The political scientist motivated by a desire to understand the world

Alice Musabende has turned her childhood experiences in Rwanda into a quest for intellectual growth. Academic study, she says, enables her to be the person she was meant to be.

What have I done? That’s the question I asked myself when I landed at Gatwick Airport on 10 September 2016. I remember standing in arrivals with my eight-month-old baby, my almost-four-year-old son and a pile of suitcases. I didn’t have a clue about how to get to Cambridge, or how I was going to study and raise a young family alone.

I’m a Gates Cambridge Scholar. I’m pursuing a PhD in the Department of Politics and International Studies. I feel privileged to be here. This period of my life is a wondrous gift of time and space to become who I am.

I experienced the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis in 1994. Everyone experiences trauma differently. I was 14 years old and lost my parents, grandparents and all my siblings. My way of coping has been to find solace in an ‘academic’ search to make sense of things such as wars, peace and politics in general. I remain driven by this quest.

My PhD research looks at African international politics. I approach my exploration from the perspective of African political groups. I’m interested in how the African Union interacts with the international system — organisations such as the EU, the UN and NGOs. I want to find out how these interactions affect policies related to peace and security, migration and human rights.

African international politics are complex. It’s important to listen to how Africans, both elites and citizens, navigate the complex relationships with the various international partners involved in the continent’s political space. Most of the current research comes from an international perspective and often paints Africa’s own politicians and communities as passive recipients.

My work seeks to redress the balance. Africa’s political elites and populaces are far from passive. In the case of the African Union, I’m finding different, and sophisticated, forms of agency, which have the potential to transform the way we think about international cooperation. I prefer to think of my research as underwritten by a need to contribute to the efforts of decolonising — and normalising — the knowledge of Africa’s politics.

Ten years before my arrival in the UK, I’d made another big journey. Aged 26, I flew to Ottawa in Canada from Kigali in Rwanda. I had a scholarship for a Master’s in journalism at Carleton University. The teaching was fully in English, which was a real challenge. I’d learnt English at school but my undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Rwanda had been in French.

At lectures and seminars, I didn’t understand much. I knew nothing about Canadian politics and culture. I barely understood how or why the British Queen was the head of state. A wonderful lecturer offered to mentor me. By the time I graduated, I was ready to become a political reporter.

My greatest inspiration is my aunt. She took me in, along with several other children from the extended family who’d been orphaned in the genocide. Her parents and husband had died, and she was grieving and exhausted. But she made sure that I went to school. I wouldn’t be at Cambridge today if it wasn’t for her tenacity.

I went to two Roman Catholic boarding schools. The first one was in the north of the country, away from the city. Two nuns in particular took me under their wings and gave me love. I started doing well and knew that I wanted to attend university as a way of discovering myself.

In my last year of high school, I contracted tuberculosis. It was very hard not to feel defeated, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to take my university entrance exams. But somehow I lucked out, I took my medications and got better in time to take my A levels.

There’s a lot to learn about Cambridge when you first arrive. The organisational structure is complicated and the environment is academically demanding. The good news is that people help. My PhD supervisor understands my situation as a single parent. Gates Cambridge is, and has continued to be, a fantastically supportive network.

My oldest son goes to the University of Cambridge Primary School. The ethos there is fabulous. He’s flourishing and he won’t stop talking. He tells people that he goes to the University of Cambridge.

Life has been really tough. But I’m determined that my children’s lives won’t be defined by my tragedy. If I can do that for them, I can say with real pride that I’ve succeeded. People ask me how I’ve managed to get so far. I do think that perhaps one first needs to survive before starting to build a life. I have been very lucky that I was cared for, loved and supported over the years.

Studying is a kind of release — it lifts you out of yourself. By using your mind, and focusing on the wider world, you look beyond your own experiences. My PhD enables me to ask, and seek answers to, profound questions that will, I hope, make a valuable contribution to peace.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.