Africa-Press – Rwanda. The colonial and post-colonial Rwanda up until 1994 was distinguished by long years of poor leadership based on the premise of a “divide and rule” practice along ethnic, religious, and regional lines, among others.
This unfortunate state of affairs eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi that lasted for 100 days, claiming over a million victims in its wake.
Anarchy reigned over the land and seemed unstoppable until the RPF intervention through its RPA wing (led by Paul Kagame) ended the genocide carnage on July 4, 1994. This dark chapter will always be remembered as one of the worst in human history.
It left in its wake broken spirits and a divided, wounded nation badly torn apart and shredded to pieces in all aspects of life: economic, social, mental, spiritual, and psychological, leaving behind multiple vulnerabilities, with the victims’ dignity sadly left in the gutters.
A Genocide survivor (left) hugs a reformed perpetrator in a gesture of reconciliation during a mass at Nyamata Catholic Church on January 8, 2017. Photo: Sam Ngendahimana.
Once the carnage was stopped, the need for unity glaringly faced the country and challenged the new Government of National Unity which was put in place to attempt to address the zillion challenges facing post-genocide Rwanda, not the least of which was how to unify and reconcile the Rwandan people besieged by diverse emotions: anger, fury, fear, trauma in diverse proportions, dare-devilry and utter confusion.
There begun the long and arduous task of restoring the dignity of a nation through the umbrella of a unity and reconciliation process. Against this background almost two years later, Unity Club (Intwararumuri/Torch Bearers), a brainchild of Madame Jeannette Kagame, Rwanda’s First Lady, was born.
It was founded on the February 28, 1996, out of her strong belief that there was an imperative need for the then female spouses of majority male cabinet ministers and the only two female cabinet ministers at the time, to also play a significant supportive role in the unity and reconciliation process, most especially since relevant unity & reconciliation policies had been initiated.
The First Lady brought together the spouses not only as wives to government leaders and two of them as government ministers in their own right, but also as mothers of the next generation of youth on whose shoulders the future of Rwanda would stand.
The importance of family support became central to the plan of spouses playing a supportive role in the restoration of a cohesive society and in the reclaiming of the broken national identity.
Indeed, to use one of the insights derived from Atty Danilo’s S. Azana’s talk on The Role of the Family in our Nation’s Destiny, “the rise and fall of the nation depends on the rise and fall of the family” (in Sociology Leadership. The Nation Culture, p2), it is indeed an indisputable truth that the family is the basic unit, the foundation of society and the security of the nation as a whole.
If the family is strong, so is the nation, and the opposite is also true. It is also well known in the Rwandan belief system that in a family set up, the woman is the heart of the home (Umugore ni umutima w’urugo).
That Unity Club, inspired and encouraged by the First Lady, positioned itself then to carry out this traditional supportive role in the wider sense of the nation, was more intentional than it was coincidental. After all, in the Rwandan tradition and culture, everyone is expected to treat every child as their own, and that, mattered.
So, as is reflected in a Chinese proverb that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step,” so did Unity Club’s 25-year journey begin: the first step was to heed the First Lady’s invitation to meet, and so they did on that day in February 1996. Members have never looked back.
The First Lady had brought the spouses together to figure out what their own role could be in contributing to the rebuilding back of a cohesive society torn apart by an ethnic/regional divide, at a time when the common identity of Umunyarwanda had been shredded and splintered into many insignificant identities that had been left to form and shift at will.
The country was still going through a tough phase. This was typical of the first few years of the post-genocide period. Initially, instead of rallying to what binds us, the focus was on what divides us.
Divisions were added to more divisions. For example, Rwandans who had been living in Rwanda before the genocide came to be identified as Abasopecya; former Rwandan refugees turned into returnees from Uganda as Abasajya or Ba Kare bambe; from Burundi, Abajepe; from DR Congo Abadubai, and from Tanzania Abatizedi, an unfortunate development that sadly delayed the reclaiming of our lost common identity.
