Here, Kilimokwanza.org present the narrative of Dr. Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA, as she recounts her journey in her own words at various times. Continue reading to delve into her inspiring story:
I have a very, very humble beginning. A very humble beginning. I was born in a refugee camp, and you know what? I stayed there for the next 35 years of my life. It was not an on-and-off, just a kind of makeshift kind of camp, no. I lived there for 35 years of my life. I actually don’t feel bad about it. Don’t feel sorry for me, because I am who I am because I lived in a refugee camp. It’s taught me a few lessons in life.
One of the lessons that defined my future was the realization that as I left primary school, and I started looking back at all the people I went to school with, I could not name more than 10 people from the school, from the community I came from.
And it was not just us refugees, by the way, that was in Uganda, it was also the Ugandan community that went to school with me. So deep in those villages, I could not find anybody I could say, yeah, I went to school with them. It was such a lonely journey, and I started asking myself, so what do you do, how do you make sure that the people you left behind actually also have a chance for a future?
How do you start influencing life to ensure that the one or several of you that made it out of that actually do help define what the future becomes for their children, so that their children don’t have to live such a lonely life?
So I really thought that that was going to be a very big part of defining me. I went on to a university. I finished my university and everything. Uganda’s a beautiful place to go to school. Let me tell you something. Some of the things we talk about in terms of corruption, oh, there’s corruption here, there’s corruption there. Sometimes it works, it works for societies, because if I’m with someone who would sign for me a document to go to university, yeah, you know, that type of corruption is not so bad.
So I must confess I went to university mostly because it was easy to move through that kind of system. So really, I was lucky that we were in a country that didn’t discriminate against us, that didn’t care that we were refugees, that really, just allowed us to move on, so I went to university, Makerere University.
Then my real life truly started when I went to Rwanda. After the genocide, I went to Rwanda, and I could not imagine that there was such depth of poverty in any place in the world. Even as you grew up in Uganda, we were never that poor.
I mean, I grew up as a child of a smallholder farmer. Because we were given land, good for us land, we farmed and everything, but I never imagined that there would be such a level of poverty as I saw in Rwanda, so that was, for me, a defining moment. So I started asking myself, how do you live in a country like this? That was number one. Number two, I’m a scientist. I was working with the communities, but in Rwanda, when I worked with the communities, I always looked at the powers and spears and holes they carried. And they felt like they were going to cut me.
Because that’s where Rwanda was coming from. It was coming from a genocide. So how do you conquer your fears of a genocide that is just at the back of the chaos we saw before? And how do you work in the community? I was in agriculture in a community that is so entrenched in poverty. I made a decision. I was doing my Masters at Makerere University I made a decision that I was going to do a PhD. And why did I decide I was going to do a PhD for Rwanda?
We had just come out of the war, lost a number of people including my own family, brothers and everything. I said, you know what? What does Rwanda need from me as your good for it? It’s going to need someone who can talk and negotiate and market and bring money to this country. We need to move our economy from the ground up.
And if I get a PhD, if I understand how the world works, if I understand how the West works, maybe I can, maybe I can do something about this poverty. And my dad said, no you should be getting married and I said, no. Wait a second. You’re getting too old, you have a Masters, you have whatever, why do you need another, and I said I am going to go for the PhD. And I made a deal with God. I said I’m going to go for the PhD. I don’t need the PhD because I believe it was the right thing to do. I believe I need to work for my community and I believe I need to reach out to them and see what is there. When I come back, I need to find my husband waiting for me.
I’m serious. I said, God, I’m going to do this for you. I’m going to do this PhD for you.
That’s what I said. When I come back, make sure that a good man is waiting for me. So I said okay. So I went. I had an offer from The Rockefeller Foundation. I took it and I ran. I did my PhD and learned a lot of things in the process and came back. I mean actually, I got the man before I came back. So when I went to do my sandwich program, which is I guess why God must have advised, actually a man was waiting. So I was like, okay, part of going number one, the second news the God was that these skills I’m acquiring, as I told you I don’t need, but you better put them to use. You better make me useful.
So I completely believe that when you go out there with a conscience, with a determination, you know, the luck part that someone was talking about earlier, actually does happen. If you work very hard, I’m not going to say that you get lucky, but you influence what is happening around you, working very hard nothing would beat that. Anyway, all that happened, I came back, I was a scientist working for AIT. Do you think that whole mix I skipped that part? I was working for AIT. I got a postdoc before I left. But when I came back, and in my mind, I still remember the poverty in Rwanda and I got an opportunity to go to Rwanda. Someone told me there’s this project that is closing at 150 million dollars. It’s closing at the first two million because they have no capacity to use the money. I was like would you give me the job?
