I always admire my late grandfather’s passion for knowledge. I believe that knowledge is as vital as breathing,” Mutoni explains.

She adds that choosing a career path is not an easy decision since most people change their career path more than once by the time they get to college.

“There will always be confusion of what you want to do in life; however, you cannot remain in the confusion for too long; you eventually have to make a choice and start making decisions according to the chosen path.

“My advice to the young is that they should always aim at bettering themselves every day. For instance, if your dream is to be a writer, reading a variety of books is one way of enriching your knowledge,” Mutoni says.

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