With Michael Fairbanks (MF):
Where did you grow up and what was it like growing up?
Aloisea Inyumba (AI):
I lived in Uganda, in one of the refugee camps. And our life in the refugee camp was very, very difficult. It’s like I had lost everything in Rwanda. I had lost my father. Actually, I never knew my dad.
So I grew up with my mother in this refugee camp in Uganda, and I would just say that our childhood was difficult. Like any other refugee camp, but I think our own refugee camp was unique in a way that we were living in a foreign land with no facilities.
The very basic issues, food, shelter, and security: it was a struggle. And I come from a family of six. I had three brothers and two sisters with my mother. My mother struggled so much for us to survive. And two of my brothers are dead, so now we are four.
MF: Did you have access to government schools?
AI: No actually we never did, it’s like that, life in the camps. We had some volunteers. There were some elderly people that had studied in Rwanda who had fled with us, and were previously schoolteachers. They were teaching us on a voluntary basis. So the schools we had in the camps were Rwandese schools within the camps. We were mainly benefiting from volunteers, people who were coming back home to join us. I know specifically that two of my old teachers served this country; one has served in the Ministry of Education.
These were the volunteers, who organized us, who put us in school. They were teaching us, and of course if you look at our schools in the camps, they were very poor schools. We had no books, we had no textbooks, but strangely enough the spirit in this camp was that you had to survive. We knew we were refugees in these camps. We knew the only way to survive as families and as different families was to work hard.
So we worked very hard. We had the kind of determination. There was very strict discipline in the camps. The only way we knew to survive as refugee children was integrity, discipline, and hard work. And over time our primary school in this refugee camp excelled. After five or six years we had beaten all the students in the region. So this really shows that there was a kind of resolve in the refugee camps about our survival. And also the fact that we were all together, and were taught by Rwandese volunteers enabled us to remain with a consciousness of who we are. We knew we are not Ugandans. We knew this was not our home. We knew that to survive, we had to develop special skills, and a particular thinking. Our life in the refugee camp shaped us to become who we are today.
MF: What dreams did you have as a young girl?
AI: I think right at the beginning when I was a young child, I wanted to come home. I always had a passion. I always missed Rwanda. I always wanted to know how my dad looked like. I would always ask questions, stories, anytime I had someone who was a friend to my dad, I would go and say: Did you know my dad? Who was he? How was he? People would tell me, your dad liked sports, your dad was such and such, so I think right at the beginning I knew that I would come home. I didn’t know how but it was like every time there was a discussion about Rwanda, and the possibility of coming home, I was always attracted. They were maybe not high-level discussions. But there was always a passion and a kind of a special feeling to listen to the stories of old Rwanda, how our parents were living, so I think in a way this worked to inspire us to come home.
MF: How did you get involved with the effort to come back to Rwanda?
AI: I really don’t know when I started developing these ideas, if it’s because of my background in the refugee camps. Sometimes when I discuss with my older friend, she says even when you are young, 11, 12, she tells me I used to tell her about the possibility of going home. I really don’t know the particular time, but I lived in this village in the refugee camp. Then I joined a girl’s school called Merry Hill Girls School. I completed my secondary school education; then I had an opportunity to train at Makerere University in Uganda.
I did social work and social administration and immediately when I finished my first course, my degree in social administration, there was this kind of wave among the Rwandan youth. They had heard about President Kagame and his colleagues. They had plans of taking us home. I was always searching, and I finished school.
Immediately when I finished my first degree, I didn’t go to work for money. It’s like I was looking for this organization. That’s how I was recruited. I joined the RPF and became a volunteer. I started with the peace education program. I was very, very much involved in the RPF schools. And we just had a special program in the schools, and this special program was tailored on three aspects: what were the problems of Rwanda, what are the causes of Rwanda, and what were the possible solutions?
And the solution part was my part of mobilization. So we did a lot of training and organization stuff and growing bigger, started expanding. We went to various countries, to Kenya, Europe, and the US. We were conducting organizing and building small cells, and at the same time educating. Later I was transferred to the finance department, which was a continuation of the work I had started, and I became the finance commissioner. I was in charge of raising money for our war and our reparation struggle.
