Global Development Institute Blog

Written by Mariana C. Hernandez-Montilla

Ubumuntu means humanity, goodness, generosity, and kindness. For me, Ubumuntu means Rwanda and Rwanda means learning from the past.


Murakaza neza Kigali!


I stepped off the plane in March 2024, having travelled to Kigali as a teaching assistant (TA) with over 40 master’s students and staff from the University of Manchester. Our mission? To gain firsthand insights into Rwanda’s remarkable journey of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation, particularly in the education and health sectors.

Kigali welcomed us with warm smiles, a clear starry sky, and comfortable 25-degree dry weather, despite it being the rainy season. The roads were busy, with skilfully driven motorcycles weaving through the traffic on clean streets adorned by rows of tropical plants, from majestic palms to graceful acacias.

I soon understood why this place holds the title of the cleanest city in Africa. A Rwandan friend explained to me that the value of cleanliness runs deep in their culture, with the responsibility for maintaining cleanliness often falling primarily on women, adding an extra burden to their workload. I observed with admiration as these women diligently swept and cleaned the roads, going as far as brushing the trees along the main roads at night. This heavy burden placed on women, particularly in rural areas, raises important questions about the persistence of traditional gender roles and the need for continued efforts towards gender equality. However, I felt deeply inspired by their pride in making individual contributions through monthly community service (Umuganda day), and even the enforcement of laws shaping people’s everyday lives, such as the ban on plastic bags.

Although our stay was brief – no more than two weeks – we seized every moment. We ventured into multiple districts in rural and urban areas, spending a few days in the border district of Rubavu. There, we navigated the beautiful Lake Kivu around the city of Gisenyi, just adjacent to the border from the Congolese city of Goma. I had the privilege of immersing myself in the local culture and learning from the warm and hospitable people I encountered.

As we ventured out of Kigali, I noticed the landscape becoming even greener, and the sidewalks growing thinner, but the hills never stopping. Rwanda truly lives up to its name as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” where people, regardless of gender and, unfortunately, sometimes age, work tirelessly to navigate and cultivate the land. The steep slopes and rugged landscapes demand constant effort; whether it’s farming or walking to school, this undulating topography adds an extra layer of difficulty to daily life, particularly in rural areas where infrastructure is limited.

Despite these obstacles, the Rwandan people demonstrate remarkable resilience and determination in their pursuit of progress; from the street vendors who sold colourful fabrics, shoes, and clothing imported from Western countries to the dedicated community health workers (CHWs) who greeted us with songs and dances. I explored the bustling street markets and tried different spices and sweet fruits like bananas, mangos, and passion fruits, each offering a unique taste of the country’s natural bounty. I was fortunate to enjoy their rich cultural heritage through the sound of vibrant drums and captivating dances in various styles.


Exploring Rwanda’s pathway to resilience


As our journey unfolded beyond Kigali, we engaged with various representatives from different government bodies, as well as medical practitioners and education leaders across multiple districts. The institutions we visited painted a vivid picture of Rwanda’s developmental efforts, spanning from schools with unique management models to Africa New Life Ministries, which combine educational support with health programs and leadership training.

View from JADF office, Bugesera District

View from JADF office, Bugesera District

Throughout our visits, the level of innovation and commitment to collective action was remarkable. The Joint Action Development Forum (JADF) in the busy district of Bugesera left the most profound impression on me. There, two passionate women showcased this innovative platform, which brings together government officials, community groups, and business leaders to solve development challenges voluntarily. This dedication to serving their communities was evident in every space we visited, demonstrating the deep-rooted volunteerism that propels the nation’s progress. The strong presence of brilliant women in leadership roles across these encounters was a testament to the power of empowerment, providing numerous examples of how women are shaping Rwanda’s future.

Our introduction to Rwanda’s development landscape reinforced the notion that true progress begins with the dedication and compassion of individuals committed to making a difference in the lives of others. This conviction, echoed by our students who observed, ‘People are the heart of development,’ resonated throughout our journey, shaping our perspectives, and strengthening our appreciation for the nation’s resilience and unity.


