Reflections from 3 Weeks in Uganda and Rwanda

Apologies in advance for the length of today’s post, please read the whole thing it’s worth it (if I do say so myself).

Welcome back to the summer reflections series, of which I still don’t know exactly how many of them there will be. If you haven’t already, go read my first piece for this series, We’re Neglecting Those Who Wish to Serve. Today’s post is a bit of a new topic for me: I’m going to discuss international issues. I’ve never actually discussed foreign policy or international issues on The Garfield Political before, generally because I don’t feel well educated yet on many of those issues. But what I will tackle today I did receive a pretty good amount of education on this summer, so I feel I can adequately discuss it.

Way back when I was an intern in the Colorado Governor’s office (as in a little over a year ago), I went to get a cup of coffee, when I ran into Governor Hickenlooper’s Senior Advisor, Jamie Van Leeuwen. Jamie and I struck up a conversation about how I was a student at DSST: Cole High School, and how Jamie had worked with DSST students a lot in the past. A couple of days later, we talked some more, about how I wanted to go to Wesleyan, where Governor Hickenlooper had gone (this really feels super full circle as I write this in my dorm room at, well, Wesleyan), and about what I wanted to do with my life. Since then, Jamie has become an amazing mentor for me and has provided me with opportunity after opportunity (I’m pretty sure everything I’ve done since I worked in the Governor’s office is as a result of Jamie, so I’m incredibly grateful to him).

Along with being the Governor’s Senior Advisor, Jamie is also the founder and CEO of the Global Livingston Institute (GLI). GLI is an organization that promotes effective international development, specifically in Uganda and Rwanda. They have a number of different initiatives and programs, but one of the key programs is taking students and other community leaders from the U.S. to Uganda and Rwanda and allowing them to have an immersive experience where they can listen, think, and then act (which is GLI’s motto). The idea is that Americans shouldn’t go to developing countries and go to a rural village and build a school because a group of Ugandans wouldn’t come to the U.S. and do that same thing. So instead they have their groups just meet with people and understand the different cultures and experiences of the people in the areas where GLI works. The result is the discovery that we’re all the same in our experiences as humans; the location of our birth doesn’t differentiate us in our humanity.

In one of our first meetings, Jamie mentioned to me that he wanted me to go to Africa with him and GLI. From then on, he would keep saying, “Ben! Come to Africa with us!” Finally, in February, it became a reality, as Jamie connected me with Jeremy Wickenheiser, or Wick, who leads a group of students from the DSST high school at Green Valley Ranch to Uganda and Rwanda with GLI every summer, for a trip focused around social entrepreneurship. And suddenly I was going to Africa with Jamie and GLI.

On July 24th, at around midnight, myself, Wick, and the other 5 students we were traveling with, boarded our first of 3 flights on the very long (30+ hour) journey to Kampala, Uganda. Because many people are curious as to how we got there, we flew from Denver to New York, New York to Doha, Qatar, and from Doha to Entebbe (which is an hour south of Kampala). And on July 26th at around 2 pm, we arrived in Africa.

There was this moment of realization on the drive to the guest house in Kampala where I was just struck by how lucky I was to be in Uganda and to be having this experience. I sat there, looking out the window, trying to take everything in, with this dumb, giddy smile on my face (the same one I had for the duration of watching Hamilton). I was just in disbelief over the fact that, yes, this was really happening.

We did a lot during the trip, so I’m going to list some key things here and there that I want to discuss and what the learning experience was for me as a result. We spent most mornings, for about an hour or two, having little lessons around issues of international development. We discussed the 17 UN sustainable development goals and ways in which governments and NGOs around the world were attempting to tackle them. We looked at child safety, water quality, sanitation, and so much more. But more so, we were looking at how to do effective international development, and what that looks like (I’ll give you a hint: it’s very complicated).

We would then go out and experience this development first hand. We visited the largest hospital in Uganda, Mulago General, and the best university in the country (as well as the third best in all of Africa), Makerere University, where we met with students and understood more of the education system in Uganda, and exchanged the similarities and differences in our experiences. We spent time with many businesses with a focus on social change, both for- and non-profit.

 

There’s ne particular element to many of these businesses that make them more effective (and yes the majority of the businesses we went to were effective, which is why we were there). They all make small changes that affect a community in a big way, and so the impact is really major for the people they work with. And they also choose to not expand their efforts to be too big and therefore lead to collapse or solutions that don’t accurately serve the communities they’re in.

After about 6 days in Kampala (which is the capital of Uganda), we ventured down to the southwest corner of the country, to Lake Bunyonyi, where GLI has a resort and retreat center called Entusi. Situated on a little peninsula of a long, skinny lake (its shape is due to it being in a collapsed volcano caldera), it’s probably one of the most beautiful and relaxing places in the entire world. There, we spent even more time studying international development, along with the development projects that the staff at Entusi are doing with the communities around the lake.