Personally I would say it was kind of an excitement for us: a good message, a clear message and it was always very easy for us to sell because of reparation. A number of young women joined me in my department, and that’s how we got a number of women who joined the RPF as volunteers. While not working for money, we used to have something called a full time, and others were part time. Usually the youth opted for the full time. This was our life. This was our sacrifice. This was our commitment. We never worked for money after school.
MF: What gave you the strength to do what you did?
AI: It’s the lifestyle, it’s the suffering, the pain of our people, it’s like it was always a reminder that this was not the place for us to stay. When you listen to the stories of our fathers and our grandparents, and would compare the living conditions, you know. Like, my grandfather was a chief, was like a governor of the Southern Province. People know my grandparents. People know my father. It was a shift to see the life my parents enjoyed in Rwanda and the life we suffered in Uganda. There was no way to compare it.
There was a growing recognition among the youth that this has to change. It was like I was the last born in my family. When I compare the struggles my elder brothers and sisters went through, there was a mindset and a determination that this was not a good situation for us, the Rwandese. That life really shifted our thinking about the vision and the future and the possibility of changing that situation.
We were working very hard in school. We were beating the other students. We were the leaders in their schools. When I joined secondary school, in Merry Hill, I was the chair of the young students’ organization. And all the way to the national university, you would always see that the Rwandese students were always trying to do and serve more than the nationals. We were always reminded that we were not welcome in Uganda.
There were a lot of chaotic situations in Uganda; there was a lack of local leadership. We benefited from their chaos. Nobody really paid attention to who we were and what we did.
MF: So now you’re in the finance arm of the RFP, you have a lot of women working with you. Why are so many women attracted to this?
AI: I think it’s not only the women. We had not only the women; this was kind of a national corps, a responsibility. And training the organization was not an easy thing. You would forget your home; you would forget your payments. We were not working for money. It was purely a kind of sacrifice we were making for our country. And I think that was the way of the time. There was a general feeling among the youth that you had to be part of this great project. So many of the young women who had completed university and the young men, they joined us and they started participating. We used to call it service, a kind of service for our nation.
MF: Did Kagame and Fred inspire you, or was it really the cause?
AI: We really didn’t know them well. We just knew that there was this cause, we knew that there was Fred, we knew that there was… Yeah, but, my elder sister knew them personally and would always talk about their stories. We knew they went to the bush to do some training. We knew that if there was an opportunity they would lead us to go home. We had faith. We knew that, we didn’t have all the information but we knew something was being planned.
MF: Tell me about Brussels.
AI: This is about our fundraising. We were organized, the way we were organized during the war; our organization was a clandestine organization. We were fighting a very dictatorial regime. So it used to go, everything was very clandestine. It was not public. We were always disguising who we are and what we are doing.
Maybe my style, none would know that I was in charge of finances. I had short hair. I was wearing jeans. So it was very easy for us to be sent on various missions, various fundraising missions.
Maybe about finances I need to explain that our sources of money were used to get something called individual contributions, a small amount of contribution. Then we had regional contributions, these would be like units, and people who were very poor would be organized into small teams. If we had 1,000 members in Tanzania or in Burundi, they were organized into teams and would give us a large contribution. That’s what we called a team contribution.
Then we had other forms of raising money. We had another form of materials. Some people would not give us money but they would give us clothes, medicines, specifically in Europe people would give us earrings, or their chains. We would be exploring a variety of ways to raise money. Some would give us food items; some would give us items to sell. For people to believe in us, we developed a very simple accounting system.
Our President, President Kagame, did not believe in this complicated balance sheet. He told us that we just needed a very simple report: how much money did you receive, how much money did you spend, and the balance. I would always have just one page of a report with these accounts. Very simple accounting – simple, very simple, it was not complicated for people to understand our finances.
MF: If someone gave you an individual contribution, how much would it be in dollars?
