Twenty years ago tomorrow a simmering cauldron of tribalism, racism and pure hatred boiled over in the tiny land locked African country of Rwanda. Although the official numbers vary, most Rwandans will tell you in a few months over 1 million Tutsi and sympathetic Hutus were brutally murdered by their Hutu neighbors and friends—often by hand with machetes or clubs. That’s 10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute. In a country the size of Maryland. Nothing compares to the brutal speed and horrible efficacy of the destruction.
“Never forget” is the theme of remembrance in Rwanda. Purple flags unfurl throughout the country as a visual reminder and each community has a memorial commemorating what happened. Any day of the week, you can go to a memorial and a survivor will walk you through the site and share horrible facts and relive terrifying moments. Annually, the week of April 7th-14th is a time of national mourning. Businesses close. People return home and visit the memorial in their community. The April rains beat down and everyone hunkers in.
Most Rwandans that I speak to dread the month of April. For some, it is the obvious reason that it is so painful to remember the ones you lost and the utter horror, but for many there also seems to be an unspoken desire to be able to move past the genocide. To free themselves from that impossible weight.
But how do you move on when tragedy has branded your community?
Yet the genocide is only one piece of Rwanda. And twenty years on, I think there is so much more to talk about. I see this in the faces of my Rwandese friends when some well meaning visitor asks them about the genocide. They inwardly seem to groan and the light goes out of their eyes as they try to answer the questions as quickly as possible.
I work with Rwandan young adults with dreams of an education and moving their communities forward. Their minds are sharp. Their eyes are bright. Their hope is palpable. They talk about building businesses and giving people opportunities to earn an income. They talk about becoming teachers and changing the quality of education for all. They even talk about designing iPhone apps and software. These young people are full of possibility.
And they are not unique. The raw potential in Rwanda is vast and when you consider that along with the strength, determination and power of a nation that has gone through hell and returned seemingly stronger than ever, you can be certain that they are a people worth investing in. Earlier this year President Kagame addressed 1000 people at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in California and said, “At the end of the day, no one had gained from the genocide. We lost people but even those who killed them lost. But from the beginning Rwandans refused to be trapped. We had a future to look forward to.”
What would happen if we all looked forward to a bright future together? What if we invested in tomorrow? What if we helped university students or recent graduates establish the businesses of their dreams? What if we helped train teachers on new techniques and found ways to provide tools like computers to more schools? What if business people mentored business owners?
These are the thoughts that have been going through my head for months now. The anniversary has been looming, but honestly I have been more interested in how can I help today for a better tomorrow? How can I help that chapter in Rwanda’s history become a secondary message behind the many other stories of resilience, opportunity and hope? Obviously the basic work we do at These Numbers have Faces addresses a big first step—helping the best and the brightest afford a university education. Yet even beyond that, I’m considering opening an English and skills training center in Kigali to help equip young people to step into their roles as top notch leaders. Even small things like collecting biographies and leadership books to make those resources available to more people is huge. Or how about making business attire available to help young undergrads dress the part? There are so many ways to become a part of the change!
Consider it a rebellion to the genocide. Defying the hatred that tried to destroy a people, together we can all move forward. Twenty years from today I expect to see a vibrant Rwanda, united and strong. And that will be something well worth remembering.