Rwandan Female Peacekeeper Talks Vip Protection Duties in Car, Life in Military

12 January 2021

When you first see Lt Scovia Gwizimpundu wearing her favourite jeans or high-waisted pants, you might easily take her for any stylish professional but a soldier.

Her neat, well-groomed and professional appearance does not give away much.

When this reporter first met her, it was a brief encounter at a Rwandan peacekeepers' base in a small town called Ouango, on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

She is part of the Rwandan contingent serving under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA).

Off-duty, Gwizimpundu easily passed for a visiting civilian UN staffer.

A couple of days later, she sat down with The New Times for an interview. The interview was set for late noon. This time, the platoon commander was on duty in the leafy Boy-Rabe area within the 4th district, or 4ème arrondissement, of Bangui.

A platoon - commanded by a lieutenant - is a military unit typically composed of two or more squads or sections. Platoon organisation varies depending on the country and the branch but, generally, it comprises 20 to 50 soldiers, although specific platoons may range from nine to 100 people.

After issuing some quick instructions to a group of soldiers under her command, she approached, pistol in a tactical holster and an extra 15-round magazine fastened onto her right thigh. The extra weight didn't seem to bother her.

She strode confidently and offered a firm handshake, pausing only long enough to signal for two chairs to be "quickly" placed under a giant mango tree behind a military tent. A small red light kept blinking on her Motorola military comms radio.

In her military element, Gwizimpundu exudes respect, honour and professionalism. It is then that her neat and soldierly appearance registered.

'I was afraid my family wouldn't support my career choice'

The women who served in the military before her paved the way for her, she noted, referring to women who participated in Rwanda's 1990-1994 liberation war.

Five years ago, the IT enthusiast made a decision that made her the only woman in her family to have joined the Army - well, so far.

"I didn't tell them I was enlisting until I had dropped my application at a district military office in our area. I was afraid they wouldn't support my career choice and would try to talk me out of enlisting, but luckily, everyone including my parents, approved," Gwizimpundu said.

But what inspired her in the first place?

"Inkotanyi," she said, referring to Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), the armed wing of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPA), the political organisation that liberated Rwanda back in 1994.

"Particularly the women liberators," she recalled. "I was always in awe of them."

Fast forward, today, the army Lieutenant is serving thousands of kilometres away from home, under a UN mission. She is the chief escort of the First Lady of the Central African Republic.

Rwandan women in the UN Mission are gunners, escorts, doctors, mechanics, communications experts, and in combat. Like their male counterparts, they also patrol the streets of Bangui, and other localities, every day.

Every task these women do is daunting and requires rigorous training. But for servicemen and women like Gwizimpundu, who protect top leaders, the job is even more demanding.

High profile VIP protection agents need to be ready to be able to do what is expected in normal situations, in tense situations, and in situations of extreme risk.

Asked how her typical workday looks like, she said "it all depends on the First Lady's programme".

"When the First Lady plans to go somewhere, we plan, deploy and move accordingly. Her security is in our hands. I deploy along the routes she uses to ensure she is safe everywhere. Once her day's work is finished we come back home with her."

'Danger can lurk around any corner

Gwizimpundu only goes to her base to rest after ensuring that her night shift team is set and everything is okay.

Her job is tough because when protecting a VIP like the First Lady, "danger can lurk around any corner."

But Gwizimpundu is trained to put up with the kind of stress her job entails. In her kind of job, there is neither room for mistakes. Her disarming smile gives the impression that she is harmless. But she is alert and prepared for the unexpected.

Hers is a testing role that requires personnel to repeatedly put themselves in harm's way.

"We are foreigners here and even though we can communicate in French and English sometimes communication with locals can be tricky due to differences in culture," Gwizimpundu said.

"The weather or climate here is also a challenge at times. We adapt and deal with situations as they come but it can be a challenge."

In the footsteps of Ndabaga...

Today, more women serve in Rwanda's military, Rwanda Defence Force, than at any other time in the country's history. Their service has been heroic, and their sacrifices profound. And each has a story of perseverance and bravery.

Gwizimpundu relates to the legend of Ndabaga - an 18th-century heroine whose story continues to inspire women.

"Ndabaga stepped in for her father and it was a big thing, in Rwandan history," she said. In ancient Rwanda, young men would temporarily replace their fathers on the frontline so the latter can go home and recuperate from the toll of war, but men who did not have sons would not have that luxury. However, in an act of bravery and courage, Ndabaga would become the first woman to go to the battlefield to replace her father.

"Today, women also do well in the military," said Gwizimpundu. "I am sure there are areas where we excel more than our brothers."

She believes any girl can pursue any career path they want.

Gwizimpundu feels comfortable in the male-dominated military environment, especially since women are not excluded from any type of combat mission.

"I cannot say this is a difficult life just because I am a woman. It is a life I fit in very well, and do well, because I am a trained professional. I am comfortable," she said.

She says she hopes to have a successful military career but she also wants to build a family of her own.

"My dream is to grow in my career and to have a family of my own too; my husband and children. I want to see my children grow into successful and patriotic adults."

As for individual achievements, "there are so many so far", she said, but "being a platoon commander is my biggest accomplishment yet."

jkaruhanga@newtimesrwanda.com

Follow https://twitter.com/KarhangaJames

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