At the end of a long interview with Prof Dr Rwigamba Balinda, three words summed up my overall impression of him: “Humble servant leader.”
Perhaps the founder and president of Kigali Independent University (ULK) needed more of these leadership virtues than his academic credentials to see the towering academic institution through its long and challenging journey to become the second largest institution of higher learning in the country after the University of Rwanda.
Prof Balinda has been an academician since he started teaching at the University of Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1974 as an assistant lecturer. His appointment came direct from the country’s then Prime Minister.
In 1982 he obtained his PhD and in 1984 moved from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa to teach there. Balinda returned to eastern DR Congo in 1989 to start the University of Goma.
“Because of the consequences of genocide and war in Rwanda in 1994, some of the genocidal forces that had been defeated in Rwanda fled to DR Congo, and we had to run away because we were not secure there,” he explained.
Upon his return to the country in 1994, he was hired by the National University of Rwanda (now renamed University of Rwanda), ahead of its reopening the following year. He recalls that the university had almost completely been destroyed during the war.
“It was destroyed in the sense that the academicians and intellectuals who were there were killed for belonging to a certain tribe, while the ones on the side of the killers had run away.”
Balinda describes the process of rebuilding the university as “very, very hard”, and explains why: “When we talk of rehabilitation, people think only in terms of infrastructure, but there is what we call human rehabilitation for people with broken hearts and traumatized minds. So for us it was very hard, but we had no choice. Because it was a very hard task, we had to be really committed and hard working.”
By 1995, he was teaching several courses at a time, including social linguistics and psycho linguistics, to cover up for the critical shortage of qualified lecturers.
Getting a dream
The four years that the professor had spent at the University of Goma had been enough to spark in him a dream to start a higher institution of academic learning in Rwanda. His motivation to pursue this ambitious venture was clear from day one, and even today, his personal character and values shape ULK’s core values and mission statement.
“After a history of genocide—of people killing their own mothers, fathers and children, I concluded that what we needed was rehabilitation of hearts by teaching ethical values such as integrity, humility, justice, tolerance, patience, courage, forgiveness, determination, dignity, self-reliance as the foundation of science and skills. We needed to make students know that the secret to a happy and successful life is found in having faith, knowing your mission on earth, living by ethical values, and having positive thoughts.
So, in March 1996, he founded ULK. “I started by renting two classrooms at St Paul’s Parish Church near the roundabout in Kigali City. That was the beginning of my dream.”
In the first year, student enrolment surpassed his modest projections, and the institution managed to enroll a total of 204 students, a fact that created a shortage of teaching space.
In 1998, the institution managed to rent from Kigali City Council a big hall at the Yamaha building on Muhima Road, which doubled as his office and university library, while another room was turned into the faculty of law.
But in as far as humble beginnings go, that is not the news. The professor has his own personal story to tell: “At that time I was on foot!” he exclaims emphatically: “A rector and full university professor doing everything on foot, but being very determined and very happy.”
His current area of academic specialisation is in ethics, a concept that he is quick to distinguish from morality: “Morals are norms of the community, while ethics are universal values. We have the science of the brain (knowledge). And when we put this “know” in practice, we have “know-how” (performance and skills). But the foundation is the heart –”be” (principles and values of someone’s character).
Actually, the ULK motto, “Science and Conscience” is a clear attestation to this. ”We train students for competence and performance, but also to form their character and values, without which they would be wasting their time.”
At 66, the father of six is still an active lecturer, teaching first year students at both the Kigali and Gisenyi campuses.
His life’s passions are two: God, and Education. Previously, Prof Balinda has been a member of the Senate on an eight-year single mandate (2003-2011). He is also Chairman of the association of Private Higher Learning Institutions of Rwanda (2003-March 2014).
The professor adheres to a strict code of ethical principles and values to which he attributes his and the university’s well-deserved success. “Faith, knowing my mission on this earth, leading by ethical values, positive thinking, and permanent mobilisation…these are the five principles that shape who I am,” he explained.
“By faith I mean faith in God, faith in my country, faith in myself, and faith in my project, because when you have faith you have a permanent internal force. You can’t be discouraged. To have faith is something very, very important. The rate of success of any project is directly proportional to the extent of faith you have in God, in that project, and in yourself.”
The second principle that guides him is clarity of purpose in whatever he undertakes. “By this I mean knowing my mission on this earth: What is my purpose on this earth? Why am I here? I’m here to serve God and to serve my country. I am here to serve people, because when I serve God I serve people in all my capacities –spiritual, mental, intellectual, and physical.”
Balinda says that when you start a project, you need people, but people can’t trust you if you don’t have ethical values which enable you to attract people and lead a model life. “To be trustful you need to have no hypocrisy in your life. Integrity is to have a correct moral conscience. You need humility to be happy and successful.”
Positive thinking, he says, helps us to overcome negative thoughts of the challenges of life, problems, discouragement, failure, disappointment, threats, stress, depression, etc.
In order to have work done very well, you need to think about it all the time. To think about your project is permanent mobilisation. “Since I’m a true believer I say …’God, it’s not my project. It’s your project. I am just your servant. I feel it, and I have the patience for it …patience to serve God for this project.”
There is short term planning, medium term planning, and long term planning. You need to mobilize material, financial and human resources, to know where to get them, and when to use them. This is what is called organisation.
ULK FACT FILE
The university was created on 15th March 1996. The institution has four faculties; the Faculty of Economics and Business Studies with its five departments, (Economics, Finance, Accounting, Management, and Rural Development). Others are Faculty of Law, Faculty of Social Sciences with its five departments (Development Studies, Sociology, International Relations, Administrative Sciences, and Population Studies, and the faculty of Science and Technology with one department - Computer Science.
The university motto is Science and Conscience, and some of its key values are: integrity, humility, determination, and excellence.
Its institutional philosophy is: To have faith in God, knowing one’s mission on earth, to have positive thoughts, and to live on ethical values. Since its creation in 2001, the Rwigamba Balinda Foundation has granted bursaries to 2,874 students from both the Kigali and Gisenyi campuses.
The university has not benefitted from any direct external financial support whatsoever, relying instead on the financial contributions of its founder, bank credit, and students’ modest tuition fees.
The main campus in Gisozi is home to a large sports arena with 14,000 holding capacity, a physical library with over 60,000 titles, and a digital library equipped with 500 new computers.
The university employs a teaching staff of 435, including six full professors, nine associate professors, 83 senior lecturers and lecturers, 324 lecturers and assistant lecturers, and 13 assistant lecturers and tutorial assistants.
In total, ULK has 418 permanent staff (teaching, administrative and support staff).
To date, ULK has graduated 19,354 students in various domains, 10,458 of who are women.