Spend just a few minutes with a charismatic 22-year-old Rwandan woman with bright, sparkling eyes and a lilt in her voice and you’ll know you’ve seen the future of Rwanda.
That beacon of hope is Nadine Niyitegeka, a woman whose photograph as a shy 2-year-old is displayed on the wall of Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Center as one of the thousands of innocent children slaughtered in Rwanda’s genocide 20 years ago.
“I’m still alive,” Nadine needlessly explained during our hour-long interview. “And I’m going places!”
To understand why Nadine’s going places, you have to understand where she’s come from — she survived the genocide that roared through Rwanda for three months in the spring of 1994.
That genocide almost destroyed Rwanda: Nearly a million people were killed, two million fled the country, thousands were maimed by machete-wielding thugs.
A Rwandan born that year had a projected life expectancy that was barely long enough for a mother to see her children become teenagers, much less long enough to see them grow up to have children of their own.
That was the world that baby Nadine knew.
In fact, Rwanda had been in turmoil for years when Nadine was born on Halloween in 1991. Rwanda’s Hutus, who comprised about 80 percent of the population, and the minority group Tutsis were embroiled in a deep-rooted conflict, and many Tutsis had fled the country.
The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front had invaded Rwanda in 1990 to reestablish the Tutsis’ right to live freely in the country that was led by the Hutu majority. Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, had become the leader of the RPF a few weeks after the invasion began.
The signing of the Arusha Accords in August 1993 brought the conflict to an end, but that calm turned out to be temporary.
The genocide erupted just months later.
What does Nadine remember from that time?
“Well, I was only two years old,” she explained to me over the phone, “so I don’t remember much, but you hear stories and some of the pieces begin to come back. My mom, older sister, 3-month-old brother and I were visiting relatives in Kigali the day the president’s plane crashed.”
That crash was momentous: The plane carrying Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, and the genocide of the Tutsis erupted the next day. Responsibility for the shooting has never been established.
“They came looking for us, asking where people were. They were in a hurry and seemed to want to kill very quickly. We were hiding with some others, and they heard a noise. Someone said it was just some small kids and an old woman. So they left. They forgot they’d seen my mom. We were so fortunate.”
“We then went to a Catholic church where we spent the rest of the time. The people in the church were a mixed group. The killers would come and look people in the face — they came so close, so close to us. We asked: ‘Mom, are they going to kill us?’ She replied, ‘God will protect us.’ And, I guess He did, because the killers then left.”
But, that’s not the end of Nadine’s story.
“One day, someone threw a grenade in the church. My mom was outside, but I was inside. It was horrible. There were people with their arms blown off, lots of people were dead. My mom was certain that I’d been killed. But then, a nurse heard a child crying, picked me up, and ran outside screaming, ‘Whose girl is this?’ My mom cried out ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s still alive.’”
“Our family spent the next three months in a refugee camp,” Nadine sighed. “And we survived.”
“Many years later,” Nadine continued,” I was taking some visitors through Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Center. Near the end of the center, there’s a wall covered with photographs of young children who were killed during the genocide. I looked at one picture and said ‘I know that girl. I think that’s me!’ Back at home, I had a picture of me as a young girl wearing a blouse and skirt just like the clothes the girl in the picture was wearing. I came back to show my mom and she said, “yes, that’s you.”
Nadine adds, “When I see that picture I ask ‘who took that picture? Who came to the refugee camp, took some photos, and then left? Why didn’t they try to help?’”
That’s a question many people are asking this year, 20 years after the genocide, when for 100 days, the world just stood by as Rwanda descended into an ethnic killing field. Former president Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have said that not trying to stop the violence was a major foreign policy failure and one that they regret to this day. To his credit, Clinton is atoning for this inaction by investing in Rwanda in projects ranging from coffee to clean water via the Clinton Global Initiative and related groups.
But in April 1994, conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia had overwhelmed the world’s capacity to intervene in a land-locked African country that’s not quite the size of Maryland.
