2009 / RWANDA& Ms Agnes Gyr-Ukunda


15 Omnium (18K gold) – special edition Rwanda. Donation of the total fund to BAKAME Editions for printing school books
COUNTRY: Republic of Rwanda
LANGUAGE: Ikinyarwanda, French, English
PRESIDENT: Paul Kagame
PRIME MINISTER: Bernard Makuza
AREA (TOTAL): 26,338 km2
POPULATION: 10,746,311 (est. 2010)
GDP (NOMINAL): $4.459 Billion /
$1.043 per capita (est. 2008)

Bakame Editions

bringing the written word to the people of Rwanda.

“We were in a small village handing out new books for the children of the local school. The welcome was overwhelming and the kids were thrilled to receive a book each, thanks to a generous donation from Switzerland. One boy in particular was very excited about his book. He said his Mum loves reading the books too, but he wasn’t going to show her until after dinner, otherwise she’d forget about the cooking!” Agnes Gyr-Ukunda smiles when she remembers this anecdote. And it is not only her face that smiles but also her eyes: you can see her passion and joy for what she does.

Gyr-Ukunda left her native Rwanda in the 70s to study in Switzerland where she’s been living ever since. It was in 1995, a year after the horrendous genocide that she decided to set up Bakame Editions, a publishing house funded by donations and specializing in children’s books. “I felt that I needed to do something for the traumatised children. And help preserving culture and traditions which were threatened to get lost. And what better way is there than to read? I wanted to help them smile again and temporarily forget about their traumas - if it is only for the length of a story.” Bakame Editions was born!

It was clear from the beginnings that Bakame Editions would mainly publish in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s native language. The importance of which Gyr-Ukunda can’t stress enough. “There are two main reasons to do this. Firstly, learning their own language and grammar helps tremendously when learning foreign languages such as French and English, the other official languages in Rwanda. Secondly, it helps building a national identity.” However, it is the fact that Rwandan society is an oral one and that before Agens Gyr-Ukunda, practically no children’s literature existed, let alone a tradition of literature, which makes her achievements so outstanding. “One of the biggest challenges was to find a way of how to transcribe those stories. Plus finding local illustrators who would be capable of visualizing them” says Gyr-Ukunda. The awards Bakame Editions have won over the years are testimony that she and her team have successfully overcome these difficulties.

These days the published titles are not only story books but a majority is educational material ranging from sturdy grammar books to the ‘little hands’ series, designed to promote pre-school reading. Plus a number of non-fiction books, like eg ‘Love Letters’. This book proofed to be so popular ‘it went round two villages because everyone wanted to read it’ smiles Gyr-Ukunda. For her it is success stories like these, which outweigh all the hard work and difficulties the small but dedicated team face. ‘It is touching to see that everyone can identify with these stories. Everybody has been in love, has received a love letter, has written one. It is testimony to our connectedness as human beings, no matter what age, colour, status. Books unify and don’t make any judgments.’

The ‘Rucksack Libraries’ carry this philosophy even further. Each rucksack contains about 20 books and is carried from school to school and classroom to classroom. In this way even the remotest areas can be reached and supplied with books, because libraries are scarce. Bakame also provides regular training workshops for teachers, authors and illustrators. And, of course, reading and story telling events in primary schools, which the children love. It is their smiles and sparkling eyes which tell Gyr-Ukunda that Bakame Editions is doing the right thing. ‘It is important for me to give the children a positive and good feeling. To acknowledge them and to take them seriously.’

It is with this in mind that the idea of the ‘Reading Pavilion’ was conceived - a space dedicated to the children in the publishing building in Kigali - where they can drop by and browse through the books and read at their leisure; a sanctuary just for them. This will now become reality thanks to a donation from Horage. The construction is scheduled for her next trip to Rwanda in Autumn 2012 and will be another big step towards cementing a reading tradition in Rwandan society.

-Stephanie Sarlos / Roger Seal