UNDP Africa director and UNDP Rwanda CO posing with visually impaired children from Hillside Hope

The week of the YouthConnekt Africa Summit 2019 kicked off with a country visit from Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa. Ms. Eziakonwa who spent two days with the UNDP country team traveling through the Northern Province to visit UNDP supported projects and meet some YouthConnekt beneficiaries. 

The first visit was to the Blessings School for the Visually Impaired (BSVI) in Musanze. The school educates children who have visual impairments and who come from financially challenged families. The school was founded in 2015 by Jean-Bosco Ntakirutimana and his wife, Providence Nzayisenga. After their visually impaired daughter, Hannah Blessing, was born, the parents found it difficult to find schools in their area that could accommodate their daughter’s needs and provide quality education. (Blessing, as she is called, is the only surviving child of triplets that were born prematurely.) Bosco and Providence therefore mobilised a few other concerned parents in the community and together they founded the school. The BSVI is currently being supported through the UNDP-RGB Rwanda Civil Society Organization (CSO) Strengthening programme, which has helped the school to double its student body and acquire special learning equipment.

A child with visual impairment and albinism practicing braille reading skills at the Hillside Hope school for visual impaired

While visiting the school, Ms. Eziakonwa spent time inside several of the dimly lit classrooms, observing as teachers taught math and writing. The classrooms are kept dimly lit so that students with more severe visual impairments won’t be bothered by harsh overhead lights. The children are being taught to read and write in braille. In the writing class, they were learning to listen passages, write the passages in braille, and then read aloud the passages while the teacher checked whether the braille was correct. 

Having teachers who are professionally trained to teach braille classes is critical for the success of children with visual disabilities. A solid education helps to put these children on a more even playing field with children without disabilities. It also opens the door to equal opportunities in society and greater personal freedom and security.

Ms. Eziakonwa was awe-struck by how eager the children were to learn, and how intensely they competed for the teacher to call on them during the lessons. Later, when the students were gathered in the assembly area, she spoke to them through the headmaster who translated. First, she spoke about the importance of studying and getting a good education, which would help them to overcome many barriers in life. She then asked the students to raise their hands if they wanted to become doctors or lawyers or teachers or even the President of Rwanda. Almost all of the children raised their hands.

“As human beings we are all equal and everyone should have the opportunity to be their best selves. It is possible, you can do anything you want, you just have to believe in yourself and your abilities,” she said, noting that the role of government, UNDP and other partners was to help ensure that those with ability got equal opportunity to realise their potential. She also echoed the sentiment that “Disability does not mean inability.”

Children with Visual Impairment studying at the Hillside Hope school

Later in the week Ms. Eziakonwa also visited the Heroes Day Care Centre in Gikondo, Kigali. The centre cares for children with severe disabilities. It provides special education along with physical and occupational therapy. The centre aims to provide highly individualized care, keeping a ratio of one teacher to four pupils.

Heroes Day Care and the Blessing School for the Visually impaired are two of six NGOs supported under the joint UNDP/RGB programme to provide services to people living with disabilities. UNDP is also partnering with the government and other stakeholders to develop inclusive policies and programmes, including to update national laws to be in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability. UNDP has also supported the establishment of an institutional framework on the rights of the disabled through the Ministry of Local Government and the National Council on People with Disability.

The Regional Director and UNDP team also visited three entrepreneurs that have benefited from the YouthConnekt Africa program. The first group of entrepreneurs were at the Musanze Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre where three students started a sustainable furniture company. The trio were interested in sustainable design and after doing their research, they found that timber was often being used for outdoor furniture even though it is neither durable nor environmentally sustainable. 

Ms. Ahunna and the delegation posing for a family photo testing furnitures made by the Reinforced Concrete Garden Furniture Ltd.

They decided to create Reinforced Concrete Garden Furniture Ltd. which uses concrete and reinforced steel to make outdoor furniture. Concrete furniture is more durable and is better for the environment. It also uses material such as volcanic rocks found in the community. Since starting their company and getting support from YouthConnekt Africa, the company has been able to hire seventeen workers.

After meeting with the young men and viewing the variety of products they were producing, Ms. Eziakonwa then visited the headquarters of Cephas Nshimyumuremyi’s beauty company Ubaranga Products Ltd. The company creates all-natural beauty products like aloe vera gel, castor oil and herbal soaps.

Ms. Eziakonwa, accompanied by Cephas’s two little daughters, received a tour of the building to see how products like aloe vera gel are produced and bottled. The majority of Ubaranga’s staff are female.

Ms. Eziakonwa also met with Assumpta Uwamariya.  Uwamariya won the 2016 YouthConnekt award for best young innovator for her beetroot wine business. With her 5 million Rwf (about 6000 US$) prize money she expanded her business, Karisimbi Wines, and was able to hire more workers. She has now expanded production from wines to juices.

Ms. Assumpta and one of her employee processing the wine

Ms. Ahunna given a guided tour of the Kalisimbi wines processing

The Director was very impressed not only with the YouthConnekt programme and how it is helping to identify and nurture young entrepreneurs, but also by the sustainable practices being used by the entrepreneurs. In a later media interview, she commented, “Climate change is affecting all parts of the globe but it is of particular concern to Africa. Natural resources such as land, water, air and forests are being polluted and degraded. If these natural resources are not managed in a sustainable manner this will curtail Africa’s growth.” She also commended the YouthConnekt Rwanda programme which has, to date, helped to create over 8,300 jobs in Rwanda.

In the evening, the Director gathered with the UNDP Rwanda staff to have a fireside chat about women in the UN system. She spoke about gender equality and the role senior staff should play in supporting women’s leadership development. She asked the senior staff gathered to advocate for and support young women in the workplace, to help lift them up, and to fearlessly advocate for gender equality.

The following day, a visit was made to a social healing ceremony taking place at a prison in Musanze. The initiative is part of the UNDP supported Access to Justice programme. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi. Many prisoners with long-term sentences are being released this year. Working with partners such as the Rwanda Correctional Services, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, and Prison Fellowship Rwanda, UNDP provides support to help social healing, reconciliation, and reintegration of prisoners into the community.  The Director was moved by a speech given by a young man who became an orphan because of the genocide, but who now volunteers to promote the message of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Ms. Ahunna interacting with a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis who testified during the event.

During the course of the week, the Director held discussions with senior government officials including H.E. President Paul Kagame; Minister of Finance, Hon. Dr. Uzziel Ndagijimana; Minister of Youth, Hon. Rosemary Mbabazi; and CEO of the Rwanda Governance Board, Dr. Usta Kayitesi.

During the meetings, the Director discussed strategies to accelerate Africa’s development and the role that the UN and UNDP can play in supporting countries achieve their development ambitions. The Director expressed her appreciation to the Government of Rwanda for another enormously successful YouthConnekt Africa summit which she saw as helping to propel a movement that will change the future for the youth of the continent. She pledged UNDP’s continued support for scaling-up YouthConnekt in Rwanda and across the continent.

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