‘Young people in our country need help to live better’
‘Young people in our country need help to live better’
Flavia Mutamutega loves being Rwanda’s only agony aunt for adolescent girls. She talks to Veronique Mistiaen about how life prepared her for the job, the questions girls ask, and her belief in young people.
Photo: Craven Mupenda/Girl Effect
Flavia Mutamutega is Baza Shangazi, which means ‘ask auntie’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language. She works as part of Ni Nyampinga. It is a very popular multi-media youth platform. International non-profit Girl Effect started it in 2011. It has a magazine, radio show, ambassadors and clubs, and digital platforms.
Before she was an agony aunt, Flavia worked as a secondary-school teacher, a translator, and a Child Participation Officer for UNICEF and for the Ministry of Health.
You are the only Baza Shangazi or agony aunt. Isn’t that a big job for just one person?
It is a big job, mostly because it is so important for young girls. It helps them connect to someone they can talk to and trust.
As Rwanda is trying to develop, people no longer live as big families with a grandmother, aunties and brothers and sisters all in the same place. Many parents are trying to earn enough money for their family and they have no time to sit with their children and talk to them. Also, because of our history [the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi], there are many orphans, many children who grew up by themselves.1 But in Rwanda our culture means that we don’t talk about puberty, body changes, and sexuality. Parents don’t talk openly about them, especially in rural areas where most people live. So this is the job of Baza Shangazi: a trusted person who gives them information to help keep safe and make good decisions and be confident. You are Baza Shangazi on the radio, in magazines and online. But you don’t use your real name or photo. Why?
Girls don’t know me as a person, but as a voice. If a girl feels she can trust me because of my face, that won’t help her. If we put a photo in a magazine, girls may not identify with it or they may not really listen to the advice. The girl knows auntie only through her voice, so she can have a picture if her in her own mind. Everyone has a different picture of who auntie is – and it is an auntie they can relate to.
Why did you want to do this work? Is there something in your life that prepared you for this?
When I grew up, I had a male cousin as a good friend. We did everything together: looking after cattle, getting water from the well, finding wood – everything except washing dishes, he never did that! Later, when I was a bit older, perhaps 10, I realized that my mother kept me closer to her. When my cousin was getting wood, I couldn’t go with him. My mother was worried and said, ‘Don’t let anyone disturb you’, but she didn’t explain what she meant and it made me feel uncomfortable.
Then at boarding school, an older girl looked after me. We shared a bag in the bedrooms where we put our clothes and things. I noticed that when some things disappeared from our bag, she wouldn’t let me shower with her. Then she told me about menstruation. I’ve been lucky to have an older sister. She told me about menstruation. So when my periods came, I was not surprised, but other girls did not know about it.
Their skirts got stained and you could see the shame on their faces, so I decided that I would tell girls about it. I studied communication, so I could do that better. When I started working as a teacher and later at UNICEF, I talked a lot to young people about reproductive health and changes in the body.
What is it like to be an adolescent girl in Rwanda today? What questions do they ask you?
There are lots of things girls want to know.
Younger girls mostly ask about bodily changes and friendships. For example, ‘I am 12 and my periods haven’t started yet, am I OK? Why do my friends have breasts and not me?’ Or ‘I want to be friends with someone but why are they not interested in me? How can I get in this group of friends?’ They ask these small things, but they are very important to them.
Older girls ask about sexuality, pregnancy, gender-based violence, HIV, education, and gender barriers. For example, ‘My father is selling the land. He asked my brother about it but not me.’ ‘Look, auntie, a boy asked me to meet him and he locked the door and raped me.’ ‘I love him but when we are together he doesn’t show that he loves me but only wants to have sex.’ ‘I’ve met an older man and he gives me money to have sex.’ ‘My periods haven’t come for three months. What do I do?’ ‘Can I be infected with HIV if there was no blood transferred during sex?’
Do you receive many messages? What do you do with the questions, especially the difficult ones?
We get hundreds of messages a day from girls aged 10 to 19 from all over the country. We get messages from boys too. They ask about relationships and sexuality and want to know why we don’t have a radio show or a page in our magazines for them too.
We go through all the messages and find the ones we need to answer immediately.
We answer their questions, but we also give them more information about what they are asking.
If the message is urgent, like gender-based violence, for example, the girl will receive an answer on her phone within 24 hours. We’ll tell her not to keep the violence secret, but report it to a trusted adult, get medical help if needed, and we give her free telephone numbers for help. We also write about some of these problems in our magazine articles, radio shows, and dramas, so more girls can learn about them. We try to make every young person feel good about who they are – it doesn’t matter about their sexuality, feelings, and choices.
What do you like the most about your job?
To feel the relief of a girl or boy who has got an answer to their problem. Even if it’s not face to face, you can feel it. Girls say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ Or messages from parents saying things like, ‘Before, my daughter didn’t want to ask for sanitary pads. Now she asks for money and, because of your talk show, I don’t ask what she needs it for.’
My job makes me feel closer to young people. In every young person, I see my own child. I think many people feel that way, even if they don’t say it, because so many young people in our country need help to live better.
1 The UN says, ‘More than one million people – mostly Tutsi, but also Hutu, Twa, and others who were against the genocide – were killed in less than three months.’
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)