The genocide and its impact


Despite Rwanda’s remarkable beauty, its history is marked by a dark chapter. The 1994 genocide left a deep imprint on the nation’s soul. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial at Gisozi to understand how this painful history has shaped the country and its future challenges. Locally, Rwandans often describe themselves as “30 years old” because the life they knew before 1994 has been irretrievably lost, and a new Rwandan identity has been forged by the collective experience of trauma, survival, and resilience.

A Poster at the entrance of the Memorial

A Poster at the entrance of the Memorial

The roots of this tragedy can be traced back to the colonial era, when Belgian authorities introduced an ethnic classification system, dividing the population into Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa—an approach that is now illegal. The division deepened with the introduction of ethnic identity cards, which later fuelled the genocide. Over 100 days, around 800,000 to 1 million people (official rates that could be underestimated), mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus and Twas, were systematically killed by extremists. The violence saw neighbours and even families turn against each other, leaving 300,000 children without parents and countless individuals traumatized.

Women and children were particularly targeted by a campaign of systematic rape and abuse, causing cases of HIV to proliferate. In addition to the immense human toll, the genocide also had a devastating impact on Rwanda’s infrastructure and social fabric, including its healthcare system, which was most needed. The country was left with a shortage of healthcare workers, a lack of infrastructure, and a high disease burden, particularly in terms of HIV and AIDS.  To fully grasp the complex historical and political context that set the stage for this unimaginable tragedy, I encourage you to visit the Kwibuka website (Kwibuka means ‘to remember’ and describes the annual commemoration of the 1994 genocide). There, you will find a wealth of information that sheds light on the deep-rooted tensions and struggles that preceded the genocide, offering valuable insights into how such a horrific event could unfold.


Addressing the HIV epidemic


Despite facing unimaginable hardships, Rwandan women in particular have shown incredible courage in rebuilding their lives and communities. This resilience is evident in Rwanda’s remarkable progress in fighting HIV, especially in preventing transmission from mothers to children.

In 2002, no pregnant woman with HIV had access to antiretroviral therapy to prevent passing the virus to their babies. But by 2014, Rwanda achieved an impressive 98% coverage, ensuring almost every mother could protect her child from HIV (Data from database World Development Indicators, last updated 02/21/2024).



The role of CHWs is key in this achievement; their voluntary efforts in HIV education and prevention have been crucial, with an impressive 99% of pregnant women with HIV receiving antiretroviral therapy in the fiscal year 2022-2023. These workers, elected by their communities and trained by the Ministry of Health, conduct home visits, monitor the health of pregnant women and children, and refer individuals to health facilities as needed.

As we journeyed across multiple mountains, we reached a rural health ambulatory in Rubavu, where we engaged with over 50 dedicated CHWs. Welcomed with vibrant songs and dances, we bonded with a group of CHWs as they shared their motivations for becoming community healthcare leaders. When I asked them about their main motivations for becoming CHWs, they spoke of their pride in their role, enjoying being called “community doctors.” They also mentioned their desire to learn and help others, finding joy in serving and connecting with the community.


Challenges ahead


Despite the remarkable progress Rwanda has made in addressing the HIV and AIDS crisis, the battle is far from over, with 2.7% of Rwandan adults aged 15-49 living with HIV in 2018, a lower rate compared to some neighbouring countries like Uganda (5.7%) and Tanzania (4.9%), but still a challenge. These numbers are more than just statistics; they represent countless lives forever changed by the virus. How can one truly leave the trauma behind when it resides within?

Image captured from a wall in Rubavu.

Image captured from a wall in Rubavu.

Access to treatment, while greatly improved, remains an ongoing concern, particularly in rural areas where healthcare infrastructure is limited. Yet, amidst these challenges, a profound sense of sorority and care resonates among Rwandan women. This bond is evident in the way they call each other “sister” and extend a helping hand, whether it’s hailing a taxi, providing directions, or guiding you to their school. This sense of solidarity and support is something I treasured from my time there.


