What One Rwandan Political Leader Learned from Listening to the Grassroots

   •    October 11, 2017

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The following text was excerpted from Ambassador Hunt’s latest book, Rwandan Women Rising.

Aloisea Inyumba was twenty-nine when, right after the Rwandan genocide, she took the helm of the Ministry of Women and Family Promotion, as it was known under the emerging government in 1994. Her reputation for honesty and frugality as she handled the rebel’s finances during the struggle, and her nurturing but practical character, made her a natural fit for the leadership role at a time when many traumatized Rwandans were turning to the ministry for all sorts of support, from help searching for missing family members to food or advice about how to make ends meet when the breadwinner had been killed.

“The first three years was just management of the aftermath of a genocide which we were not prepared for. During the war, we knew we were fighting a bad regime, a dictatorial regime. But we didn’t know that the level of destruction, the level of hatred, the level of badness had gone to that level,” Inyumba remembered.

“Then we realized that whether you’re Hutu or a Tutsi or a Twa, the problems were the same: People were talking about health. They were talking about poverty. They were talking about shelter. So we started organizing our women on common problems. At the very beginning we said, ‘We’ll not talk about reconciliation right now. We’ll just sit together. We’ll ask, ‘What is your problem? You’re pregnant? Well, you need a clinic, but we don’t have a clinic here, and we don’t have an ambulance.’’”

Inyumba would lead the ministry for nearly five years, and she would draw on the wisdom she absorbed through that role for the rest of her life.

Later, when she was governor of Kigali-Nigali province, she relied on grassroots expertise again: “I was in charge of ten very big districts. Visiting people in all these sectors was so educating. I learned how the communities already know their issues, and that they have proposals for how these issues can be addressed. People assumed that as governor I would know the priorities, but the communities would always challenge me.”

For example, she said “If you talk to women about health they would understand more because these are their immediate needs. If you talk about food, women deal with food. If you talk about water, we are the ones who use water for domestic use, for washing.”

“I think that’s why we women are more responsive as leaders, because we’re there. These are not things we read about or watch on video. It’s our daily life. I understand issues of children, of health, even legal reform and access to land—we’re the ones tilling the land.”

“Another project,” Inyumba noted, “was the national network of women. Without a forum, women didn’t have a voice. We managed to bring them together—Hutu women, Tutsi women, Twa women—talking about common issues.”

“Sometimes I would go visit them with a very ambitious project. I would talk about agricultural production. And the women would tell me, ‘No, there are other issues.’ I had what I thought were priorities, but the communities would always challenge me. I would think that their issues would be justice, but they would tell me no, their issue is education—they want to build a classroom. I would propose that maybe we should have bicycles for the women to get to market, but they would say, ‘No, we need clean water.’ So I realized that these meetings were very participatory, very educating, and though it was not in a fine setting”—often Inyumba would meet with women just gathered under a tree—“we accomplished a lot.”

In 2011, a year before cancer cut her life tragically short, Inyumba looked toward the future of her country: “You can’t look at peace in isolation of our survival. You have to bring people together for a purpose. It’s not reconciliation for its own sake; it’s reconciliation for the betterment of our people. We’ve been managing the aftermath of the genocide fifteen years ago, rebuilding the foundations, but really the next stage should be about building ourselves: building homes, building individuals, tapping into every opportunity in Rwanda.”

She went on: “Reconciliation is an engagement…It’s a commitment…It’s a day-to-day experience. It’s your life.”

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