But first, let me tell you about the staff at Entusi. My god, they are the kindest, more hospitable people on this planet. Every need we had, they met it. The food was amazing. They felt that their service had to be impeccable. They would come to chat with us when they could, and were deeply interested in our lives, as we were in theirs. Our 5 days at Entusi were absolutely amazing, and of all the parts of the trip I would want to do again, Entusi is the one I most want to return to.

The staff are engaged in a number of incredibly meaningful projects that are aimed to better the lives of the many thousands of people who live on Lake Bunyonyi. Because of the lake’s formation in a collapsed caldera, the lake doesn’t have a gradual increase into the water, and as a result, most of the people who live there never learn to swim. But to get most anywhere, one must take a boat in the lake. Many kids will row their siblings and cousins to school every day in homemade canoes. As a result, a great number of kids will fall in, and because none can swim and because the canoes would tip if the kid were to climb back in, a great number of children die because they drown in the lake. The Entusi staff have created 2 programs to help solve this problem. The first is, well, swimming lessons! The staff have gotten a huge number of kids into swimming lessons with them (the last rotation had 85 kids), and are making the program sustainable as they have older kids who they’ve previously taught now teaching their younger siblings and cousins and friends. Along with that, they ferry kids to and from school every day, helping to prevent kids from having to take the risky route of their family’s homemade canoe. These projects are, quite literally, saving children’s lives.

They’ve also created what they call the model farm, which is a farm that uses a lot of sustainable farming techniques that can allow farmers in the area (which is most everyone) to learn how to move from subsistence farming to having enough food grown to be able to sell some of that at the market. I’m not much of an agricultural expert, but the methods they’ve created seem so simple and so effective that, should many farmers in the area incorporate these methods, it could change the entire way the economy in the region runs. Beyond those projects, they do a lot with child development programs, like running a soccer league for kids, and building a basketball court at one of the schools.

What’s great about all of these programs is that everyone who works at Entusi is from the Lake Bunyonyi area. They all grew up facing the challenges that they’re going to fix. It isn’t a bunch of white westerners coming in and making something up, it’s the community making their own changes for themselves (funded by the visitors at Entusi, who are, mostly, white westerners, but the money makes the change a lot better than outsiders trying to do it instead). Simply put, Entusi is absolutely amazing.

From Entusi, we traveled just a bit further south, entering Rwanda, and heading to the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology. There, we spent 3 days having an intensive teambuilding session and workshop with 4 of the students from the school (the best secondary school in the country). We got to know the girls quite well and worked with them all on each creating a solution to one aspect of those 17 UN sustainable development goals in each of our communities (I was looking at a community-based internet access solution to providing better internet access to rural communities in Colorado). We bounced ideas off each other, learned together as to how to come up with ideas and solutions in entrepreneurial ways, and created bonds with the girls.

After Gashora, we went to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, for the final 4 days of the trip. There, we did a lot of the similar visits as those we made in Kampala. But the part that struck me more about the time in Rwanda was, well, because of the genocide.

While at Entusi, I read a book titled We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. Gourevitch wrote the book after spending months in Rwanda between 1995 and 1998, the months and years immediately following the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and it’s one of the most detailed accounts of what happened during those 100 days coming from an outside source. It allowed me to really get a lense on the country, which is almost entirely known to Americans as that one country that had a genocide. But Rwanda is so much more than that.

The Rwandan government has what’s called Rwanda Vision 2020, which is the goal that the country will be a “developed” country by 2020. And I have to say, it just might be possible. Here’s why they’ve been so successful. First, one of the punishments handed out to those who committed genocidal acts just as one of the followers of the Hutu Power leaders who organized the genocide was to serve a term of community service. This was applied to around 500,000 Rwandans in the early years after the genocide, once the new government got control of things and began the process of recovery, reconciliation, and justice. So a lot of progress was made in the country’s infrastructure in the years following the genocide. This community improvement work continues today with a day each month called Umuganda, where neighbors come together and hold a day of service. It’s a process that reaps large benefits for the country, though it does have a bit of an authoritarian nature to it, as it is required by law (or excused with a lawful exception).

Beyond that, there’s the Chinese influence. Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the group that invaded the country and stopped the genocide) and the president of Rwanda since 2000, holds a rightful (in my opinion) grudge against many Western nations. That’s because they did absolutely nothing during the genocide, and in some ways made it worse. The U.S. refused to even acknowledge that genocide was occurring, even though the evidence was obvious, and Rwanda made no effort to hide what was happening. France actually intervened militarily – on behalf of those committing the genocide. No French soldiers are reported as to having committed any genocidal acts, but their military was there, covering the Rwandan military and fighting against the RPF as they invaded the country. Why? Because French president François Mitterrand wanted to be the leading western influence in Rwanda in the days after the Cold War. So in the ongoing battles for influence internationally between China and the U.S. (and its allies) today, China is favored by Kagame and his government. And they’ve poured the money in, really helping the infrastructure and economy (although harming many working-class citizens, but that’s another discussion).

