[TRADING PLACES] A changing Rwanda embraces Korean ideas

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[TRADING PLACES] A changing Rwanda embraces Korean ideas


From left, Illuminee Niyomwungeri, a five-year Rwandan resident of Korea clad in hanbok, former professor of agriculture at the University of Rwanda Yu Ki-yull and Rwandan Ambassador to Korea Emma-Francoise Isumbingabo wearing mushanana, traditional Rwandan dress, pose together with agaseke, traditional hand-woven Rwandan baskets usually used to store grains or fruits, at the Rwandan Embassy in central Seoul on May 19. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The lowing of cows and babies crying somewhere in the distance are the sounds of Rwanda, said Dr. Yu Ki-yull, who lived in the country for three years as an agricultural expert and professor.

“I would walk home from work every day, following the trails created by thousands of footsteps made in the wheat fields and on the dirt roads,” Yu said as he looked out the window from the ambassador’s office in central Seoul on May 19. “Along these paths in the village, I would always hear three things - babies crying, cows lowing and people singing in churches.”

But at least one of these sounds was quite audible at the ambassador’s office that day.

“Rwandan babies, they cry, eh?” said Ambassador Emma-Francoise Isumbingabo as Illuminee Niyomwungeri’s 2-year-old son cried while waiting for his mother’s interview to be finished.

Illuminee Niyomwungeri, married to a colleague she met while working at Good Neighbors Rwanda, has two sons. Her first son, 5, recently started going to a kindergarten here and speaks five languages.

“We haven’t been to Rwanda since I got married and came to Korea,” Niyomwungeri said. “I hope to bring my sons there soon and let them meet their grandmother for the first time. We might go gorilla trekking together, too.”

Rwanda is home to nearly half of the world’s mountain gorillas.

“Tracking the mountain gorillas in Rwanda is something every foreigner must do if given the chance and for every Rwandan to do before they age,” said the ambassador. “It’s just like how I was told upon my arrival here that there are two places every foreigner must visit and every Korean must visit before they age: the demilitarized zone and Namsan.”

The ambassador has visited both, but she said she found something closer to home in a third place.


A better tomorrow

It was in April 2015, just a few months after she arrived in Seoul, that Ambassador Isumbingabo made her first visit to Jeju Island.

“It was a combination of things that brought back memories of home when I landed in Jeju for a work trip,” she said. “The low level of buildings and the clean and green feeling of the city brought back memories of Kigali.”

Yu Ki-yull: But the scene in Kigali seems to be changing quite rapidly. The Kigali that I last saw in 2015 when I left Rwanda and the Kigali that I see today in news and photos are different. Buildings are getting taller and traffic jams are getting heavier. And the rapid development is not limited to the capital of the country. At the bus terminal of Musanze district in the north, where I was for nearly three years, the dirt road to the terminal in 2012 became an asphalt road by 2014.

Emma-Francoise Isumbingabo: The Republic of Rwanda is among the least developed countries, but its natural beauty is breathtaking. With the recent developments of the country, Rwanda has become a unique place where people can enjoy the nature and still access modernization. Korea and Rwanda have been cooperating on agricultural mechanization, especially in southern and eastern Rwanda where the land is flatter and paddies and fields can be cultivated. In Rwanda, some 70 percent of the people are farmers, and agriculture contributes to some 40 percent of our GDP.

Interested in learning more about agricultural practices and policies here that may be applicable back home, the ambassador has been traveling to rural areas in Korea. It was in one rural district of Korea that she saw a woman, likely in her 70s or 80s, slightly bent, going about her farming business on a motorcycle-tractor.

Isumbingabo: It was around 6 p.m. when I saw this lady on the motorcycle-tractor working on her field. My thoughts immediately jumped to my mother back home. If this Korean lady with a bent back can use the motorcycle cultivating machine, then why not my mother, even if she is 80? In Rwanda, people work in the fields from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. With the machines, it will be possible for them to go home at 1 p.m., have lunch, rest a little and get out around 3 p.m. and work another three hours in the field. This is what I think is the future for us, because the more people taste better life, the more they want. It’s the same in Korea, everyone wants a better tomorrow and works hard to get there. I believe that everyone in Rwanda wishes to have a better tomorrow, and we have a very good leadership that is providing means to get to a better tomorrow.


Left: Yu Ki-yull fist-bumps with children he befriended in July 2015 at a town in Musanze district, northern Rwanda, which he says is another way to say hello in Rwanda. Right: Illuminee Niyomwungeri, her husband Baek Se-hyeon and their two sons, Baek Derek-jiwoo and Eric-jiwon, together at Seoul Children’s Grand Park in eastern Seoul on May 20. [YU KI-YULL, ILLUMINEE NIYOMWUNGERI]

The Rwandan way

Before departing for Rwanda, Yu could not get anyone to tell him basic facts of life in the country, including whether he would be able to use his smartphone and credit cards there.

Most of Yu’s presumptions about Rwanda were broken in his first few days spent in Kigali.

He was able to get a SIM card for his Korean smartphone in Kigali with no trouble, and pay for his accommodations in Kigali with his credit cards. He even met a student at the University of Rwanda who could navigate his smartphone’s functions better than himself.

“Actually Rwanda is not about the things I worried about- using smart phones, credit cards and such,” Yu said. “It’s so much more than that.”

Yu: I was born and raised in a small town in Jeonju, North Jeolla. I grew up spinning tops and playing hopscotch with my friends in my hometown, but little did I expect to see the same scene in Rwanda. I would walk to work in the morning and pass by houses where always a dozen or so kids would be gathered, spinning tops, playing hopscotch or rolling hoops. I would often join in and I remember they would be surprised and happy that I know how to play their games.

