MORE THAN A NUMBER, MORE THAN A SINGLE STORY
It’s raining outside my window and Kigali is quiet. Today is the official beginning of the memorial period in Rwanda. Twenty-one years ago the violence that would make this small east African country famous began its brutal tide.
This is often hard for me to believe. Rwanda is so full of vision, action for change and hope—that I literally cannot imagine the roads I walk full of men with machete’s and crude weapons. I have read so much on the topic, and yet it is hard for me to comprehend a place that I have come to love—a people that I have come to love—either fearing for life or poisoned with hate, intent on destruction.
Africa is a diverse continent filled with many stories—not just poverty and war, as is so often the story told. I cringe when people portray Africans as helpless and pity worthy or as a single community marked only by violence, corruption or AIDS. That perspective minimizes a continent of 1.1 billion people with so many different stories. If you follow me on instagram, I spend much of my time sharing stories of the diversity, strength and brilliance of the Rwandan, Congolese, South African and Ugandan scholars that I know by name. I do this because I believe these are the true stories of a continent amidst powerful changes. I do this to open up perspectives and to help the world see some of the many possible stories of Africa.
BUT ONE OF THE STORIES
But there is violence also. There is corruption. There is grief in Cape Town, Congo, Garissa, Central African Republic.
Along with much of the world, I was horrified to see the terror in Garissa, Kenya earlier this week. Garissa is 930 miles away. I could drive there in one day. Working with university students, I kept seeing the faces of my students in the faces of the deceased.
While I was in Cape Town earlier this month, the aunt of one of my students was robbed in a township where some of our student’s live and stabbed in the process. They punctured her lung and within a week she had died. All for a purse that could not have contained that much inside.
I was recently speaking to a vibrant woman that runs a school in Congo. She told me she recently did a session with young women and when she asked, “How many of you have been raped?,” the girls responded that a better question was “How many times have you been raped?”
Clearly someone is leading people throughout the continent to violent acts. These are not isolated incidents.
THE POWER OF INFLUENCE
Leaders will lead. No matter what their title or role, natural leaders find a way to direct influence. It’s part of their DNA. It may be about where to store corn for the dry season or where to dig a well; it may be about opening a small stand that sells beans nearer to the road or it may be taking in an orphan—even if you don’t have the means to do so. Africa is full of leaders. There is no question about that.
The real questions are where will they lead? What will they lead? How will they lead? Looking through the lens of history—both in the western world and Africa—I think we can agree that humankind often chooses a dark road, violence tends to be the path of least resistance. It takes a truly gifted leader to lead nonviolent action. It takes a unique person to set aside her or his personal benefit for the greater good of their community. It takes patience and an ocean of hope to believe in positive change when everything you see around you tells you differently.
The truth is that good leadership is a skill. It must be taught but beyond even that, young leaders must be given opportunities to taste power: to feel the high, to recognize the challenges of representing people and to practice how to use their power. By nature, leaders will lead, but they won’t necessarily lead well. That takes investment, training and modeling. It takes time and relationship and intention.
Barring that kind of investment leaders will be exploited, corrupted or brainwashed. People will be convinced to lead factions against one another, to pursue personal gain first and foremost and to shoot down a nation’s brightest young minds like animals. If we don’t invest in teaching good leadership, bad leaders will find weak leaders and will use them for their own goals.
THESE NUMBERS HAVE FACES
When I consider those three stories, my western brain moves to solutions. I believe that better leadership is a solution, so I wonder how can I increase real leadership opportunities? We see potential in our young scholars and we aim to support their university educations and to develop the core traits of servant leadership. We provide myriad opportunities for them to lead, learn the habits of leaders of integrity and to become change-makers.
There is much we can (and aim to) do but then I ran across this page. It highlights the names and faces of students from Garissa. It uses the hastags #147notjustanumber and #ThayHaveNames. Of course, that makes me pause and consider our name: These Numbers Have Faces. It’s a weird name but it speaks to something so powerful. Something true. More than strategies and trainings, there is relationship. More than laptops and leadership libraries, there are words of encouragement and faith. More than powerpoints and Ted Talks, there are moments to stand together.
TAKE A STAND TODAY
Today is one of those moments. Twenty-one years ago, I didn’t know where Rwanda was on a map and certainly did not care about the activities of the Hutus or Tutsi’s. Last month I had never set foot in a township in South Africa. Before last week, I had never heard of Garissa, Kenya.
Today, I stand alongside my friends from all three countries. I mourn with them. I pray for healing. Together we look forward to a hopeful future. But we cannot do it alone.
At These Numbers Have Faces, we have over 70 student leaders that need people to stand beside them. People to talk to. People to encourage them and people to witness the positive impact these young people are having in their communities. We have future doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, programmers, writers and accountants. Please consider standing with one of our students. You don’t need to give financially, just agree to emotionally support one student. Shoot me a message and tell me what kind of student you would like to get to know—I know all of them and love playing match-maker! I will introduce you and you can take it from there. You don’t need to “understand” Africa to be a voice of support, a voice of solidarity. Just be brave enough to stand up.
It probably feels like a tiny step in light of such real tragedies but partnership can be the most revolutionary act. It’s the main thing that I do day in and day out. It can change our world for the better and is a powerful act of rebellion against the forces of evil. That’s some pretty powerful impact for a couple emails and some facebook comments.
Take a stand for Garissa. For the townships. For Rwanda. Get to know a scholar’s name. Get to know a future leader. Move beyond the numbers.
Philippians 1:4-6New International Version (NIV)
4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.