These superficial divisions became real in an already divided country. It was in this climate that the earliest members made up of a mix of ladies from different historical backgrounds with quite varied experiences and attitudes were brought together “to join efforts to support the government in the difficult journey of rebuilding a country”
From the word go, it was clear that the effects of the 1994 Genocide had gone deep, interpretations and misinterpretations even deeper. Emotions were still raw, and mutual suspicions run high. Smiles were either fake or none existent.
The air was pregnant with the unknown; so for a little while in those early days, before a meeting was called to order, one could almost hear a pin drop! You could cut the tension with a knife.
Then there was the Tea:an underestimated but valuable tool for healing
Without anyone thinking much about it, shared cups of tea played a significant role in bringing members of Unity Club together faster in fostering unity. Each Unity Club activity such as a meeting was (and still is) preceded by an offer of a cup of tea.
In those early periods, each organised visit to one another’s home to get us to know each other better, was ushered in with a welcoming cup of tea, and each bus trip members took to go carry out an activity with orphans or widows or youth, often ended with a welcoming, much-needed cup of tea.
This seemingly ordinary act of hospitality progressively acted as an extraordinary thawing agent in a climate where trust was still frozen or tested, and mutual suspicion reigned. Slowly but surely, members begun to feel at ease like tea often makes people feel.
The previous whispers of the earlier days gradually became audible voices; previously small talk slowly turned into deep discussions on serious issues, and it became increasingly possible for previously frozen smiles to gradually melt into smiles, then laughter, and over a cup of tea.
Without a doubt, this ordinary ritual made the initial meetings and visits much easier, members became more receptive, and the shared cup of tea much more noticeably enjoyable.
Spurred on by the ease created in a simple act of a shared cup of tea, sincere and lasting friendships, generosity, and consideration for all who entered the Club were, in the years that followed, duly accomplished.
The sharing of tea had slowly but surely provided nourishment, created comfort, warmed the hearts and put us all at ease. The shared tea of the beginnings truly became Gahuzamiryango in the true sense of the word. Its positive impact was real.
This nascent camaraderie was further strengthened by the shared bus-rides to various destinations to carry out identified activities upcountry, as members became more determined to get actively involved in fulfilling the Club’s vision of addressing social problems and participating in Rwanda’s development, as well as its mission of enhancing unity and peace as the firm roots of a sustainable development.
Members’ multiple bus-trips to Nyamagabe, Bugesera, Huye, Karongi, Rusizi, Rwamagana, Kigali City and so on, to visit diverse vulnerable groups, were often marked by joyful singing on the bus, shared jokes, and laughter. Inevitably and unnoticeably, this was building more trust, and more importantly, a sense of belonging and togetherness.
For Unity Club, charity had begun at home as the saying goes. Members themselves were warming up to each other more, an indication that unity and reconciliation at a national level was also possible, if probably more arduous and tricky.
Hope became alive, and in the years that followed, members of Unity Club had taken on a much more significant role of looking more outward than inward, together.
Overtime, divisions blurred, and sisterhood became real. This time, shared ideas, activities and dialogues at district & national levels became the norm.
Not to say that the tea had lost its appeal; it steadily remained, to date, the unobtrusive but much needed unifier in the process of self-affirmation.
As the Club matured, the membership also increased. Ten years into the journey when Unity Club celebrated its tenth anniversary, the door to membership opened wider to admit into the Club, the then current and former male cabinet ministers as well as the then current and former male spouses to female cabinet ministers.
These were formally and happily admitted into the fold as associate members, and have been actively engaged ever since. Their support is invaluable. The Club’s initial effective members consisted of close to 20 or 22 female spouses in all. Today there are 130 female members and 120 male, making the current total number of Unity Club members 250, which is no mean achievement.
Reaching this number was made possible by the uniqueness of Unity Club’s stand on membership: Once a member always a member, whether you are in government or not.
Membership is automatic on entry. No one ever loses the Club membership. No one retires, unless voluntarily, but this has not happened over the past 25 years. This principle has created a way for members to carry their own history of unity and reconciliation literally on themselves, and along with them.
