This Rwandan Woman’s Journey to Elected Office Began in the US
The following text was excerpted from Ambassador Hunt’s latest book, Rwandan Women Rising.
Seeing Jeanne d’Arc Gakuba, Vice President of Rwanda’s Senate, seated on the wooden-paneled dais beside the legislature’s other leadership, it’s hard to imagine that her journey to elected office started 7,000 miles away, in the United States.
In 2000, she was selected to by the US State Department to join the month-long Young Leaders Forum. She visited the US Capitol, shadowed a local official in Arizona (“He was in charge of what we call a sector in Rwanda,” she remembers), and attended city council meetings in New Orleans (“just before Hurricane Katrina”). Those times prompted Gakuba to rethink her career. “We could see how city councils deal with local problems, because Louisiana is a poor state, and they were coping with issues like community involvement in stopping crime. I saw I could gather new ideas through my US internship and think of ways to do them here in Rwanda.”
“When I came back,” says Gakuba, “I knew I needed to give more to my country. I thought I might be involved somehow in governance, so that I could be the link between those I most wanted to aid—rural women—and administration, helping people have more opportunities. It was just a few years after the genocide against the Tutsi, and it was important for local people to understand better what the government was planning for them.”
Gakuba had returned with the inspiration to run for office, though she had no previous experience campaigning. She had been a high school teacher, then manager of a nonprofit organization. “You have to remember that this was in the aftermath of the genocide, so everyone was called on to do the maximum they could,” she says. “That’s why I agreed to leave my job and go where the people needed me to go.” Her husband was quickly on board; he’d done political organizing with the RPF in exile, so he understood Gakuba’s drive to contribute. But her father had a different take.
“At the beginning he wasn’t very confident about my idea. He didn’t think I could do it. But I told him I’d been thinking about it for a long time, since we were in the struggle and imagining the future Rwanda. I had caring parents, who sent me to school. Maybe I could play a role in the rebuilding.
He just kept asking me, ‘So are you going to leave your job? What are you going to get in return?’ And I would say, ‘This is not a problem, Dad. My husband has a job, and the country will reward hard work in some way, though I don’t know how for sure. Keeping my job in the NGO is one thing, but saving the nation is another!’ I told him I felt inspired by this work, because it’s where the center of the problems are that we most need solutions.
Finally my father supported me, especially when I was doing my public campaigning. My father had a great mind. And he was a teacher, so he saw the value of educating his daughters. He would watch my speech, see how people were reacting, then tell me what I could do better. Like a campaign strategist!”
When she had first started campaigning, Gakuba aspired only to her local-level leadership. “That would be enough for me, so that I could combine my job and my family,” she insists. Just days after the votes were counted, handing Gakuba her first political win, she learned that the local body she’d been elected to serve was being reorganized. With a new government still finding its way, she was suddenly vying for a more prestigious post—Kigali City Council.
“I presented my platform, and the voters gave me their confidence,” she says. Not only that: Gakuba was now unopposed for the seat of vice mayor of gender. No other female candidate had both the education and expertise to be eligible. “Even though I was the single candidate, the campaign wasn’t easy, because my voice was competing with a ‘no’ vote. And I was nervous, because I was no longer running in my small community; this was much bigger, with people I really didn’t know. I needed to convince them I could do this job.”
In the span of three weeks, Gakuba went from coordinating activities at her local women’s council to sitting on Kigali City Council as a vice mayor. She’d stay in this position for ten years.
The new work felt fulfilling, setting up Gakuba to make the bigger imprint that had always motivated her focus on women. As she puts it: “When you go see these ladies on behalf of a small, poor civil society organization, you have your action plan but little money, and then people feel like you don’t have many responses for them. I felt public institutions have more support to bring to these people, and I wanted to help vulnerable people get that attention.”
In 2011, Gakuba took another giant step. The capital and provinces held elections to fill twelve of the twenty-six Senate seats. Gakuba knew she was ready to compete to become the one senator elected from Kigali: “I thought about the years I’d served my city, and I put my name forward. This time I was up against eight competitors!”
Of course, not everyone has the intellect and charisma to climb to the height Gakuba has. So it’s not accurate to imply that her life story is common, even for an ambitious woman vying for a seat on her local women’s council. That’s why leaders with Gakuba’s success need to make space in their crowded schedules for those following behind, explaining their experiences to see which parts others can adopt or adapt.
That’s one of the purposes of my new book: to tease apart the overall achievements of Rwandan women, so that their sisters (as they would say) in other countries can think about which elements they might use in their own contexts. No others are going to have the same blend of character, connections, and context, but they can move forward more quickly because the path has already been charted by people like Gakuba. And each election season, that path is becoming wider and more well-worn.
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