AI: It changed. You know depending; people would increase their contributions depending on the performance of the army. If you had a successful operation, it’s like people give more contribution. I know a particular time when we raised a lot of money; it’s when people heard about the French were attacking us.
We had another project called the Card Project. We had five cards: a blue, a green, a pink, a yellow, and a red. The President would sign and it would go to support us. One would cost like $1, one would cost like $2, another would cost $5, another would cost $10, the maximum was $20. That particular project raised $3 million dollars.
It really would depend. We didn’t know when our war would end. We didn’t want to stretch people. We were always thinking of simple ways to raise money without stretching our members. They were so committed. They had given us their children; they had given us their money. We had to make sure that the accounting system was perfect.
If you looked at the history of the organization, we never had issues of accountability. Even now we have never had any disputes over use, misuse, embezzlement. There was no single case if you look at the whole history since 1990 up to today, no one has ever complained about the finances.
People knew we were honest, committed. Personally, I don’t think it was really difficult. Maybe the amounts, maybe they were like, initially, we had what you called a short invest. It was very small, mainly food and medicine. Issues like clothes came in the later phase of our struggle. They used to wear jeans; they used to wear very simple t-shirts. It was only toward the end, after three years that the President thought about buying cheap uniforms. It kept changing based on the situation on the battlefield. There was a very strong connection between the Rwandese contributing and the fighters, because these were their children. This was like a mother, someone saying please go and support this cause. People didn’t feel like they were raising money, they just said, we are feeding our children. So that was the philosophy.
MF: Tell me a personal story of winter in Brussels.
AI: So because of the style of organization, we were very frugal. We just knew there would be no wastage. Every time I went on this mission I knew I had to keep this money. I knew the pain and sacrifice that people had made to give it to us. My biggest preoccupation was like, how can I utilize it properly?
So things like shoes, winter coats, we’d look at it like a luxury. Maybe I also didn’t really know what winter was. This particular trip that I went to Europe, I was putting on sandals, and I was putting on my cotton dress. I didn’t know anything about the cold, and this one time the President passed by and saw me, that I was shivering, that I was almost dying. I remember also this particular time I was going to some place to look at maps. Some people were teaching at a particular university in Belgium that were familiar with Rwanda, they had promised they would give us money and maps.
This particular mission was very important, so I didn’t think about the dress, I didn’t think about the coat. At that particular time I didn’t even think it was wrong. And I met the President, and he said you should get a little money and get a coat. I remember I said, maybe I should just use your coat instead of spending money to buy a coat. Those are the kind of situations that we lived in. But it was not only me. That was the thinking at that time. People have sacrificed, they have given us their children, they have given us their money. The best way is to be accountable and keep it properly.
MF: Do you think people gave more money because women were in charge of the fundraising and the connection to supporting the children was more clear?
AI: I think it’s not really because of the women. I think it’s, you know, first of all, most of the men have gone to fight. The women knew that was the biggest responsibility. It’s like women today in a support role: logistics, finance. If you look at, the other day people were asking me, what was the contribution of women during the war process? If you look at the medical department, we had so many young ladies who volunteered in that, in the finance, logistics, and transport departments, the secretarial ward.
It’s like part and parcel of the whole struggle. It was also the nature of the organization. Our President was a very disciplined leader. He wanted us to succeed. No one wanted to fail. That was the kind of thinking; we can’t fail. There has been too much pain. Too much suffering. People have given so much. Just like it was in the individual interest to make sure that this was a special time for us.
Maybe we need to think about it. Why did people believe in this war? It’s because of this genuine cause. People have suffered so much. And also the connection that these were our children.
MF: Rwanda leads the world now in the percentage of women in Parliament. Do you think that the basis for that was laid during the revolution?
AI: I think also that if you look into the whole history of our reparation process. We had no major discussions about women’s participation. Like the fact that I held a permanent role, during that time, there was no resistance.
I remember one time in one of our big meetings there is an accountant who felt I shouldn’t be in that position. He said, this is just a young woman. So the President said, what is your complaint? He said, we need the balance sheet, we need the cash flow.
