Rwandan women at the head of the class

July 13, 2017 | Swanee Hunt

Swanee Hunt with students at the Akilah Institute in Kigali, Rwanda

As I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to launch my book Rwandan Women Rising, I wondered if women had managed to keep up the phenomenal momentum that enabled them to rescue their nation after the 1994 genocide.

Turns out there was no need to worry.

I saw the promising future in the faces and voices of the young women at all-female schools and colleges that are cauldrons of energy and opportunity. This next generation of Rwandan leaders is confident, hungry for knowledge and experience. They’re driven to rise even higher than their mothers and older sisters.

The young woman showing us around on this trip was Nadine Niyitegeka. It was surreal to see her point out a particular church in a matter-of-fact voice, as we drove around the capital. In my book, I had conveyed Nadine’s personal genocide story this way:

“I was just two, but I can still remember when we were seeking refuge, hiding in that church called Holy Family.”

Thousands of people were crammed in, but the priest actually aided the Hutu extremists, pointing out people who were then taken out and killed.

As a girl, there were periods when her mother couldn’t come up with school fees, so higher education felt completely out of the question. Nadine took a job at a supermarket, where she could make money to contribute to her family. Her supervisor, the shop owner’s son, thought she had promise.

“One day he asked me, ‘What do you want to do? What are your dreams?’ And I said, ‘I really wish to go to school, because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next, in my future, if I don’t have education.’

Nadine Niyitegeka points to a photo of herself as a 2-year-old during the 1994 genocide, when she hid in a church with her family. She is a graduate from the Akilah Institute, Rwanda’s first all-women’s college, and is a marketing officer there.

I think he kept this in his mind, and when he heard about the Akilah Institute for Women, he came and told me. He’s like the first person in my life who ever told me I had potential.”

Akilah Institute is the country’s first all-female college, founded by a 24-year-old American, Elizabeth Dearborn Davis. 

“But in my mind I was like, ‘No, he’s just encouraging me’…. You know, as women, we’re raised not to speak, or even believe in ourselves. But I remember once, when the teacher encouraged everyone to talk in class and express our ideas. I stood up, and I gave an opinion – it was a leadership class – and my teacher looked at me and was like, ‘Oh, Nadine, hold on! I think that’s brilliant!’ She said, ‘You can keep talking and give your ideas to everyone.’

My classmates afterward were like, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe…’ So I started thinking about that. I thought maybe I have this potential, if I really work hard and trust in myself.

Look at what happened to me now, how I’m helping my family, thinking differently than the way I did before. I’m being a world citizen! “

For a while, Nadine’s standard answer when asked about her future ambitions has been that she hopes to someday serve as the Rwandan Minister of Gender. After a recent stint in the United States, however, she’s entertaining another idea: head of the United Nations.

Says Elizabeth:

“We chose the name ‘Akilah’ because it means ‘wisdom’ in Swahili. To our team, “Akilah” means confidence in oneself as a leader. Wisdom is the ability to see opportunity, to have the entrepreneurial skills to create and innovate. Wisdom is the conviction to stand up for what is right and make a positive impact in one’s community. Wisdom is the knowledge that Rwanda has a very bright future. The young women at Akilah today are the foundation of that bright future.”

Sitting in the front row of a school assembly at Akilah last month, I heard rival teams of young women debate the question: have women done enough for economic growth in Africa? Both sides argued so eloquently that one outcome was clear: all the students at this women-only college—the first in Rwanda—are winners.

Half an hour later, after I spoke about my new book, the students crowded around to tell their life stories and share their ambitions. One said she’d created her own clothes business to pay her school fees. Not only was she able to stay enrolled; she also learned a whole set of life skills. Another asked me to sit with her on a nearby low wall. She said her father was gone, and her mother never asked about her leadership schooling. I told her I had the same situation growing up with a father who never asked me how I was doing. ‘I learned as a child that I had to find surrogate dads to fill that spot in my soul.’ She looked down, then said tentatively, ‘May I send you my report cards?’

With head and heart, these girls know their Rwandan history. In my address, I mentioned that I’d had the privilege of being a personal friend of the iconic Aloisea Inyumba, who twenty years ago led the National Commission on Unity and Reconciliation then served as Minister for Gender and Families, Senator, and Governor. The gathered students breathed a collective “Ooooh!!!” Inyumba’s reputation remains legendary.

Nearby was Nadine. Nadine, who against all odds is now a professional with a college education and a strong sense of self. Nadine, whose supervisor had encouraged her to reach for the stars. He had inspired not only her, but also me. I would echo the shop-owner’s son as I told the students:

In this room, many of you are young Inyumbas.

Students at the Akilah Institute debate women’s impact on the nation’s progress.