This has enabled them to this day, to pass the legacy on to their respective families unknowingly or deliberately, and by extension, to the next generation of Rwandan youth, thus symbolically passing on the light like a baton in a rally, each committed never to allow it to be extinguished, hence the Club’s role as Intwararumuri or torchbearers.
As the Chairperson of Unity Club, Mrs Jeannette Kagame once said when addressing new members, “Our responsibility as torchbearers and as leaders in particular, we are committed to prioritising Rwanda as a country, Rwandans as an identity and our unity as a people, which is what connects us….we are determined to be the Light! Light brings us out of darkness”
By 2013, Unity Club had had made significant strides, and the soil was ready for the Club, in collaboration with the National Unity & Reconciliation Commission (NURC), to take on the Ndi Umunyarwanda, a home-grown solution of unifying and reconciling the Rwandan people.
Initiated by the government of Rwanda, Ndi Umunyarwanda is a loud and clear affirmation of a reclaimed identity: “I am Rwandan.” It is a programme in Rwanda’s reconciliation process “initiated to build a national identity based on trust and dignity” which had been largely erased.
“It aims to strengthen unity and reconciliation among Rwandans by providing a forum for people to talk about the causes & consequences of the genocide as well as what it means to be Rwandan”.
Unity Club, in collaboration with the NURC, took the lead in organising the first Ndi Umunyarwanda forum, and took up the responsibility of holding similar forums at all levels, including local administration levels, mostly targeting the youth.
In conclusion, though Unity Club had started from modest beginnings, it was clear that its contribution to the socio-economic development of the nation through its participation in the nation’s healing process was not a debate but an absolute imperative.
Helping to address some of the immediate challenges faced by some of the most vulnerable groups through material and emotional assistance, in particular orphans, widows, and youth, became increasingly urgent.
Regular meetings that had initially been held in make-shift offices continued to be organized even up to national level. Among such activities were the many visits to orphanages both near and far. Some Rwandan families were even encouraged to adopt some of these orphans and give them a place to call home and a loving family.
Regular visits to child-headed households were carried out through the years, and their houses had been constructed with the help of Unity Club with the support of some of its partners. It is rewarding to know that some of these orphans from child-headed households have grown to have families of their own.
Some of their weddings were organized by Unity Club. Over time, Unity Club was able to extend its visits to widows & widowers, mostly those left as sole survivors of their respective families. These now live in beautiful modern homes with modern facilities again constructed by Unity Club and assisted by some of its partners.
Their welfare is catered for. These are found in Bugesera, Huye, and Rusizi, and their buildings were opened by the First Lady, Madam Jeannette Kagame, in the presence of local leaders and representatives of members of Unity Club.
In all these activities, the smiles members leave behind on the faces of these victims of the corrosive 1994 genocide gave and still give the Club extra impetus to try and do even more & better.
The generous assistance from various partners from the public and private sectors, including and mostly, the government of Rwanda, has made most of the activities on the Unity Club’s wish list, possible to accomplish.
The government has provided, and still provides invaluable support in so many ways, which has enabled the Club to carry out its various planned activities each year.
Unity Club would not have come into being without the singular vision of Madam Jeannette Kagame, who planted the seed and made it possible for members to dream while sipping their cups of tea, and slowly but surely succeed in making developmental inroads.
Unity Club recognises the immense contribution various partners and well-wishers have made, in particular, the NURC, through provision of the necessary assistance each passing year for the last 25 years.
The membership of Unity Club in its entirety is grateful to all. The Club is still willing and able to grow into one of the country’s valuable assets in peace building by continuing to relentlessly pursue activities geared towards achieving stronger unity and reconciliation, including programmes that target the youth, but still share a cup of tea while doing so.
Our hope lies in the fact that though the journey is still long, the country will continue to steadily rise out of a cloud of darkness and of a human catastrophe of untold proportions, to become much stronger, smarter, and transformational, existing challenges notwithstanding.