Today, it’s hard to know that a genocide and civil war tore the country to shreds a generation ago. And in large part that’s because President Kagame and his government have been incredibly successful (although quite authoritarian; Kagame can remain president until at least 2034, and doesn’t allow much opposition, which is an effort to prevent leaders with genocidal beliefs from taking power). The government has worked to dole out punishments that don’t destroy the country further and has made efforts to encourage reconciliation where it can be found, and it often is. But they don’t want it to happen again, and so it’s a key component of the education of all Rwandans today. There are memorials, large and small, all over the country, and Rwandans will tell you about their experiences if asked. But today, there are no Hutu and Tutsi. They are Rwandan. They are One Rwanda.

Reading Gourevitch’s book really allowed me to see and understand where the country is today with a much deeper understanding, and I really encourage everyone to read it, as it explains everything that happened, and how so much of it could have been prevented. It was capped by the opportunity to visit the memorial site in Kigali, where a mass grave holds 250,000 bodies and a museum tells the story of the genocide (although from an altered lense of how the government wants the RPF to appear). Being at that memorial was one of those moments where you just have to stop and think and just examine your humanity and wonder what it is that causes an event like those 100 days in 1994. After I walked through the museum and memorial, I sat, staring at a fountain for a half hour, trying to figure out what exactly I had seen. I don’t know what that is yet, and maybe I never will. But it’s an experience that I won’t forget, that’s for sure.

On a happier note, we ended our trip with the opportunity to go to a music festival on Kigali put together by GLI. They bring in Rwandan, Ugandan, and American artists to perform for crowds of tens of thousands of people in Rwanda and Uganda, entirely for free, and with tents set up nearby where people can get tested for HIV/AIDS, donate blood, receive a physical, and receive reproductive health services (although many of the condoms they handed out were blown up like balloons and bounced around in the air during the concert, which kind of defeats the purpose of getting those for free, but that’s less important). These concerts might be the best chance for many Rwandans and Ugandans to receive these health services each year, and it’s just another way that GLI is making an effective social change in their work, and it’s truly remarkable. Oh, and I also got to see some of Jamie’s fantastic dance moves there too.

And the next day, after a fancy brunch at the hotel featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda, we got on our next three flights home (complete with a lovely 13-hour layover at JFK airport), and that was it. I got home more than a month ago now, and I’m still trying to put it all together, but I’ll end with three main points.

First, there isn’t one way to solve all of the world’s problems. Developed countries might have all these ideas as to how they’re going to fix other countries that are less developed than them. They need to ignore those ideas, and just give money to governments and NGOs who can really serve their people and their communities. International aid needs to stop being about creating influence and about allowing people to flourish in their homes. The West caused so many of the issues that hurt people in developing countries today because of colonization and then Cold War era neo-colonization. It’s time to let those versions of foreign aid go, and start trying to really allow people to be people and enjoy all of our joint humanity.

Second, there’s so much more to places than what you think you know. Yes, there are immense issues that continue to strike Uganda and Rwanda. But the issues in those two countries, which share a border and are considered to be of the same region, are incredibly different. Uganda is dealing with 80% unemployment among people aged 18-34. Rwanda doesn’t deal with anything near as bad as that. They’ve got an issue with space because there just isn’t a lot of land in the country. And the issues facing Uganda and Rwanda are different from those facing Kenya or Burundi or Tanzania. And on another scale, the issues facing people in Kampala are very different from those facing people who live on Lake Bunyonyi. It’s just the same as how issues facing people in cities in the U.S. are different from those facing people in rural America. It’s just another part of the world.

And finally, as I’ve mentioned, we’re all humans. We can’t control the place of our birth, or the opportunities we’re handed. We aren’t better or worse than each other because of where we’re from. We all enjoy the same forms of entertainment. We all love our friends and family in the same way. We all face challenges in our lives. But every single one of us is a human being. That’s something no one should ever look past. Look at each other as another human, not as an American or Ugandan or Qatari or Chinese or Indian or Brazilian. We’re human. That’s it. Human.

 

I’d like to thank Jamie Van Leeuwen for giving me this opportunity, Jeremy “Wick” Wickenheiser for allowing me to join his group, and Maeve McHugh for being such an amazing leader for our group as she showed us around Uganda and Rwanda.

 

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