And the President said he thinks we should be thinking more about our capacity to raise money. This is not about storage. This is about bringing the resources to our struggle. And the discussion was like, people were convinced that was the right thing. We didn’t have big issues on our participation. It is very clear personally when I share my experience that I didn’t get any resistance.
We used to hear about other liberation organizations in Africa. We would meet with them. You would hear about abuse, about sexual harassment, but those things never happened to me. I looked at the commanders as my brothers. It’s so easy for me to hug them, you know. It’s like sometimes I used to come and we had issues of accommodation. I remember I had a sleeping bag, and just come and going into my sleeping bag. Depending on where the commander of this unit. I did not think of them really as men that could abuse me or exploit me, I just knew them as my brothers.
And this still holds up today. I look at them as my colleagues. I trust them. I love them. I can call them anytime. I can make jokes with them. You know, it’s like sometime we developed a special relationship of trust.
And, knowing that the women who were coming were also sacrificing. We were not just coming to be abused and we always have sessions to talk about that, this is a unique operation. The energy was so strong, and we knew the challenges ahead were so strong. We needed different kind of values. That’s why our organization was such a special organization. If you looked at the men you saw at the Serena, I knew them before and they are still my friends. We trusted them. And also I think the President protected us in a way. He was always asking where we were, do they have food? Do they have a safe tent? It was a special eye and care for us.
MF: Tell me about how you got involved in formal governance after the war?
AI: Yeah, it’s like my background during the war was raising finances. I was very much involved in raising finances for the war, which I think was very successful. There was no embezzlement; there was no misuse. So it’s like I think people had confidence in us. Women can contribute. Women are part and parcel of this nation building. After the Genocide in 1994, I was the first Minister of Family.
At that time it was called the Minister of Family and Women. It used to be, based on negotiations with the previous regime, that they didn’t look on it as a strong ministry. They looked on it as a very weak ministry. But the leaders of the RPF knew that key ministries would be the Ministries of Youth and Women. So I was entrusted with the Ministry of Family. I remember it was a very small ministry with very few staff. But it grew into a big ministry.
People started appreciating the work of this ministry. It kept changing names. Initially it was the Ministry of Family, but then it became the Ministry of Family and Gender. It’s as if all the social issues after 1994 were entrusted to this ministry. So it’s like I looked after the children, looked after women, all the vulnerable sections of our society. I would say in 1994 – 97, the biggest responsibility of that was for the vulnerable sections of our society. Even in terms of the budget, people had confidence in our ministry, to get a lot of support from the donors.
We also initiated a number of strong programs in the ministry. One was the National Network of Women. We realized that women didn’t have a forum, they didn’t have a voice. So we started with what we called the National Grassroots Women movement. This national women’s network has been incorporated into our constitution and is no longer an informal institution. It’s a constitutional network now with a budget, but when it started in 1994, 1995, 1996, it was a kind of a volunteer network. Now it’s a constitutional network. Then we started a club, called the Unity Club, chaired by our First Lady. We realized that up till 1994 there was a lot of mistrust after the Genocide. The women leaders needed to come together to form a network where we would influence the politicians, the policymakers.
Up to today, that network is still there. Last week the Unity Club organized a big fundraising with a $1 campaign. We raised over 400 million Rwandese francs, which is a big contribution to the campaign. They plan to build a hostel for the orphans. So I would say this ministry really became very strong, very useful for our country. The thinking changed from a women’s ministry to the nation building ministry. If you look at the Presidential Cabinet, you have a number of staff that used to work with me in the ministry.
A number of my colleagues who I was working with in 1994 and 1995. That difficulty has shaped them to be who they are today. It became a very powerful ministry that imparted a great deal of change. We developed a number of programs. We developed the women’s bank. We didn’t want to call it a bank, we wanted to call it a granary. Because we knew people were used to culturally they were competent with the saving concept after the harvests after a good season, which is why I called it a granary. A number of the initiatives have really become the anchor of who the women are today.
