Rwanda: “empowering women changes their relationships with men”

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We’re back at Addis transit lounge, on our way back from Rwanda after a week working with the young journalists at Ni Nymapinga. This time we’re in the modern part of the airport and the mix of passengers is much closer to what you’d normally see. There are tourists, business people, families travelling – not the slightly surreal, smoky NGO-ness of our transit stop off on the way out. There is one connection point though: the video screens are still showing a photo gallery titled ‘Endemic birds of Ethiopia’ and we still can’t remember any of them.

The airport lounge is a kind of decompression chamber between Kigali and London and to be honest, there’s a lot to process. We got to see exactly how Ni Nymapinga create their youth-run magazine and highly popular radio show, and we got to see how it exists within Rwandan culture. Ni Nympinga isn’t just something for young people to do – it’s part of a concerted attempt to build a more positive future by empowering girls in a culture where the ideas like men-only foods (mostly high-status meats like chicken or beef) existed in the relatively recent past.

In Rwandan culture girls are expected to be shy and many of the girls we met out in the villages spoke so softly that it was almost hard to hear them. Ni Nymapinga, which is run by Girl Hub is designed to create a conversation between Rwandan girls, delivered in a tone that Rwandan girls will be inclined to hear and absorb. It starts a conversation in a way that respects Rwandan culture, and highlights the brilliant things that girls are doing in the country: the unusual and brave girl who has taken the traditionally-male job as a motorbike taxi driver, or a girl who built her grandmother a house.

The focus is on interesting and inspirational girls rather than celebrities, and the absence of the background status anxiety that so much of our media generates is palpable. The large-scale format of the magazine is more than just an artistic decision: it’s designed to sit over two people’s laps so they can both read it at once. Ni Nyampinga is a complex and multi-layered medium for promoting and supporting pride and positivity amongst Rwandan young people. It might be primarily for and about girls, but the team are now thinking about how they can connect with boys too, and the pieces we created with them included vox pops with boys about their friendships with girls.

This point about connecting with boys is an important one. We met the lady behind Gahaya Links, a social enterprise that supplies woven baskets and jewellery to Macey’s in the US. They were founded by two sisters after the genocide left a gender imbalance, with many women widowed or left alone after their husbands, sons or brother fled the country or received long jail sentences in genocide-related cases. The lady who showed us around the workshops said that empowering women economically had a positive impact on their relationships, too. Men saw that local women were learning skills and were bringing in money and they began to relate to them differently. They saw the women had value – and began to ask if they could learn to weave or sew, too. If Ni Nymapinga want to improve the lives of Rwandan girls then they’re aware they have to do it in the context of talking to everyone, and that includes the boys.

We had such a great week and there’s way too much to communicate in one, or probably a hundred blog posts. A few snapshots: the day when Live Editor Celeste and our International Editor Keisha learned a local dance where girls mimic the movement of a cow, with the last girl still dancing and smiling being named ‘best cow’ – a compliment in a country where those sweet beasts are held in high regard. Or our encounter with the security guard outside the Rwandan Agricultural Bureau where we tried to ask for directions to a food place and confused the word for ‘where’ with the Rwandan word that represents the sound of laughing. Or our glimpse into Kigali high society at a club at the Mille Collines hotel where the DJ played Tinie Tempah and CEOs danced with ballons at a party run by a Rwandan who grew up in Canada, or any of the hundreds of conversations we had with the girls about the differences between their lives, and average lives in London. Or the fact that there’s so much more to Rwanda than the genocide, but that it’s there, waiting behind almost every conversation, because it affected everyone, and still affects everyone. How could it not, when over a million people were killed and the country destroyed, less than two decades ago?

The cultural exchange will continue to colour our thoughts and actions here in London, and hopefully it’s just the start of a beautiful friendship between the teams at Live and at Ni Nyampinga. I think we have a lot to learn from each other.

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