Two days in Rwanda could not have been more different. On one day we saw all that went wrong and the very darkest side of this small African country. Twenty-four hours later we saw what the future holds for the 12 million inhabitants and the brightest side of Rwanda.
For 100 days in 1994 it is estimated that up to one million Tutsis were killed by the Hutus in one of the worst genocides ever. When Belgium granted independence to Rwanda in 1962 they placed the Hutus in power. Over time the President forced a divide between the once-friendly groups eventually causing a civil war and this massive atrocity. We toured the Rwandan Genocide Museum and saw graphic pictures of their dreadful history. I was amazed to see what people can do TO each other.
It was a disastrous time with so many Tutsis brutally killed, raped, or mutilated. Hutus were killing their Tutsi friends and neighbors, consequently people could no longer trust each other. For protection, many Tutsis fled to neighboring countries such as Burundi, Uganda or the Congo (a.k.a. Zaire).
That was the dark side. Unfortunately, this is the only thing that many people know about Rwanda. The citizens and the government are, however, making great strides to change this view and turn the country around. And, they are making tremendous progress.
The next day we were celebrating the bright side. Two years ago I started volunteering for Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship which connects Silicon Valley business executives who mentor social enterprise leaders. These mentors help leaders grow their businesses more effectively and solve problems of those living in poverty around the world. Since 2003, Miller Center has worked with 819 social enterprises which have impacted over 259 million people. One of those companies I worked with was All Across Africa.
Originally All Across Africa started out offering programs to re-build trust between Hutus and Tutsis but then saw an opportunity that could make an even greater impact. Founders Greg Stone and Alicia Wallace noticed many women had tremendous weaving skills. If they could organize a collective of artisans to create high quality baskets, those baskets could then be exported to more developed nations. A key part to growing an impoverished economy is introducing new money into the environment. Just teaching someone to offer different products (such as growing fruits and vegetables not currently available) only changes — but does not increase — how villagers spend their money.
Most women can earn $5 a month farming. As artisans they can increase their earnings over 400% to about $21 weaving baskets. And, they still have time to farm. That means a person’s income could go from $5 per month to $26 per month. This ‘new’ money gets spent in the community, thus allowing them to spend more on products and services in surrounding villages. And when that money is spent, other jobs are created such as teachers, nurses, or suppliers. For every artisan that is employed by All Across Africa, 1 1/2 more jobs are created from the additional $21 per month of ‘wealth.’ Locals are now seeing their standard of living increase, sending children to school, going to the doctor, buying other local products and services, and maintaining health insurance.
Each year All Across Africa invites their 2,000 artisans to a day-long celebration. We were fortunate to participate and experience this African party. It was amazing to see all these women dressed in their Sunday Best singing and dancing. They welcomed us with smiles, with hugs and with beautifully hand-crafted woven bowls which we will proudly display in our home.
Along with social entrepreneurs such as All Across Africa, the government is actively turning the country around with many of its polices. On the last Saturday of the month, all Rwandans are expected to clean up the streets or volunteer in their community. Even foreigners have to participate and will be fined if caught driving around during these mandatory volunteer days. Dictators can do that.
President Kagame, who has been in power since 2000 instituted this and many other programs with the intent to make Rwanda more like Singapore instead of like many of its continental colleagues. He is making progress. My wife and I visited Cambodia 30 years after its genocide and talked about how much further ahead Rwanda is after only 24 years. While many may condemn dictatorships, it is sometimes necessary in an undeveloped nation. Oxford Professor, Paul Collier, found “Rwanda to have the fastest reduction of poverty of any African country and equal to the best achieved globally.”
People can do some terrible things TO each other which was demonstrated during those dark days in 1994. But, they can also do some amazing things FOR each other such as what Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and All Across Africa are doing to change the world through economic development. I am honored to play a very small part in this very grand mission.
If you are interested in seeing some of these bowls check out All Across Africa or look for them at your local Costco.
In a few days we head to Egypt to cruise the Nile.
(Photos Courtesy of Theresa Strickland and David Harrison)