Rebuilding Rwanda’s healthcare system


Restoring Rwanda’s healthcare system after the genocide was a monumental task. The country faced shortages of healthcare workers, poor infrastructure, and a heavy disease burden. Yet, Rwandans didn’t let these challenges define its future; as one local put it, “we have taken the long road in rebuilding our nation”.

 This has been bolstered by a collective effort of strategic partnerships with organizations like the World Bank, Global Fund, Gavi, and donors like the USA and Belgium. These collaborations have enabled Rwanda to make significant strides in improving access to healthcare services, particularly for underserved communities, as we witnessed.

But the downside is that despite its achievements, Rwanda grapples with a heavy dependence on external funding, inefficient resource allocation, and fragmentation of efforts within the healthcare system. To tackle these issues, Rwanda is focusing on better coordination among stakeholders, exploring sustainable financing models, and fostering community involvement. The country recognizes that the key to long-term success lies in empowering its people and building a sense of ownership over health initiatives.

Moreover, Rwanda is harnessing the power of digital technologies to revolutionize healthcare delivery and monitoring. Education, particularly for girls and women, is recognized as vital for empowering individuals and combating the HIV epidemic. Through these efforts, Rwanda is not just addressing immediate healthcare needs but also laying the groundwork for long-term health and well-being.


Visiting the hospitals and clinics


As a firsthand witness of different hospitals and clinics across the country, we explored three institutions: a private hospital run by Africa New Life Ministries, King Faisal Hospital, and Legacy Clinics. In the first one, we were welcomed by the founder, Fred Isaac, a pastor with Rwandan roots who escaped the genocide and spent his early life as a refugee in Uganda. His personal experience has shaped the organization’s mission, combining medical science with faith to provide compassionate care. He reiterated his dream to “let every child dream” and has worked tirelessly to transform lives and communities. However, I wondered about the scalability of such comprehensive interventions in resource-constrained settings.

We also visited King Faisal Hospital, impressed by its state-of-the-art equipment and research focus, and Legacy Clinics, which offer advanced diagnostics and specialized care with a predominantly female staff.

These visits clearly showed the collaborative efforts between the government, non-governmental organizations, and healthcare institutions in driving Rwanda’s development. However, many challenges remain, especially in rural areas where shortages of healthcare professionals, particularly in specialized fields, and lack of financial support for Community Health Workers highlights the need for innovative strategies to attract and retain talent in underserved areas. As I reflected on these experiences, I drew parallels to the education sector, another critical pillar of Rwanda’s development agenda and crucial to the battle against HIV.


Reshaping Rwanda’s education system


Rwanda’s healthcare system recovery post-genocide mirrors the educational sector’s resilience. Partnerships with global entities have bolstered both areas, underscoring the importance of collaborative efforts and sustainable development. The mission to reshape Rwanda’s education system is centred on ensuring equitable access to quality learning opportunities and prioritizing the needs of girls. It’s a recognition that education is not just a fundamental right but also a powerful tool for empowerment, enabling girls to break free from cycles of vulnerability and chart their own paths toward healthier, more productive lives.


Private School in Rubavu.

Private School in Rubavu


During our journey, we learned about the challenges Rwanda faced in rebuilding its schools and revitalizing the education sector in the aftermath of the genocide. Its first education policy, initiated in 1998, emphasized education for all, focusing on principles like equality and equity. This groundwork has supported notable advances, such as the implementation of a 12-year basic education program that is both free and compulsory. These efforts have been especially transformative in promoting girls’ enrolment and retention, with creative measures I would like to see replicated in my country (Venezuela), such as dedicated girl rooms, school meals, and the abolition of fees. These initiatives have been instrumental in creating effective learning environments despite the obstacles of overcrowded classrooms and limited resources.

As I observed students in their schools, I was filled with a profound sense of hope and optimism for Rwanda’s future. For so many of these bright, eager girls, education represents not just a pathway to economic opportunity but a chance to take control of their own destinies. In a country where women are hit hardest by HIV, educating girls is crucial. It’s not just about fairness; it’s also about fighting HIV. When girls are educated, they gain the knowledge and skills to protect themselves from HIV, make informed decisions about their health, and become change-makers, making their communities stronger and healthier.


Visiting the schools: a glimpse into Rwanda’s female educational landscape


Visiting schools in Rwanda was an eye-opening experience. One aspect that left a lasting impression on me was the dedication of educators to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, has access to the power of education. In both private and public schools, students were eager to learn, and teachers showed a strong commitment to gender equity. Despite the challenges of overcrowding and resource limitations, we saw firsthand the impact of initiatives like feeding programs, which incentivize attendance by providing students with nutritious meals cooked daily in the schools’ wood-fired kitchens.

The presence of menstrual support rooms and the strict values of equity, inclusivity, unity, patriotism, honesty, and self-confidence, as well as partnerships with international organizations providing book donations or teacher training, were common in both systems. However, as I walked through the school grounds, I noticed disparities between their facilities. The limited space for playgrounds and other amenities at the public school highlighted the persistent challenges of resource allocation and infrastructure development, serving as a reminder of the ongoing struggles faced by Rwanda’s education system. The road ahead may be long, but with each girl who steps into a classroom, especially in rural areas, Rwanda moves closer to a brighter, more equitable future. This fills me with hope, knowing that change is happening, even if it is just one classroom at a time.


Conclusion: a reflective outlook


This story is more than just a travelogue; it’s a testament to Rwanda’s remarkable journey of resilience, unity, and hope. From the vibrant streets of Kigali to the lush green hills of the countryside, Rwanda’s commitment to progress was evident at every turn. Throughout my journey, I witnessed the strong bond between leadership and community, built on a foundation of discipline, determination, professionalism, and volunteerism. I am filled with a profound sense of admiration for the power of community, the importance of cultural values, and the transformative potential of women’s leadership.

Rwanda offered us a kaleidoscope of experiences. It challenged our preconceptions and deepened our understanding of the nation’s past, present, and future. We experienced practical realities first-hand, observed development interventions on the ground, and learned from all the challenges they entail, something I treasure.

Rwanda’s dedication to girls’ education and empowerment is transforming lives and strengthening the nation’s response to the HIV epidemic. By prioritizing girls’ enrolment and retention in schools, providing essential amenities, and fostering inclusive learning environments, Rwanda is equipping young women with the tools they need to make informed decisions about their health and well-being. The profound sense of sisterhood and solidarity among Rwandan women, from the dedicated CHWs to the brilliant female leaders at the Ministry offices, left an indelible mark on my heart. These women are at the forefront of driving progress.

However, during my time in the country I became increasingly aware of concerns regarding political freedom and the sustainability of tight government control. While applauding Rwanda’s significant strides in reducing poverty, I also acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead, particularly the heavy reliance on external funding, the difficulties in sustaining progress amidst resource constraints, and the persistence of inequality between urban and rural areas, a reminder that there is still work to be done in creating a more equitable society.

I am reminded of the importance of continual self-reflection, open dialogue, and the need to address difficult questions. Rwanda’s story serves as a powerful example of what can be achieved through unity and determination. But, as the nation moves forward, it must create space for diverse voices and work towards a future that is not only prosperous but also inclusive. One that values and respects the rights and dignity of all its members, fosters open dialogue, and works towards addressing the needs of marginalized communities.

Rwanda’s journey, with its triumphs and challenges, has deepened my understanding of the complexities of development, proving that even in the face of adversity, healing and progress are possible. The lessons we learned and the memories we made will stay with us long after we left the Land of a Thousand Hills.

Urakoze, Rwanda.

Written by Mariana C. Hernandez-Montilla

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

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