The world pretended that Rwanda didn’t exist.
Sadly, that disillusionment didn’t stop the killings in Rwanda.
Nadine recites a list of family members killed as if she were looking at the broken off branches of her family tree: “uncles, cousins, aunties, grandparents — so many killed.”
[Note: Nadine isn’t related to Eliezer Niyitegeka, who the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found guilty of genocide in 2003. The name is very common in Rwanda; Nadine’s mother gave her children the name Niyitegeka because it means “God who commands.”]
“Yet,” she said, in a voice that can emerge only with a twenty-year perspective. “I’m still alive.”
Still struggling with the horror of her country’s past, Nadine paused, adding, “And, I’m going somewhere. Somewhere better.”
What Nadine said next is worth noting for those who wonder whether college is worth it for American students.
“I’m actually very lucky,” she said. “I was born in a city where I was able to go to school. After finishing secondary school, I was able to continue my studies at Akilah. That changed my life.”
That “life-changing” school is the Akilah Institute for Women, which was founded in 2010 as a college where women could obtain a market-relevant education in entrepreneurship, information systems, and hospitality management. Nadine received her diploma in December 2013 and is now working on development and recruitment for Akilah.
(Akilah has an impressive pedigree. Newsweek named Akilah co-founder Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, along with luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, Christine Lagarde and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as one of 125 women of impact in the world. Forbes magazine named Hughes as one of 55 women who are changing the world. These women all had a head start on Nadine, however, because they all were “lucky” to have been born in a rich country.)
Without her degree, Nadine would likely be working out in the fields, which is where more than half of Rwandans who don’t have higher education work, according to UNESCO. Although she still lives in a home with walls made of mud and no running water, her job allows Nadine to support her family of five. (Disclosure: My daughter worked at the Akilah Institute last summer, and I met Nadine through her. For more on Nadine’s life, see this video about Nadine and Akilah.)
Nadine also seeks to give back to her country.
“I really want people to know Rwanda for more than the genocide,” Nadine says with a degree of urgency in her voice. “I see where Rwanda has come from and where it is now. It was hard, really hard, but I’m glad that people have been able to move beyond the genocide.”
Yes, Rwanda is much more than that: Rwanda is home to most of the world’s 900 remaining high mountain gorillas, a thousand hills to explore and gallons of the world’s best coffee to brew. It’s also moving relentlessly to develop its information communications and technology sector.
Making this progress, however, required that the people of Rwanda confront their horrible past, starting with eliminating the deadly ethnic distinctions that caused so much tragedy. The imposition of identity cards by the then-ruling Belgians in the 1920s so easily allowed the Hutus to identify and then murder the Tutsis.
Now, Rwandans are prohibited from referring to someone’s ethnicity.
Living up to that prohibition can be difficult, as many wish to know whether the person they’re talking to was part of the opposition or part of the oppressed. I was one of those people.
I had to ask Nadine about her background. She declined, saying that she couldn’t do so. How could Rwanda heal, she asked, if we keep on making these distinctions?
Though she was silent about her background, when I asked where Rwanda and she are going, I could hardly get her to stop talking.
She’s proud of her country and of her school. “I’m glad that my country has come so far, to recover and reconcile, which was very hard to do. I love working with Akilah and seeing it grow.” She sees that Rwanda could rival South Africa in just a generation.
As for her own dreams, she laughed and said “My biggest dream is to own a wedding planning company!” Regardless of the turmoil in the world, through good times and bad, “people are still going to get married,” she exclaimed.
Nadine’s certainly right in her view of the world. People get married, have children and go to school regardless of what’s happening around them.
Yet, I have a feeling that a woman who lived through one of the world’s worst mass killings, but still considers herself lucky to have been born in Rwanda, may not limit her talents to helping bring marital bliss to Rwanda.
And, that’s why I’ve seen the future of Rwanda in Nadine Niyitegeka.