A connection with Bryn Mawr helps women in Rwanda

Francine Mugueni and Irene Ingabire visited Agnes Irwin to raise money for the Akilah Institute.
Francine Mugueni and Irene Ingabire visited Agnes Irwin to raise money for the Akilah Institute. (KATHY BOCCELLA / Staff)
Posted: October 14, 2012

A young woman of wrenlike delicacy stood onstage at the Agnes Irwin School in Bryn Mawr and told a harrowing story that the girls in the room, smart though they were, could not grasp.

In 1994, when Francine Mugueni was 4, her parents and six siblings were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, in which nearly a million people were killed in 100 days.

Left behind to mourn and bury the bodies were mostly women and orphans like Mugueni and her 14-year-old sister. To have money to survive, they dropped out of school and cleaned offices.

Her sister "took over as my mother, even though she was just a child," Mugueni, 22, told the audience of uniformed teenage girls Friday. "You can imagine the conditions of life were not good."

No, they couldn't imagine it, not ever.

But for the last three years, the girls of the high-end private day school have tried to help by supporting - with money and friendship - a Rwandan college for victims of the ethnic conflict. At the Akilah Institute for Women, students spend 21/2 years being trained in hospitality and entrepreneurship, both of which are flourishing in Rwanda as it moves beyond its violent past and becomes a tourist destination.

The institute was founded in 2010 by a Tampa, Fla., woman, Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, who wanted to work in one of the poorest countries in Africa. When you educate a woman, she believed, you educate a nation.

The first class, including Mugueni, has just graduated and is on its way. All 110 members have gotten jobs.

On Friday, she and another graduate, Irene Ingabire, 23, took their monthlong American fund-raising tour to Agnes Irwin. They tried to explain to girls for whom little is unattainable how few opportunities exist for girls in Rwanda.

"Most people don't have the chance to go to school," said Ingabire, who as a child lost both her parents; her mother died of AIDS. "They need education, but they don't have the finances to go. . . . Before we had an education, we had no way to go forward."

The women talked about a new Rwanda, scarred but now stable and open for business, particularly tourism and hospitality, the fastest-growing economic sector. Travelers come to see the mountain gorillas - made famous by researcher Dian Fossey - in the volcanic region of the north, and the chimps in Nyungwe Forest National Park, one of the largest tracts of mountain forest in East and Central Africa.

Between 2005 and 2008, tourism revenue jumped from $26 million to $214 million, according to the Rwanda Development Board.

The landlocked country of 10.7 million is also becoming a regional conference hub. Marriott, Hilton, and Radisson hotels were planned this year in the capital, Kigali, considered one of the cleanest cities in Africa.

The country has changed in other ways.

"Now we know what a man can do, a woman do better," Ingabire said, noting that more than 50 percent of Rwandan government is female.

After the assembly, the Akilah graduates sat in a social studies class and answered questions.

Among them: What do you think of America?

"I heard everyone in America is so busy they can't give you one second," Mugueni said with a laugh. "Everyone is busy, but they want to hear from us. You feel you are important to them."

The Akilah connection at Agnes Irwin started after a student, Alex Pew, visited the institute with her family in 2010. When she returned home, she and a friend, Nora Buck, now both 17-year-old seniors, started the Akilah Club.

With about 25 members, the club provides pen pals, money, and, for the first time this spring, two internships for Akilah students at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia.

Finally meeting the Rwandans, who attended a fund-raiser at the Philadelphia Country Club Thursday night, "was so inspiring," Buck said.

The friends plan to visit the Rwandan school together this summer or next. But already, both say, their lives have been changed.

Pew, who wants to go into medicine, would like to work in underdeveloped countries like Rwanda. Buck can't imagine ever severing her bond with the school.

As for Mugueni and Ingabire, they soon will start new jobs at a Marriott in Dubai - Mugueni in human resources, Ingabire in sales and marketing.

"It's like a miracle for me," Mugueni said.

But she has bigger dreams.

"I want to open a school and help other young women who are suffering to find a job," she said, "and a dream of their own."

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123, kboccella@phillynews.com, or follow @kmboccella on Twitter.

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