MF: How do we have more than 50% of the Assembly, of Parliament?
AI: Now we are leaders of women’s empowerment! If you look at the Parliament today, we have 56% of women in power. The speaker of the lower chamber is a woman. If you look at all the key departments; the head of police is a woman. The head of customs department is a woman. The head of the Supreme Court is a woman. The Minister of Foreign Affairs in a woman. The Minister of Education is a woman. The Minister of Information is a woman. The head of our national television is a woman. The head of the Aids Commission is a woman. The head of the Human Rights Commission is a woman. The head of the reconciliation department is a woman. The key departments: the auditor general in charge of corruption, is a woman.
I think it’s part of our vision. If you’re thinking about democracy it’s all about participation; it’s part of our vision. It was the whole essence of our struggle: how do we create an opportunity for the disadvantaged? That was the message. How can we give a woman a voice? The Minister of Trade is a woman, Trade and Commerce. The Minister of Infrastructure is a woman. So you can see that the key ministries today; it’s no longer just the Minister of Woman and Families.
But it’s like we are moving. There is a very clear shift. The key ministries and departments in our country are in the hands of women. People have trust in us. If you look at the Gacaca Commission has been headed by a woman called Domitila. The head of the budget committee in Parliament is a woman.
There is a change in the way that people are thinking, that these are very valuable partners. It’s not a token; it’s a kind of opportunity we have to explore as a country. The women of this country are 52% of the population. It’s just good economics. How do we tap into the population through education, through economic empowerment, and political opportunities for this part of our population? Then they will serve and contribute.
There is a general appreciation that the women of Rwanda are key partners in nation building. That’s the message that I will give you. It’s not activism. We are not fighting with the men. If you looked at the political parties in this country, it’s part of our constitutional right. It’s no longer a favor. The constitution in Rwanda is very clear that if you’re fighting for the fundamental principles of our country, it’s about giving equal participation to men and women, boys and girls.
Their contribution creates a real stake in national building. It’s an advantage. I can’t see why people can’t see the value of empowering women to contribute as real and equal partners. Our President is enjoying our participation.
MF: Why is the basket on the Rwandan passport and what meaning do you attach to the basket traditionally?
AI: It’s so unfortunate that the world doesn’t know what’s happening in this country. If you talk about Rwanda, people just think about genocide. But a lot has happened since then. There has been a lot of evolution.
And one of our successes is our reconciliation. After the Minister of Gender, I became the head of Unity and Reconciliation. And I remember at that time people had a lot of misgivings. People believe after the tragic event that happened in 1994, that the possibilities of building peace and reconciliation are going to be very minimal.
We conducted a kind of national grassroots consultation, and we asked three questions. Do you believe reconciliation is an option? The second question was, if you believe reconciliation is the best option, what programs should we develop? And the third question, which was very important was, what will be your personal contribution to this program?
So that’s how our peace program and our peace reconciliation started. The peace basket is part of our peace program. It’s our culture. It’s building on our foundations. Everyone in this country, all the women, even my mother, knows how to weave. And so we show, that other than engaging the community together, we’re doing the work together, appreciating one another. But more importantly earning this income together.
When I went to South Africa to look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we felt that our model could be slightly different. We felt ours should be more community-based. It should be about benefits. People should understand that by working together you reap the benefits as a community.
That is the philosophy of the peace basket: The Tutsi, Hutu, and the Twa women weaving the peace basket together. We are weaving something together; we are building something together. We are going to get an income and together we are going to benefit and enjoy the benefits of our labor. That’s the message.
If you look at the work we are doing on the peace basket, the umuganda, all these community programs, these are part of our peace program. But 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.
How can we bring the Hutu, the Tutsi, the women, the men, together for prosperity creation? That’s the message, personally I am happy gacaca is closing this year. Then we can start a new phase, prosperity creation: People thinking about improving their livelihood; people thinking about increasing their income.
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.
Personally, I think that the basket is a great symbol for our people, enabling them to work together and appreciating one another, earning an income, improving their livelihood. That’s really the message Rwandans are giving today.