Twenty years ago today, I was a junior (11th grade) in high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. Having lived in the US for just 6 years by that time, I was still “in between” two worlds. I had my African identity that, even if I wanted to, I could never shake. On the other hand, I had just become a US citizen and was beginning to pay attention to the significance of a new life in the greatest country in the world. Every day, I was reminded that in that small Alabama town, my background was truly uncommon and easily misunderstood by my peers. In the midst of my angst and confusion, I had a conversation with one of my sisters that liberated my teenage mind from the burden of not fitting in. She told me: “Remember. You were born in Ethiopia. You are African by origin. That fact will never change.”
It’s amazing how freeing it is when you can truly own your facts.
That spring, I confronted my “facts” in an unexpectedly painful manner. From afar, I witnessed the tragic Rwandan genocide unfold.
Having, myself, come from a country in turmoil, I suppose it could have been yet another event in the history of a troubled continent. But, the intensity and pain felt by and inflicted by Rwandans troubled me thousands of miles away. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and there were certainly not many around me who could relate to what I was feeling. I wept for Rwanda and it has had a special place in my heart since.
The Rwandan genocide is a fact. It happened. And today, on the 20th anniversary of its beginning, there is no shortage of stories to commemorate. There are plenty of historical accounts that detail not just the trauma of brother killing brother, but also the tragedy and impotence of an international community to step in.
Two years ago, I made a few trips to Rwanda on business. Not knowing what to expect on my first trip, I truly experienced a sense of realistic hope during my time in Kigali (the capital city). The kind of realistic hope you want to champion and cheer and help make into a reality. The kind of hope you know can be a template for the rest of the continent. The kind of hope that can overshadow the horrible events that started on the night of April 7, 1994.
Of the many hopeful things going on in Rwanda, I want to share these three:
- Agaciro Development Fund – this fund was established as the country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Its main purpose is to ensure that Rwanda’s economic development can continue with as much independence from external influence as possible. Citizens of Rwanda, Rwandans living abroad, friends of Rwanda, and corporations are all contributors. The word “Agaciro” is translated as “dignity”.
A very fitting word to illustrate the need for Rwanda, and other African nations, to achieve economic growth AND freedom from a complicated foreign aid regime that limps alongside the aspirations of the continent.
- Umuganda – on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans in every city, community, and neighborhood gather for a few hours to do community service. Umuganda means “community service”. Participation in Umuganda is mandatory for all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 and includes activities like street cleaning, care for the vulnerable, and even free medical care for that day.
From my time in Rwanda and my conversations with people from all walks of life, Umuganda is regarded as not only a vehicle to implement needed public services but also a way to establish unity among Rwandans. As a result of the culture of Umuganda, the streets of Kigali (and likely other cities) are clean, orderly, and inviting. It’s easy to overlook the psychological relevance but imagine being a little kid growing up in a community where public services function and there is a philosophy of unity, order, and care for your community. How does that impact a generation? How can that help to ensure the future of the country?
- World Alliance Against Youth Unemployment (WAYU)– a few months ago, I had a conversation with the CEO of WAYU, Aloys Ntezimana. He is overseeing the development of WAYU to address the serious issue of youth unemployment in Rwanda. Through entrepreneurship training programs and investment mechanisms for student-led businesses, WAYU hopes to transform the future of Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda is a very young country, with the majority of the population now of working age. Compound this with the fact that it has one of the highest population densities on the continent, and you start to see why the work of WAYU is extremely crucial and deserves the attention and partnership of key people and organizations around the world. I look forward to working with WAYU in the near future.
Hope is realistic when juxtaposed next to potential pitfalls. And to be clear, there are many issues that Rwanda has to overcome to realize its potential. But I encourage anyone reading this to explore the facts and truly grasp what is happening. That is the only way to champion realistic hope for the beautiful country of Rwanda.
Rwanda owns its facts along with its future!