From Our Own Correspondent: Dr Chameleone and the women who rebuilt Rwanda

With the future women of Rwanda

There’s a buzz in Kigali. It’s the weekend and Dr Jose Chameleone is in town. The concert venue is filling up. Not just with a young crowd, but families too…children, mothers and fathers. They’re all here to see one of the most popular hip hop artists in East Africa perform.

After half an hour of waiting he eventually appears. Clad in a shiny, gold tracksuit, he works the crowd and waves his native Ugandan flag all over the place. Two scantily-clad women gyrate by his side. And then… something unexpected.

It’s not the first phrase you expect to come out of a chauvinistic looking pop star’s mouth, but: “Women, together!” he shouts, “Say no to domestic violence!” Dr Jose-Chameleone

I did not expect it, but somehow I was not entirely surprised either. It seems Dr Chameleone knows how to appeal to the modern Rwandan woman: headstrong, independent and eager to fight for her rights.

This passion for gender equality is an enthusiasm influenced by the events of almost 20 years ago, when one of the most horrific genocides of the C20th left many of the country’s men slaughtered, and the women to pick up the pieces.

“70% of the population was all of a sudden female”, the MP Faith Mukakalisa tells me “and the job of rebuilding Rwanda fell to us. We’ve been shouting about women’s empowerment ever since.” Staying a housewife, she says, was never an option. There were businesses to run, fields to sow, important decisions to make.

Now women hold 56% of the seats in Rwanda’s Parliament, by far the highest percentage of female MPs anywhere in the world. There is also a constitution in place which stipulates equal rights for both genders in education, land and personal finance. Women hold the power to review laws, amend them and eradicate discrimination wherever they see it. “You cannot deny it”, Faith says: “women were the building blocks of the relatively stable nation you see before you today.”

But reaching stability has not been easy. That becomes evident when I visit a group of women embroiderers at a local factory.

Women working at Gahaya Links

© Daniel Harris

Yet a determination to normalise their lives, put food back on the table and learn new skills has given them the strength to unite. Whereas once their families were at war; these women now sit alongside each other, singing and chatting about village life… making a living. Their employer says nothing makes her happier than watching a woman withdraw her own money with her own bank card for the first time.

It is undeniable that women empowerment has been crucial for Rwanda in terms of economic development. How the latest political allegations will pan out and what sort of an impact the withdrawal of international aid will have on Rwandans, whose government budget depends on it, is unclear. But the ordinary women who’ve tried so hard to turn their country around will surely be hoping their work has not been in vain.

MariA AImee

© Daniel Harris

On my last day in Rwanda, Maria Aimee the manager of a women’s centre in the Nyamirambo district takes me on a walk through the colourful and muddy market streets of the area. She is due to give birth any day now. As we stop for a rest, she tells me she’s expecting a baby girl and she can’t conceal her excitement.

“Marie Aimee, what do you hope most for your baby girl?” I ask.

“That Rwanda continues to succeed” she says. “That my baby has a good education, perhaps she’ll grow up to be a politician, a teacher or an engineer. It’s not like when I was young. Nothing will stop her. She’ll be able to do whatever she wants…

Click here to listen to my piece on BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent

Watch the report with Faith and Maria Aimee on BBC Fast Track by clicking here


Rwanda.. Visiting Nyungwe…

We were two hours into the mountain gorilla trek when I broke down in tears. My ankles were stinging from nettles, my arms scratched from thorns but still the guide continued hacking away at the untouched wilderness before us with a machete knife. We would find that set of baby gorilla twins we’d been promised, even if it killed us.

If I’d known beforehand that this particular trek was the most difficult of all, I probably wouldn’t have signed up to it. Every five minutes I found myself examining the freshness of another pile of excrement, in the hope of finding a silverback around the corner.

© Daniel Harris

© Daniel Harris

But each dissection always led to disappointment and my heart would sink as the American tourists cracked open another packet of Oreos to help them along their way.

Eventually though, just as I thought I might have to be helicoptered out of the forest, we did stumble across a group of about 20 gorillas. They were of course too preoccupied with munching on bamboo to be at all bothered by our presence, but being in theirs  was one of the most amazing moments I think I’ll ever experience.

© Daniel Harris

© Daniel Harris

Rwanda is a country full of amazing moments like this. But as I discovered when I travelled to the Nyungwe forest for BBC World’s travel programme Fast Track, the country is also about so much more than gorilla treks and museums..

Click here to watch my report…