More used to welcoming besuited dignitaries, to debate and discuss matters of global import, last Friday, the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), felt more like a music festival, if a particularly salubrious one. Rwanda’s youth had commandeered the place, and that meant disc jockeys (djs) turning up the volume, which in turn encouraged their audience to raise their chatter, a few octaves higher. Apparently in her own world, the young female dj, smiling contentedly to herself, moved to the rhythm of her own playlist. The exuberance was palpable, and infectious.
Then the music was slowly dialled down, down, down, off. But the excitement only rose, the gathered youth breaking into spontaneous applause, photographers scurried about, getting in each other’s way, as is their wont. Enter stage right, waving cheerfully, the cause of the excitement, the host of the event, Rwanda’s first lady, and chairperson of Imbuto Foundation, walked in, to take her place.
The foundation, which works to empower young people, supporting them in everything from education, health and career progression, is partnering with the government of Rwanda, in a campaign to combat alcohol abuse, among the young especially.
And so, to the serious business of the day, and it does not get more serious than saving the flower of the nation, from the grave effects of alcohol abuse. The first lady’s speech set the tone of the campaign; it would be steeped in Rwandan culture. Her remarks were peppered with references to the proper place of alcohol in Kinyarwanda tradition, now and again, throwing in a saying or proverb to make her point.
When she did get up to speak, the speech was more of a conversation, rich with references to the place of young people, the family, in society. It was full of colour, bringing the culture of the nation, and the responsibility of everyone to life.
It was in many ways, an extraordinary speech, delivered by someone who is clearly well informed about the depth of the problem, and whose understanding of her society and culture, afforded her a good vantage point, from which she suggested solutions, drawing from that culture, couching them in a way that is immediately, intimately understood by her audience.
And she spoke as a parent, a mother, her words embracing her audience, “young people, our children,” she called out to them. The young people, who only a few moments before she rose to speak, were humming with excitement, now listened in rapt attention. She had them in the palm of her hands.
She was not just speaking to them, she was showing them what they needed to see, to understand, she was walking a path with them, and they seemed to trust her implicitly, to direct them away from harm, to what was best for them. So at one was audience and speaker, that observing the silent interaction between them, felt almost like an intrusion.
It was important, she said, to look back and try to understand how the worrying epidemic of under age drinking seems to have taken root, be it in towns and cities or rural areas. “I can call it an epidemic” she emphasised. And the problem goes beyond the underage, she added, it includes the adults, who ought to provide a better example.
She reminded her audience that from time immemorial, Rwandans understood the importance of drinking within acceptable limits. She quoted the saying that, “Inzoga ni impfura inyobwa nindi” literally, alcohol is a gentleman or lady, drunk by another. In other words, if they are not to lose their own self respect, a lady or gentleman, respects alcohol as they respect themselves.
Far too often, she noted, the saying is misinterpreted, to mean that drinking is a gentlemanly or ladylike practice, encouraging over drinking, in the misguided belief that it is somehow elevated by custom. “Inzoga uyikura mu kibindi ikagukura mu bagabo”, she offered another saying to drive the point home, you take the drink out of a vessel, and it takes you out of the company of gentlemen.
Alcohol abuse does not affect only the individual, she continued, it affects every aspect of their lives. To protect an individual against it, is to protect that individual, his or her family, and the wider Rwandan family. “We cannot build a nation, without protecting the individual from harm.”
“The family is the bedrock of Rwanda. If we see harmful practices, and we do and say nothing, we leave each person to fend for themselves, which is contrary to our culture. As Rwandans, and Africans in general, we still keep the custom of looking after one another’s welfare…and so, we should try to understand the root causes of overdrinking, so that together, we can find a remedy for this epidemic…”
The TunyweLess campaign is not focused only on young people, it is a national campaign, but given her foundation’s work with young people, the first lady, was always going to place the greatest emphasis on supporting them. She concluded her remarks with what was a challenge to the young, wrapped in a loving message.
Asking the panel of experts that would follow her, to tackle the many misleading myths around alcohol, she reminded the young people that the Rwanda of today was liberated by the youth, just like them, an achievement greatly at odds with being enslaved to alcohol. Young people, “our children, it is not that anyone wants to direct your lives” she reassured, “it is because you are loved, and parents always worry about their children, irrespective of the way they conduct themselves.”
The applause at the end of her speech, got even louder as performance poet, Rumaga, sporting Rwanda’s traditional hairstyling of “amasunzu”, strode onto the stage, and to the accompaniment of inanga, a traditional string instrument, performed a poem about the pitfalls of over drinking.
The day’s events were rounded off by a panel of experts, which included minister of state in the ministry of health, Dr Yvan Butera, therapist, Chantal Mudahogora, and Rwanda National Police Chief, Felix Namuhoranye. The panelists were joined by twenty-six-year old Alain Nshimiyimana, who gave a testimony of his recovery from alcoholism, which took him to the point of contemplating suicide.
In their own respective ways, the panelists represented institutions that pick up the pieces, when alcohol abuse gets out of control. It is the police who have the grim task of investigating every scene of an accident, caused by drunken driving, the healthcare sector that puts together those who survive, and the therapists, who try to guide those who treat alcohol as an emotional crutch. All had one message: ideally, the best amount of alcohol is none, but if you must drink, do so moderately. In essence if you must do yourself harm, aim not to over do it.
TunyweLess, will almost certainly be one in a long list of campaigns worldwide, against alcohol abuse.
According to America’s National Institute on Alcoholo Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in 2016, alcohol abuse was “the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disability, globally. Among the 14-49 age group, in the same year, alcohol abuse, was the leading risk factor for death and disability.
And in 2018, World Health Organisation (WHO), reported that alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury related health conditions, including liver diseases, injuries in road accidents, violence, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, suicides, tuberclosis and HIV/AIDs, the latter as a result of unprotected sexual activity.