Gashora Girls

How four young women from Rwanda plan to change the world by going to school



Linda Umwali, left, and Ellen Mahoro talk during a Thursday, April 4 visit to Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shoppe. The stop has become something of a tradition for the friends, who hail from the same secondary school in Rwanda.

RACHEL SUN, Evergreen Reporter

Eight years ago, a 15-year-old Linda Umwali first stepped foot in the Gashora Girls Academy in Kigali, Rwanda. Today, Umwali is one of four women attending WSU who hails from that same school.

Since arriving at the university, the students from Rwanda have built a community of their own.

In a little apartment tucked into one of Pullman’s many hills, Umwali bends over her friend at the kitchen table, combing and braiding hair as she chats with a small group of friends around her.

The four women from the Gashora Girls Academy share food, language and culture with a group of friends.

All four women ended up at WSU by chance. There was not any special program that led them here, but in a serendipitous turn of events, all four found the university offered a program they were interested in at WSU.

Growing in the aftermath

The WSU women who went to Gashora share something other than their home country and secondary school.

Twenty-five years ago, the Rwandan Genocide began after the assassination of then-President Juvénal Habyarimana.

In large part, however, it was caused by tension over economic disparities between the two predominant ethnic groups. The event killed hundreds of thousands and brought the country into turmoil.

The women at WSU are too young to remember those events. But the genocide’s aftermath undeniably shaped their life and worldview.

From a young age, Umwali saw people around her fighting food insecurity and a struggling economy while the country worked to rebuild itself.

A master’s student in economics, she said witnessing the challenges her country faced inspired her and many of the other young Rwandans to get an education for their communities as much as for themselves.

“We’re all part of the post-[genocide] generation,” she said. “[We’re impacted] from what we saw that our families and our parents went through.”

For Umwali, a desire to help improve Rwanda’s economy is part of what inspired her to major in economics.

To the credit of the Rwandan people, the country’s economy has grown substantially, with GDP rising by eight percent per year between 2001 and 2014, according to the World Economic Forum. Even though that growth continues, the women who attended the academy see plenty of work to do.

The other Gashora graduates at WSU, Grace Murekatete, Esther Rugoli and Ellen Mahoro, said witnessing food insecurity and other challenges within Rwanda post-genocide had a profound impact on their motivation to make a positive impact on the world.

“I’ve seen people go two or three days without eating,” Mahoro said. “It makes you feel like you have to do your best to help them … it feels personal.”

Mahoro wants to help address food insecurity in Rwanda, she said. But beyond helping her country, she wants Rwanda to be known for more than its tragedy.

She wants foreigners to know about the beauty of Rwanda, the “land of 1,000 hills,” or how her country is leading the world for female representation in politics, where women make up nearly 70 percent of its parliament.

“The government has done a good job to help everyone feel like they can be a part of the development of the country,” she said. “[Foreigners] still think we define ourselves as Hutus and Tutsis. We are all Rwandans.”

Hope for the future

For 23-year-old Murekatete, education has always been a priority. The oldest of five, she set an example for her siblings early, working for good grades in the national exam to earn her place at Gashora.

But getting there was challenging for the whole family. Her father struggled to support all his children, and she only got the chance to go to a good school in her teens.

“I had a dream to come to the U.S.,” she said. “But I thought it wouldn’t happen.”

Her father helped inspire her and her siblings, she said. He managed to earn his own bachelor’s degree, and tried to encourage his children to do their best.

“My dad used to tell me that even though I don’t have everything in that moment, it’s possible to start working for the things I want,” Murekatete said. “Not everyone who is successful has a good background.”

All four women have siblings, but as the ninth child of 12 in a family of subsistence farmers, 22-year-old Rugoli faced extra challenge.

As a child, Rugoli would walk two hours to school, then return to feed animals. She studied at night with an oil lamp, eventually earning the top score among girls in her district, and a scholarship to the Gashora Girls Academy.

For Rugoli, a scholarship meant everything. Two of her 11 siblings made it through college so far, but many have been unable to afford school. One sister was planning to attend college but stayed home so her father could pay for her younger brother’s education.

The boys have always been a priority because that’s the way her father was raised, she said. But he changed his mind after seeing his daughter’s success.

“Now he believes girls are like boys,” she said. “They should have equal opportunities.”

Just like in high school Rugoli now studies on scholarship at WSU. The agriculture biotechnology major said that in the future, she would like to introduce better farming methods to Rwanda, which could help people like her family start to earn money with their crop yields.

Despite all odds, the college junior has far surpassed the hopes her parents might have had.

“[My father], the best he could wish for me was to be a better subsistence farmer. He could not think of me doing research or ag biotech stuff,” she said.

Even for Rugoli’s mother, her daughter’s dreams often seemed too wild to imagine.

“I told my mom I wanted to go to America and she was like, ‘Oh my god, no, that’s too high,’ ” Rugoli said. “But that was what I wanted.”

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Rugoli said she wants to go to graduate school for plant breeding or physiology. She wants others to know what is possible for women.

“Women can do science, women can do anything as long as they are motivated, and they think they can,” she said.