I forgot that I was trying to be a scientist. Would you give me the job? The next day I was in Rwanda working I was lucky that Rwanda needed that badly. So the next day I was in Rwanda working and I never looked back. I never looked back on the fact that I led towards my job to do something about the situation in Rwanda. To do something about the depth of poverty in Rwanda. I was very lucky. I had great leadership in Rwanda.
Our president, President Kagame, I mean, if one day, Jaqueline you need, you know, a person who actually believes what all of us are trying to do here, what you’re trying to do here. Invite him to talk to these Fellows because this is someone, (audience applause) who doesn’t believe in doing the easy. This is someone who doesn’t believe in, who believes we must get to where everybody else is in the world. And he would do anything. He sleeps towards the dept to make sure he changes.
He defines history for our country that was supposed to be a failed state in 20 years is one of the most prosperous nations on the continent. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of hard work. So I decided that I was going to be a part of that. I worked very hard day and night and I used two things.
Conscience. If you want to betray anything in life, do not betray your conscience. Every time do the right thing because there’s nothing better in the world than doing the right thing. So what I did was always look at every situation and say, what is my conscience telling me here? Because, again, and remember I was returning to a situation where you just had a genocide. You have all these people and sometimes you’re trying not to judge but at the end of the day, you ask yourself, I was given these skills so that I can use them for the benefit of these people. I was given this skill not because I was the most privileged in society, but because there must be a purpose I can help, that I can actually put this what God has given me to use and be able to benefit other people. And we worked very hard. We found very hardworking teams and we actually did make a difference in a short period of time. I can say that in the nine years I was in Rwanda working in the Presidential Government, I can say that the agriculture sector most significantly and reduced poverty by 20%.
The country’s growing. I was telling someone the other day that in Rwanda you can almost feel the vibration, the energy, of what is happening in that country. Rwanda is built on conscience. Rwanda is built on not doing the easy thing. It is built on hard work. It is built on everybody making a decision that I’m going to leave this one behind. The other part I learned in Rwanda is that you never ever evoke, never ever try to evoke our basic human instincts.
As human beings because we are, the difference between us, I think, the difference between us and other beings is that God gave us a conscience. If you believe in God. We have a conscience. But in other words, we have a DNA that actually has basic instincts like other animals. You never ever go there, evoke those basic instincts.
one thing I can’t stand in my life is something called tribalism. I cannot stand that. I learned the hard way. When they came to Rwanda, the first thing I asked myself was how do I work with him? How do I look him in the face? Where was he then? It was easy for me to ask those questions until I realized that I was going to paralyze myself and not be able to do anything. We will start as a society, as a community, we made a decision to go above that.
We made a decision that we were going to be Rwandans and not be defined by Hutu or Tutsi. And we are building a country that is Rwandan. It’s not easy, but a few individuals just like you here are struggling with making sure that that becomes the future of our country because the future is automatized, it is not you and me. We are trying now to work for the future.
This is a country that is purely built on consciousnesses purely built on what people can do differently.
In AGRA, I’ve chosen the difficult path. We are working with technologies in AGRA, and I still believe we are doing a very good job. But after I was a Minister of Agriculture, I learned that Africa is not short of technologies. Africa is short of ministers that are committed to doing the right thing. Africa lacks capacities in political governance and the goodwill to do the right thing. And that’s what I’m going to pursue.
Every minister I talk to, I tell them AGRA is supposed to, and does have a few grants here and there, but I’m not talking about grants. I’m talking about what they’re missing to be able to do their job. That’s my focus because that’s what I have learned. These ministers have access to more money than I can ever have in AGRA.
You can make a difference, but you have to work hard. Sometimes you wake up questioning whether you’re on the right path. But if you work hard enough, that path becomes clearer and clearer. We’re shown sometimes it’s broken down, but the next day it’s built again for you to move on.
So please, understand that you can make a difference as individuals. Remember, we are born equal; we only get exposed to different things. We have a responsibility to ensure that every human being has the right to a proper life, wherever they’re living. If you can help do that for the rest of the world, please let’s do that.