Redefining a generation: Meet the Ni Nyampinga girls

How Rwanda's first teen magazine is inspiring a new generation of girls.

Journalist Roxanne Escobales travelled to Kigali, Rwanda, to meet the girls bringing Girl Hub's Ni Nyampinga initiative to life.

Though softly spoken, Yvette cannot be described as shy. At 14, she is the only musician in the hilltop village of Muramba in Rwanda's Northern Province, and along with playing traditional music and writing her own songs, she recites poetry at weddings.

But she doesn't stop there. She also makes her own instruments. The umudili is made of a hollowed-out gourd attached to a wooden bow with a string. Yvette's already sold two and used her earnings to buy clothes and school supplies, putting what was left over into a savings account.

That would be an accomplishment for any teenager, but for Yvette, it is downright revolutionary. You see, it's rare in Rwandan villages for women, let alone girls, to be musicians.

"I was worried about how the community would think about her as a traditional singer, because I've never seen girls playing that instrument," says Yvette's mother, Genevieve. Now she's fully behind her daughter.

So what provoked this shift? Exposure to new ways of thinking about what it means to be a girl in Rwanda, ways of thinking that have opened doors to Yvette's future that were once firmly shut.

This fresh take on girlhood comes in the form of the country's first teen brand. It's called Ni Nyampinga, and it's transforming the lives of the girls it reaches.

Ni Nyampinga is run by Girl Hub and partners, with support from the Nike Foundation and the UK's Department for International Development (DFID). It's  a year old and comes in the form of a magazine and weekly radio programme, but has a greater purpose: it's an idea, an identity. It's something that both belongs to, and is created by, Rwandan teenage girls .

Translated as "a girl who is beautiful inside and out and makes good decisions", the term ni nyampinga is a potent one in Rwandan culture. The girls themselves developed this banner in order to create a new framework for growing up in a country where girls start life on a path already determined for them - either as a child in her parents' home or as a wife and mother in her husband's.

"It was like a veil was being lifted, because I always thought girls were left behind," says Yvette about the first issue of the magazine she read, which featured girls doing jobs traditionally held by men, such as electrician, plumber and motorcycle taxi driver. "I really fell in love with it."

Girl Hub knew that to create something that spoke to girls with impact, it had to come from the girls themselves.

"It needed to feel Rwandan: homegrown, with the voice of the girls throughout - like friends talking to friends," says Jessica Thornley, the creative lead for Girl Hub.

So Girl Hub and its partners, the Global Press Institute and Search for Common Ground, recruited and trained girl journalists for the magazine and the radio programme.

Sara, a confident 20-year-old, is a Ni Nyampinga radio journalist. One of the most talked-about segments of the programme, she says, shares first-person testimonies. It allows girls to learn from each other on topics often inaccessible to Rwandan teens such as personal health and pregnancy.

"If girls have good information about things like teenage pregnancy, they can guide themselves and reach their goals. Rwanda needs a strong youth, including girls. We are tomorrow's Rwanda," she says.

The half-hour radio programme airs on seven different stations throughout the country. Radio is an established media in Rwanda with an extensive reach, but distributing the magazine proved trickier.

"There was a lack of a publishing industry here," says Thornley, "and it was a bit of a gamble as there was no infrastructure to put out the magazine."

The enormous challenge of distributing the magazine led to one of the most innovative aspects of the venture and direct conversation with the magazine's young readers.

Instead of dropping off a bundle of magazines at a school, where there is no guarantee of them actually being read, a team of Ni Nyampinga Girl Ambassadors hold town hall-style gatherings with girls every time an issue is published. There are 30 ambassadors, one for each of Rwanda's districts.

"The conversation is different each time," says Sandrine, a 19-year-old ambassador for Gakenke district, where Yvette lives. "I ask them about what they thought of the previous issue, about their thoughts and their lives. We've become closer and now they open up to me and tell me what they would like to see in the next issue."

In Kigali, a group of girls meet every Wednesday after school to design and make jewellery and clothes. They share their skills and encourage each other to develop in new ways.

The founder, 18-year-old Odile, formed the club a year ago after reading in the magazine about a girl who made bags from upcycled materials.

"Before Ni Nyampinga, there was no news for girls my age," she says. "I realise that girls are changing because of the information in the magazine and on the radio. We now feel capable and not afraid to do anything."

Indeed, Stella - at 15, the youngest member of the club - says that seeing girls achieving goals in art, sport and design has fuelled her ambitions.

"It's taught us girls to have confidence. I want to be a leader, a prime minister. I will be happy when someone calls me Mrs President," she says.

Daphne, 17, models the club's creations. After joining the club, she was approached by a number of agencies and has been modelling professionally for three months now.

"I have to follow my dreams," she says. "My mother tells me to wait, wait, wait before having children because I have a lot of things to do like finish my studies and start my career. I don't think anyone told her the same.

"I think I'll wait until I'm 28. In this culture it's considered too old, but for me it's perfect."

Back on the hill in Muramba, Yvette also wants to wait before having children. She feels that the positive examples of girls featured in Ni Nyampinga have opened a new path for her and her friends.

"I thought people would think I'm crazy to do boys' work," she says. "To see others who do it makes me think I can do it too. Talking to my friends about the magazine, we discovered we all felt the same."

Sandrine, who has seen the effects of Ni Nyampinga first-hand thanks to her girl ambassador role, says it's good news for Rwanda. "It's helped inspire them, and girls now know the future is in their own hands. I think in 10 years girls will be able to live their own independent lives, and know they are equal with boys."