At 93 years, he looks much younger than his age. In his compound, there is a RAV4 car which he drives to work, visit and shopping. Driving is something he has been doing since the 1960s. Dr Venant Ntabomvura has had a quite eventful life. The Chronicles’ Germain Nsanzimana had opportunity to sit with the elderly medical doctor, husband, father, former minister, devout catholic – name it and he has seen it, except politics. “I hate politics,” is how he told us.
Dr Ntabomvura has witnessed Rwanda from pre-independence to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and its current rebirth. He is very fond of President Paul Kagame whom he calls “Angel Michael”.
In our interview, conducted over two separate days, he narrates how he became student No 001 at Rwanda’s first university; what he thinks about university education today; how he fell out with former President Gregoire Kayibanda; and the love of his life – his wife!
Dr Ntabomvura has been recognised with various awards.
Today he lives in Kabuhuzu village, Ruturo cell, Kibirizi sector of Gisagara district Southern Province – where he has lived from the time he began working decades ago.
Below are excerpts:
Who is Dr Venant Ntabomvura?
Am a medical doctor by qualification from NUR [former National University of Rwanda in Huye district). It has been four years since I went into retirement.
I was born on April 4, 1926. It is a date I have memorized from my mother as it was on Sunday when my father had gone to church. I was born in family of 13 children but two of them passed away. One of my siblings is [catholic] Sister Marie Edmond based at Kabgayi.
My father was a teacher and taught me in primary one and two at Muyira primary school (Gisagara district). I was transferred to Save (same region) where I finished primary.
Around 1939, I attended secondary level at that time known as “Ecole moyenne” and finished in 1940. I later joined nursing training for four years at Groupe Scolaire Officiel de Butare. I became a medical assistant.
By then, we had not yet gained independence. I went to work in Burundi for two years and six months. Both Burundi and Rwanda were considered as one country called Ruanda-Urundi.
My dream was to be a doctor but my father wanted me to be a catholic priest. He later encouraged me to join nursing training.
I do not count my children. One is Jean Bosco Muhire who works at South African embassy, another is Alphonse Nshimiyimana a veterinary doctor and Antoine Mugabe works at Banque Populaire (BPR Atlas Mara). Most of my children live and work in Kigali.
Who was your role model from childhood?
I will say Frère Secundien (Catholic Brother) who founded Group Officiel de Butare, and was the director. I had only two people, Frère Secundien and my dad.
Frère Secundien was a tough director. If you erred, he would advise you not to ever repeat again. It is something I appreciated about him. Even though he would ask you to kneel or beat you, he would act like a teacher and a parent.
How did you manage to become the first registered student at NUR?
When we got independence [July 1, 1962], information was circulating of a plan to start educating Rwandans to take over the governance of the country. Can you imagine that I struggled through school and had become a medical assistant, but I would sometimes be told to clean windows while I possessed a diploma? That is how colonialism felt like. However, I had to because there was no choice.
I was eager to enroll at university so that I could be able to undertake what those leaders were able to do. So when we got independence, I started searching for ways raise my level of education so that I could do what the colonial officials were able to do.
I was not alone with the idea of having a university in Rwanda, there were many other people. Fortunately, former President Kayibanda Gregoire had been thinking about the same issue. He invited Canadian [catholic priest] Fr. George- Henri Lévesque to come and establish NUR.
I was lucky to be among the people who spoke to Fr. George- Henri Lévesque., Actually, I personally welcomed him at Kanombe airport [in Kigali] when he arrived. We got to know each other and he immediately revealed to me what was bringing him to Rwanda. The next day, he was officially received and I was there as well.
At the time, I was in charge of managing all hospitals across the country. I was working in the Ministry of Health.
During my several conversations with him, he had told me that he was in Rwanda to conduct inspection to see where he can establish the university.
Then some days later, he told me; “Very sorry! I have travelled everywhere and people have told me there is nowhere to establish a university. It requires at least three years of preparing people who will start university”.
I was devastated. My plan of enrolling at university was fading away. I looked at him and said “Father, the President called upon you to come and establish a university and then you decide to postpone it for three years? It is not a good decision. You see, there is something I would like to confide in you. Father, I want to study, ready to start and hopefully to succeed.”
He asked me; “Are you sure you will manage?”, to which I emphatically responded; “Yes, I am ready because I have had the project to join university. Am ready to start. If you agree, register me and I am going to search for others. I am ready to run around with my car in all these hospitals calling upon everyone that a university is starting.”
However, many of the people I contacted during that one month period were wondering whether I was crazy. I was able to convince some few – telling them we cannot continue to serve colonialists while they ruled us forever.
We were able to mobilize 52 people to join the project of going to university.
When the time came for Fr. Lévesque to leave, I pleaded with him that those who were telling him to postpone establishing a university were enemies of Rwanda. I told him; “There will be people to teach. Start by registering me and he immediately did”.
We were 52 students with no females. The girls joined the university much later when we were due to graduate. There were three faculties; Medicine, Social Sciences and Teacher Training. The following years, people enrolled much easily.
Editor: NUR was opened on November 3, 1963, by the Rwandan government in cooperation with the Congregation of the Dominicans from the Province of Quebec, Canada. Its founder and first rector was Father Georges-Henri Lévesque. The former NUR is now one of the Colleges of the University of Rwanda, which was established in 2013 after combining all state-funded universities.
