From uncertainty to hope: A journey of Rwandan young statistician to senior statistician

Dr Muhammed Semakula, the head of planning, strategic information and health financing at the Ministry of Health. Image: Supplied.

Dr Muhammed Semakula, the head of planning, strategic information and health financing at the Ministry of Health. Image: Supplied.

Published Apr 15, 2024


South Africa shares a birthday with Rwanda. Thirty years ago, both nations were reduced to ashes. South Africa on its part by so being dealt with the hand of apartheid over a period 44 years and Rwanda by the hand of genocide where more than a million perished at the hands of fellow citizens, relatives, friends and neighbours in just 100 days.

A genocide of magnitudes hitherto never witnessed in recent history. While South Africa was celebrating the lifting of a yolk of colonial domination and apartheid repression in April 30 years ago, Rwanda had been written off by the world as a failed state. Thirty years later these twins are refreshingly different. One a country in despair where health, education, electricity, water, and roads are in a dire state of disrepair.

Economic performance is comatose, public trust in the government is at its lowest point and in the assessment of Indlulamithi Trust, South Africa is graduating from a Gwara-Gwara nation into a Vulture Culture state.

Rwanda, on the other hand, has its metrics performing well. Sweeping ashes of disgrace with ordinary brooms, returning to the village court system to embed atonement, redress and forgiveness a nation building effort driven with modesty. But a firm hand to confront genocide constituted a silent growth of a forest in the aftermath of the noise of a genocidal tree that befell the nation.

In just a generation, with economic growth at 7% per annum, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in the world. Kigali remains a marvel. Public education has taken root and private schools fail to survive the competition from well managed public schools, so is the case in public health where this has blossomed.

Rwanda has also won the favour of the United Nations and its National Statistics Office.

This as a historical beneficiary of Statistics South Africa is the hub of the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) system of data labs.

My friend, Yusuf Murangwa, the head of National Statistics Institute of Rwanda, in 2018 told me about a visit that Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma paid to his offices. Dlamini Zuma was amazed by the great achievements that the office in Rwanda had made and commented on it. Murangwa mused on the reason and told Minister Dlamini Zuma, “It was all with the help of our brother Pali.”

At the request of the infant National Statistical Institute of Rwanda, in 2005 Statistics South Africa joined hands with this institute with the purpose of lending a hand at building statistical capacity in Rwanda.

This partnership yielded results that go beyond expectations. A key milestone of the relationship was that of hosting the second Africa Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) in Kigali, Rwanda, after this was inaugurated in Cape Town South Africa in 2006.

As the Statistician-General of South Africa and chair of the African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) I was bestowed the privilege of establishing the Young African Statistician Movement. Therein I would take a keen interest to engage a number of young African statisticians across the continent. This was the case in Rwanda as well. I have kept tabs on these young minds in my retirement.

Salma Ingabire is the country director of Visa in Rwanda.

In 2018 I carried the story of Salma Ingabire, who now is the country director of Visa in Rwanda. As a member of the YAS then, Ingabire was researching traditional food systems to supplement breast feeding in the context of the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda, which was an appropriate response given the tide of challenges brought about by that genocide.

As we commemorated the genocide under the theme Kwibuka at the CSIR, I was reminded about the meeting I had with a young African statistician by the name of Semakula Muhammed in 2009.

I asked Muhammed, a survivor of the Rwanda genocide, to give me a recount of his life through the eyes of a young African statistician. This is his recount speaking in a third person.

“Towards the end of the 20th century Rwanda experienced the tragic genocide against the Tutsi, resulting in the loss of over a million innocent lives within a span of 100 days. In 1994, Rwanda was abandoned by the world and international communities. However, the courageous soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, led by President Paul Kagame, bravely fought to halt the genocide.

“In the aftermath, countless orphans, widows, and widowers were left with shattered lives and no hope for the future. The country had to be rebuilt from the ground up, with survivors receiving support to reconstruct their shattered lives. Education emerged as a pivotal tool in shaping and instilling hope for a brighter tomorrow,” he said.

Muhammed is among the multitude of Rwandan children who, in 1994 at the age of ten, emerged from the aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi with the opportunity of sound leadership and access to education.

In a time when hope seemed scarce, attending school became the primary recourse for many young children, albeit without clear guidance on academic pursuits. Fortunately, in 2006, Muhammed secured admission to one of Rwanda's esteemed universities.

Upon completing his initial year, he opted to take examinations for entry into the Applied Statistics department, despite uncertainties about the role of statisticians. His rationale stemmed from the likelihood of better employment prospects in a fledgling programme with a limited pool of graduates.

In 2009, Muhammed attended an international conference on statistics education at the University of Rwanda, where he had a transformative encounter with Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician General of South Africa.

In a brief conversation, Lehohla elucidated the roles and responsibilities of statisticians and encouraged Muhammed to share any statistics-related work he had completed. This marked the beginning of Muhammed's journey in statistics, with Lehohla becoming his mentor and source of inspiration.

Under Lehohla's guidance, Muhammed, as a young statistician, became involved in statistics conferences across the continent and formed meaningful connections. This instilled in him a renewed sense of hope and a vision for a better future.

Together with like-minded individuals, Muhammed helped establish the Isabalo Young African Statistician Association (Iyaso) and served as the deputy president of the Young African Statistician Association, all through the support and guidance of Lehohla.

Today, Muhammed and his peers who were part of the leadership of Iyasao have grown, obtained PhDs, and are now serving their country, continent and even the world.

From a place of despair and hopelessness, Muhammed has risen to become a dual PhD holder, with doctorates in statistics and data science: biostatistics. Link of Muhammed defending his PhD

He is married with a 6-year-old daughter and is dedicated to making the world a better place through evidence-based policy. He emphasises the importance of ensuring that such atrocities never happen again, and advocates for the importance of education and mentorship in shaping a brighter future.

Muhammed is a true Tintswalo and South Africa can take a leaf of wisdom on how to build a Tintswalo nation.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa