Witnessing how Education Changes the World
Every once in a while, a life event comes along that shakes you to your core.
It's the kind of occurrence where you are so deeply moved, that the world almost stops, time stands still, and you sit in awe, suddenly appreciating all you have in life - the people you love, the friends who make you laugh, the fact that you have the means to select your home, your career, and that you have the education and skills to dream big, and to shape your future.
It's in this moment that all of life's little stresses fade away, you remember that phrase "don't sweat the small stuff", and wish you followed the advice more often. For me, being in Rwanda is this life shake-up, and some of the connections I've made with people will never leave me - their stories will haunt me, and their courage will inspire me. Why is this so significant?
Today is the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide Against the Tutsi.
When I first told people I was moving here, I received a lot of questions such as "Rwanda?! Where is that? I heard it's dangerous. Isn't that where the genocide happened? I saw the film Hotel Rwanda.....so sad. Are you sure you want to go there?"
Rwanda doesn't have a happy past. In 1994, twenty years ago today, over a period of 100 days, between 800,000 and 1 million people were brutally murdered, some in the most horrific ways. That's 1 in every 8 people living in the country at the time - babies, women, children, even animals. No one was spared.
Stop......think about that for a second........
For those of us who weren't in Rwanda, it's hard, even impossible, to comprehend the hate that infested the country during that time. Today, everywhere you go you are reminded of this past. Rwanda has adopted the phrase "Never Again", to remind people that nothing is as horrible as that period of time, and that together, Rwandans can bring peace to their country, to rebuild, and to thrive.
Today, the country has transformed. There is a buzz everywhere. Rwanda is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but has one of the fastest growing economies. It's also a model for education - achieving 96% enrolment in primary school, and now focussing on improving the quality of education, which is still lacking, as in many African countries.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world - Nelson Mandela.
Why such a focus on education? Well you see, Rwanda has plans to become a middle income country by 2020. The country sees its youth as the future for jobs, for economic prosperity - and when the majority of the population are still under the age of 16, big investments are needed. People work hard, every day - really, really hard. There is no tolerance for laziness here, respect is earned through hard work. The youth are determined souls, ready to go to university, get good jobs, and become entrepreneurs.
The feeling of change is so evident that an outsider could almost forget the genocide even happened. That is, until you talk to Rwandans, get to know them, and see that their past will never, truly leave them.
One friend was 12 years old when the genocide hit her village, and her home. She watched her parents shot point blank, and jumped out the window with her baby brother in her arms, running into the field. Her younger sister ran the other way - they never saw each other again. This friend was determined to survive, and went to live in Kigali with extended family - she even went back to school and was doing well. Then, it became to financially difficult for her family to support her and her brother. 3 years later, when he was 5 years old and she was 15, the family had to kick them out on the street, simply because there wasn't enough food to go around. My friend worked her way up in housekeeping, and now is an adult, helping her brother, and her own family.
Another friend was much older, in his 30's, when the genocide happened. He had a wife and three young children, all murdered, yet he survived. He explains to me that he still doesn't know why god spared him. He had no choice but to find peace, and started again. Today, he is 56, with a new wife and beautiful young children.
Both friends have different backgrounds - different sexes, different ages. One was Tusti, one was Hutu, one Christian, one Muslim - the genocide touched everyone. Yet both have the same drive in life - to provide education for their children. This is seen as the key to peace, the key to prosperity. Education is something that was disrupted by the genocide - most people my age who remained in Rwanda did not finish school - it simply wasn't an option. Today, they struggle to get jobs which pay well enough to support their families. Most of the people in the country are still subsistence farmers, meaning that they only produce enough to survive, with nothing leftover to sell. So, Rwandans put their heart and soul into trying to earn an income that will see their children grow up with something they didn't have - empowerment.
I work each day with the Government of Rwanda, helping to ensure that all children have access to quality education. The obstacles are many, but the the drive and passion of the government to improve the system, in an equitable way, is laudable. Tomorrow is looking bright for Rwanda's children - see this link here to meet some amazing young women who will shape this country's future.
Anyone who knows me will attest that I run a hundred miles an hour. I'm always doing so many things at once, planning years ahead, and often stretching myself too thin. It's a daily task for me to live in the moment, as there are just so many experiences I want to have, connections with people to make, and places to visit.
However, being in Rwanda has really helped me feel grounded. I feel privileged to have an opportunity to be a part of change, to witness transformation. The youth from my countries could learn a thing or two from the Rwandese of today's Rwanda. So lets take a moment to love our loved ones, to enjoy each other's company, and to feel connected to a little country tucked away in the hills of East Africa, as it commemorates 20 years, and pays respects to its people. To all my Rwandese friends - I am sending my love to you today.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
- Margaret Mead