Dr Venant Ntabomvura’s Journey
1933-1939: Primary School at Save
1939-1945: Groupe Scollaire Officiel de Butare
1946-1962: Medical Assistant
1962: Director of Hospitals
1963-1968: Student at National University of Rwanda (NUR)
1968-1978: Director of University Teaching Hospital of Butare (CHUB)
1970-1973: Minister of Social Affairs and Cooperatives
1976: Professional Training in France, Belgium and USA
1979: Minister of Health
1981-1990: Rector of National University of Rwanda (NUR)
1994: Director of Otorhinology
Did you ever meet former President Kayibanda Grégoire in person?
Kayibanda… (Laughs). Of course we were known to each other until he suspended me. My history is too long! I was nearly jailed. At that time there was a tense political situation.
I was directed to hold political meetings in which I was to promote the notion that that politicians who were against President Kayibanda were planning to kill him and replace him. I said “No”, I rejected.
At the time I was in charge of all the hospitals in Rwanda. We took Oath before starting work. Am not sure if it is still done today. You would take the Oath that you will treat all people equally and never segregate. I was suspended from work after I rejected the directive to conduct those meetings, and so I waited for jail!
Actually, they even deleted me on the list of students who were ready to start university but Fr. George talked to me about it. He told me; “Don’t worry, I will not open up a university without you. I registered you and we know all about you.”
As for politics, I was not interested and I hated it completely.
Did you pay tuition fees at university?
It was free, we did not pay anything. We would receive Rwf 10,000 as monthly living allowance. It was a lot of money! For my part, I would send much of it home to pay labourers on my farmland and other activities at home. I stayed at the university campus for only ten days and returned to stay at my home. I had built this house before, and had to come back here to take care of my family.
Editor: Today, a student on government sponsorship at university gets a monthly allowance of Rwf 35,000
Did you feel you have attained your dreams after gradation?
Yes, Yes! It was a great day of happiness. Fr Lévesque was very pleased. He recognized my contribution as one of the founders of NUR even though I was a student. He wrote many books and dissertations in which I was mentioned as one of the founders of former NUR.
Where are your classmates?
(Pauses for while)…. I don’t know. I have not met any of them. We did not maintain contact. It could be possible that they are alive or dead. I don’t know!
Why did Fr Lévesque choose Butare as location for NUR?
The NUR was established here at Butare because it was the only place with appropriate premises. These premises include Batiment Central which was a primary school for the children of Belgians. The blocks were painted white color, which was a colour paying tribute to the leadership of the Belgians who were in charge of Ruanda-Urundi and Congo.
What is you view on university education today? How do you think it compares to the NUR from your time?
We were very lucky because before coming to the NUR, we had endure life out there. We had been working. We clearly knew what we wanted from university. Whoever completed, got employed immediately. I am not sure whether students today go to university knowing what they want.
Reason am saying this is because most students finish university and cannot find employment. The situation today is completely different from our time. There are many graduates seated at home with no prospects for work. It is really sad and disheartening to see intellectuals who are jobless.
Do you think admitting to university already-working people is a good system if adopted as the only system?
I believe so! It can help a student to know what they are looking for in particular from university. Since they will be upgrading skills of what they have been doing before joining university, once they complete, they are able to create their own new jobs.
What do you think of President Paul Kagame?
Kagame to me is Angel Michael. He triumphed over evil. We saw soldiers coming and thought the situation was headed for the worst, but instead peace has reigned. Another thing is that he has a gift of seeing ahead. He is a visionary. He is able to see things before they happen. Am not undermining past leaders, because each had their ways. However, they rotated around the present situation at that time. For Kagame, he has the gift of looking ahead.
Editor: Angle Michael is highlighted in various books of the Bible including; Revelation 12:7, Daniel 10:13,21 and 12:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:7,8, Matthew 16:27.
Do you have a favourite sport and team?
I used to play football and later volleyball. As for a team, only Amagaju FC.
Editor: Amagaju FC is the football team of Nyamagabe District in Southern Province. It is in the first division of the local league.
What is your life like today?
Can I possibly say am ok? From the time I received you, have you see me bringing anybody else to greet you? My wife passed away on December 25, 2018. It is the biggest wound I have ever had throughout my life. Imagine living with someone for over fifty years, who did not do anything wrong to you, shared the best and worst times, and then she leaves you?
On the other hand however, living in the village is very helpful. Talking to my neighbours really keeps me happy.
I wake up at 6:00 am and have a prayer, take shower then have my breakfast.
There are two days, Monday and Thursday, which I have set to be at CHUB (University Hospital). Apart from surgery, I deal with consultations especially for patients whom I may have treated before.
What is your secret for staying so healthy?
(He spoke with a raised voice seemingly excited to speak about the subject)
Since I was born until now, I have never taken alcohol or smoked. I no longer consume things that are packed from industries. I minimize taking sugar. I eat all that (as he points to his garden with different fruits and crops). Sometimes I go shopping for fruits and meat, not much else. Products from industries are poisonous. (He turns to French) It is very unfortunate that technology which ought to change people’s life instead kills them.
Our forefathers used to eat what they harvested from their shamba and stayed healthy.