Denys Migambiyabagabo, 27, always thought a high school certificate was all he needed to be a high school teacher until a district meeting he attended proved otherwise.
Two years ago, Migambiyabagabo was summoned by the district’s executive secretary in southern Rwanda. Hundreds of fellow teachers had been summoned too.
The executive secretary told them the ministry of education had upgraded requirements for high school teachers. They required a university degree. “I was puzzled”, Migambiyabagabo says.
The directive meant Migambiyabagabo, a Math teacher, would only qualify for a primary school teaching job. It also meant a lesser pay.
But he never was not going to settle for less, a move that would require a drastic decision; going back to school.
Every Friday evening Migambiyabagabo takes off hurriedly to catch a bus to attend weekend classes at the Catholic University of Rwanda (CUR), southeast Rwanda.
It’s a guaranteed deal for Migambiyabagabo, nonetheless, he believes. “I will get a pay risewhen I get my Bachelor’s degree.”
Migambiyabagabo is not your typical African, one who, if not in a farmland ploughing land, picking fruits, or fishing, is in the jungle hunting animals with a spear, an image that has been for decades portrayed of Africans by the western mainstream media.
To some extent, that’s the brutal historical truth, at least for Rwanda, but Migambiyabagabo is a reflection of a country that is transforming from an agrarian to a knowledge-based economy.
By 1994, for example, Rwanda had one university, having produced not more than 2000 graduates in three decades.
The university had not produced a single surgeon; not even a pilot or an architect. There was a handful lawyers, a few economists, a few engineers, and no computer scientists at all. Not one.
It was a country in a fiasco. Indeed, brainpower was not a norm of life. Illiteracy levels were shooting through the rooftop. More than 80% of the population would hardly read and write their names or count from 10 to 100.
Many scholars have blamed this illiteracy, on a large scale, for the notoriousgenocide against the Tutsi. Thousands of illiterate Rwandan youths easily sprang on the street in their villages and massacred more than a million villagers and relatives as their educated peers cheered on.
Learn a lesson the painful way
A genocide dealt Rwanda a deadly blow. Nearly all the few educated had been massacred, digging a massive intellectual harrow into the country.
It was painfully lesson, Rwandans say. But what lesson did Rwanda learnt?
As the country picked up pieces, foreign doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, all sprang into Rwanda to fill the void.
Rwandans couldn’t even wash dishes in hotels or fix simple mechanical faults in cars. Not even hairdressing. If that sounds too extreme, consider the fact that the President shared a doctor with the public. He did not even have a trained speech writer.
It was such a painful experience for Rwandans as foreigners mocked the country.
Rwanda had two sour choices at hand; train its own people from scratch or continue hiring foreigners.
The government consulted emerging countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand. A blue print dream to transform Rwanda into a knowledge based middle class economy; transform its people into a skilled humancapital forsocio-economic development, nicknamed VISION 2020, would be unveiled in July 2000.
Onlyqualityeducation would rescue Rwanda, one that focused on promotion of science and technology, critical thinking and positive values.
It had set the bar too high at a time when the impoverished country was running on a meager budget of US$10 million.
Experts argued then that Rwanda was being too ambitious and unrealistic. President Paul Kagame was accused of applying a draconian leadership style to archive the impossible.
Fifteen years later, today, primary school enrollment has hit a record 97%, with a new curriculum requiring students to complete at least 9 years as basic education.
Thirty two higher learning institutions have already been established, 15 of which are private, including foreign universities such as Kenyatta University, Mount Kenya and USA’s Carnegie Mellon.
Several courses are offered, ranging from sociology, development studies, business studies, law, pharmaceutical sciences, engineering, mathematics, medicine, computer science and engineering, economics, to administrative sciences and so on.
By 2012 statistical yearbook, there were 76,629 students in higher learning institutions across the country in 2012. 82.4% of them were enrolled for Bachelor’s degrees, and extra 1,091 on a government scholarship.
Job slots become competitive
Employers are somewhat getting spoilt with choices of more and more graduates surging on the job market.
In fact, pressure is mounting on government to create more jobs, despite announcing two weeks ago, plans to lay-off about 500 public servants.
Like many other graduates, this is the pressure Migambiyabagabo is facing. The job market requires sublimity more than before.
Agnes Muhimpundu, a 31-year-old mother of two, goes to the same university as Migambiyabagabo to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Accounting. If she doesn’t, she might as well go back home and plough land.
“Of course, it’s too demanding”, she says, provided that many students take evening or weekend classes and work weekdays in order to raise tuition fees.
With Migambiyabagabo’sprimary teaching job that pays roughly US$100, raising US$1,000 every year for his tuition is as hard as milking a bull.
This a common challenge amongst most students though, with Rwanda’s GDP per capita income at US$644. Muhimpundu is only lucky her husband is paying for the fees.
“I could not get a good job with my high school certificate,” Muhimpundu says and brags that her 4-years-first-born is already thinking of becoming a doctor.
Dr. Emmanuel Havugimana, head of geography department and lecturer of environment and urban planning at the University of Rwanda, says the part-time students are undergoing a painful process.
“This may impact on the quality of their education”, he says, but admits it is an investment worth undertaking.
There is no choice nevertheless, Dr. Havugimanasays. Standards have risen.
Christophe Ndayisaba, a banker at ECOBANK, a multinational bank operating in Rwanda and in more than a dozen African countries, says “companies want graduates who have scoredmore than 60 percent.”
To support the market demand, the government is investing in vocational training too. The Workforce Development Authority (WDA), an institution tasked with producing more skilled labour in Rwanda, runs tens of “hands-on” training centers around the country to respond to the job market demands.
SolangeUmurerwa, 32, who runs a massage and reflexology facility in Rwanda’s southern town of Butare, employs two high school graduates and a Bachelor’s degree holder from the University of Rwanda’s College of Medicine and Health Sciences.
The two high school graduates have been forced to take crash courses in massage and reflexology in order to retain their jobs at Umurerwa’s facility.
“We can’t afford employing non-trained staff”, says Umurerwa. “We would run into trouble with the Ministry of Health if we hired unqualified staff.”
Fitting into EAC
Rwanda being part of the East African Community (EAC) of over 125 million people, its citizens are forced to sharpen their skills in order to get a slot on the diminishing competitive and shredding labor market.
This way, Rwandans hope they then be able to compete with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi.
Migambiyabagabo sees his education through a different prism; a high-return, and less risky investment that will equip him with solid knowledge to compete on the labor market.
As the Rwandan labor market shrinks and becomes more demanding and competitive, Migambiyabagabo hopes with his degree and experience, he will be able to thrust himself into any EAC country, including Rwanda,and qualify for a job.
By Didier Bikorimana