Rwanda's women, Rwanda's peace

On Monday evening, I boarded an overnight bus headed to Kigali, Rwanda, where I spent the rest of my week visiting Cornerstone's programs, staff, and alumni.  This trip to Rwanda happened to fall in the middle of their 100 days of commemorating the Rwandan genocide, which happened exactly 20 years ago over a 100 day period, leaving nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead.

During my trip, I happened to be reading a book called Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, which highlights a number of brave men and women who decided to abstain from violence when their societies demanded it as a means to prove loyalty to their group.  Reading this in Kigali, a very clean and orderly city, just 20 years after this country was decimated by war, I joined many others in pride and astonishment at Rwanda's ability to rebuild and attain peace so quickly after such devastating violence.

As I contemplated why Rwanda has been able to pick itself up so quickly compared to other societies torn apart by war, I realized that there has not been one main figure in Rwanda to champion peace and reconciliation.  Although President Kagame has been crucial in moving the country forward, he has not been the sole iconic figure involved in the movement toward peace and has not been idolized like Mandela, Gandhi, or Aung San Suu Kyi.

This peace that has inspired the world, I realized, was never an imposed peace from a leader on top, but is a very personal peace, a very one-on-one peace that was brought to the country through the complete participation of the people themselves.  It is a peace where neighbor says to neighbor, "I forgive you for killing my father and three brothers," or "Let's live together and love one another, even though you burned down my house and tried to kill my children."  It's a shocking, almost unfathomable peace, one that our world has much to learn from.

Signs reading "Kwibuka", meaning "remember" in Kinyarwanda, were displayed all around the city.

Scarves of victims of the Rwandan genocide, taken at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

Rwanda, "The land of a thousand hills"

I didn't have much of an agenda for my trip to Rwanda.  People often ask what the purpose is for trips like these, and the honest answer is simply connection and relationship-building.  Our "Advanced Level" high school leadership academy opened in 2006, so we now we have around 250 alumni, 120 students currently at the school, and several leadership programs on Rwanda's university campuses.  My intention was simply to meet with our staff, visit our students, and talk with the girls in our alumni to understand the challenges they uniquely face as women and as current and future leaders in Rwanda.

As I met with all these ladies, I was reminded that Rwanda, setting another precedent for the world, is the first and only country to have a majority of women in their parliament.  And so I wondered, is there a link to the peace Rwanda has found and the participation of women in leadership?  Could this be why the peace in Rwanda is a much more personal, much more authentic peace than the one trying to be forged between Israel and Palestine, between the Dinka and the Nuer of South Sudan, where powerful men are wrangling with each other in political games, with little participation by the people affected?  What, exactly, is the connection between Rwanda's peace and Rwanda's women?

After the 10-hour bus ride back to Kampala, I finally had internet again and I did a bit of research to see if my hunch had any weight.  Sure enough, article upon article has been written about Rwandan women and how they have been crucial in the peace process.  Rwanda is proof that when women are involved in leadership, peace can prevail; that women, who are often the ones to experience the worst of war, know what it takes to achieve peace on a grassroots level; and that women, in general, care less about power-grabs and more about true development for the people.

I thought of how the international community should be spending money to send up a delegation of Rwandan men and women to South Sudan rather than sending up the Ugandan military.  Wouldn't the Rwandans, who have faced and overcome an ethnic cleansing themselves, be better suited to help negotiate talks and encourage the people themselves to engage in peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness?  Why are the common sense methods of grassroots, inclusive dialogue trumped by military measures and high-level political talks?  Shouldn't we be listening to the people, the Rwandans, who have had success at ending a war and rebuilding society?  And shouldn't there be a high level of women involved?

Me with a few of our alumni girls who are all currently in university

University girls involved in our Africa Youth Leadership Program

As I listened to the ladies in our programs, I heard how so many of them are studying to be engineers, to run businesses, and to work in the technology field.  Rwandan women had come into leadership in the political sphere and were now looking to business and the sciences.  But what I loved hearing from them was that simply getting a good job was hardly ever their end goal.  The young women told me that in addition to running their own company, they also want to support orphans; or while they design Kigali's next skyscraper, they also want to be a mother and intentionally mentor other young women.  In short, they wanted to live out a multi-faceted leadership, a leadership in both in their personal and public lives.  Each of them was hungry for leadership advice and for encouragement that it's OK to be both a woman and a leader.

As usual, I returned home completely inspired by African women and realized once again how much more I receive from these women than I am able to give.

Two girls at the Cornerstone Leadership Academy

Students at the school, washing dishes

A girl studies sciences at Cornerstone Leadership Academy, Rwanda

Workers in Rwanda's tea fields

Shops in Kigali's Nyamirombo district

Rwandan landscape

Further reading:

Two Decades After Genocide, Rwanda's Women Have Made The Nation Thrive
The Daily Beast, April 2, 2014

Women in Post-Genocide Rwanda Have Helped Heal Their Country
National Geographic, April 4, 2014

In Rwanda, Women Paved the Way to Reconciliation
The Boston Globe, April 5, 2014

Women Rise in Rwanda's Economic Revival
The Washington Post, May 16, 2008

Women's Voices Rise as Rwanda Reinvents Itself
The New York Times, February 26, 2005