Yu taught students about vegetable production at the University of Rwanda. But oftentimes, it was more than students who attended his class.

Yu: Birds would swoop into classrooms and students would be staring at the birds instead of listening to my lecture. And birds of all sorts would come in, too, all of different colors and kinds.

Isumbingabo: We have more than 1,450 species in Rwanda, all within three national parks, namely, the Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park and Nyungwe National Park. In Rwanda, you can see Red-Faced Barbet, Shoebill Stork, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Papyrus Gonolek and the Miombo Wren-Warbler. So lots of people come to bird-watch, especially from December to February, during the migrant bird season.

One day, Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame made a visit to the university.

Yu: I didn’t recognize who she was at first, because she was wearing just a T-shirt and some pants. She addressed the students and after that some young people asked her to dance together. She hesitated for a second but came forward to dance with them! That was a surprise. You can’t imagine a first lady in Korea dancing with the people in public.

Isumbingabo: Our first lady is loved by many Rwandans. She cares for the people. In any case, Rwandans dance for all occasions. There are several types of traditional dances and they differ by regions, though they have been adopted by the whole country. People dance ikinimba, gushayaya, intore and others. Gushayaya takes after the mindset of the shepherds as most Rwandans herded cattle, and you can see the movements take after those of cows, slow and graceful. Intore, on the other hand, is the warrior dance.

Yu: And most of the dances in Rwanda tell stories, like the Korean traditional songs Arirang or the story of Chunhyang. There is also the Rwandan way of singing, just like how there are specific style and techniques to sing the Korean traditional songs.

Isumbingabo: Illuminee’s son is also quite a dancer. He’s always invited to our events at the embassy. We don’t need to hire anyone to dance - when he’s there, everyone is entertained.


Niyomwungeri’s first son Baek Derek-jiwoo is adjusting well to his kindergarten near his home. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for her family after their arrival here in October 2012.

Illuminee Niyomwungeri: I was going home after a Korean language class at Korea University one day. A Korean woman took the elevator with me, and she started asking me questions. “From?” she asked in English, so I answered in Korean, “I’m from Rwanda.” Then she asked, “Rwanda, where is Rwanda? Is it in Africa? You mean Uganda?” and I said, “No, not Uganda, Rwanda in Africa.” And she asked, “Korea is great, right? How do you like Korea?” and I said, “Korea is good, but the winter is very cold for me.” And then she said, “Really? You don’t like winter in Korea? You don’t like Korea?” I said, “It’s not that I don’t like Korea. It’s about the climate.” Then she said, “If you think winter is very cold for you, why don’t you go back to your own country. Go back to your own country!”

Niyomwungeri: I was a bit taken aback then. Korean people in my life have been very nice and helpful. Actually it was a Korean professor at my university in Rwanda who recommended that I try working at Good Neighbors Rwanda, which is where I ended up meeting my husband. He always tells me that we are soulmates. He often jokingly says, “Why did you hide in Rwanda, do you know how much I tried to find you all over the world? In the next life, we need to be born in the same country” (laughs).

There is another Korean person that Niyomwungeri feels strongly for - her sister-in-law.

Niyomwungeri: When I was pregnant with my second son, Baek Eric-jiwon, my first son was still at home with me and I didn’t want to send him to a nursery yet. My sister-in-law quit her job for four months to help me out in my last stages of pregnancy. She stayed with my first son while my husband and I were at the hospital. I am really thankful for her sacrifice.

It was actually her sister-in-law who encouraged Niyomwungeri to try to pick up Korean.

Niyomwungeri: I had given up learning Korean initially. After I gave birth to Jiwoo, I stayed home mainly and didn’t go outside because I didn’t know much of the language. Then my sister-in-law would come visit me, and we would start going outside together. At the time I couldn’t talk to her because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Korean. So that’s when I thought I really should learn the language to have a conversation with my sister-in-law. So really, she is my first Korean friend and family I made here apart from my husband, and she is now the beloved aunt of Jiwoo and Jiwon.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Rwandan Ambassador Emma-Francoise Isumbingabo

Appointed as the ambassador of Rwanda to Korea on July 24, 2014, Emma-Francoise Isumbingabo says from the moment she stepped off the plane to Korea in October that year, she was welcomed heartily by both Koreans and her fellow colleagues. More than a dozen ambassadors from African countries greeted her at Incheon International Airport in what is the traditional greeting practice among ambassadors of African countries here. The ambassador was formerly the minister of state in charge of energy and water at Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure.

Illuminee Niyomwungeri

A graduate of the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry with a major in food science and technology, Illuminee Niyomwungeri worked at Good Neighbors Rwanda as a nutritionist for children after her professor, a Korean, recommended that she apply for the job. She met her husband Baek Se-hyeon at work. Baek has degrees from Yonsei and Korea University and has worked for UNICEF and the World Food Program. The couple has two sons, Baek Derek-jiwoo and Eric-jiwon, whose favorite activities are dancing, listening to music and playing with sand on the beach.

Yu Ki-yull

After earning his Ph.D. in plant quarantine science at Chonbuk National University in 1986, Yu Ki-yull taught at four universities from 1993 to 2012 while also taking up a variety of positions at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs for 34 years. After serving as a director at the ministry, Yu retired, and worked as an adviser for the Korea International Cooperation Agency and taught at the Agriculture College of the University of Rwanda from 2012 to 2015.
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