An Interview with the Future of Rwanda
I struck up a discussion with an old Belgian Jesuit priest who said to me, “En tout cas tu vas être dépaysé.” And with that he introduced me to a new concept. That was 30 years ago. I was returning to America after three years away, two in East Africa teaching school at the village level in the Peace Corps, and one in France, where I earnestly if unsuccessfully tried to master the language.
The old man told me he was “not holy enough to be a missionary.” He smoked Gitanes cigarettes, one after another, exhaled a blue stream of air against the morning light in the Paris airport, and promised that I would always be an American in Africa, but now I would be an African in America.
I thought at the time he overestimated the challenge of reintegrating into life at home. “The imaginations and goals of your friends and family in America are no longer the same as yours,” he said.
I recently sat down with nine young people who have returned to work and invest in Rwanda. They are between the ages of 20 and 32. I asked them, many of whom spoke good French, why they are in Rwanda, and what they know about being dépaysé.
Amin Gafaranua grew up in Egypt and returned to Rwanda in the summer of 1994, weeks after the Genocide, and remembers, “It did not feel like home, and I left broken hearted.” He went to England for 12 years and tried again. He says, “What changed my mind was family.” Amin read the Vision 2020 document released by the government in 2000. “It made me sad, impressed and touched.” And then he adds, “I wanted to be part of that change.”
Ashani Alles is a Sri Lankan expatriate who has worked in Rwanda three times, both in the private sector and now in the office of the president. She says, “The secret is that Rwandans never rest on recent accomplishments. Things are challenging here. We put a huge effort into doing things right, and we never believe we have made it.”
Hubert Ruzibiza was born in Burundi, educated in France and the United States, and worked in Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal. “I always knew I had to return,” he says. He has worked in banking and finance and aspires to be an entrepreneur. His family is in Rwanda and encouraged him to return with stories of others who rose fast.
Gaël Ruboneka Vande Weghe worked for 10 years as a researcher for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Gabon. His academic and professional background is in natural sciences and biodiversity, and he has conducted research throughout East and Central Africa. He has published two books, Butterflies of Gabon and Birds of Rwanda. “ I wanted to work somewhere that is worth it.”
Joan Mazimhaka returned in 2001 with her father who was a government minister, and deadpans that she “had a pretty good job.” (The others laugh because they know she used to work with me.) Joan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Humanistic Studies from McGill University, as well as a Master’s degree in Tourism Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. She says, “I used to explain to my friends back in Canada that I worked with Cabinet members and often met the President.”
Anne Mazimhaka has a background in International Relations and International Law, and she has worked for the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and international organizations like International Alert and the United Nations Development Program. She says, “I wanted to feel part of the country and I asked, was there anywhere else I could have impact?”
Kinyarwanda is the hidden culture
Faith Rugema says, “I always considered Rwanda to be my home.” She adds, “I started volunteering on a land dispute project. I learned if people want to change then you can do something about it.”
Michaella Rugwizangoga is a Rwandan born in Cote D’Ivoire and a graduate student at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. She is studying food science and wants to work on food security for Rwanda. She says she intends to come back and stay because she wants to “be part of something.”
Serge Kamuhinda is citizen of Germany who was raised in France and Belgium. Rwanda, he says, “Is a place where you can live out all of your talents. Before 1994 there was a predetermined identity, now you are free to choose according to your interests.”
I asked them, “What does it feel like to get started here?”
Michaella says, “We didn’t have a home. It is a gift to do we want to do. And we don’t have time for unproductive discussions.”
Amin is dressed fashionably and speaks English with an international accent. “At first, I thought the choice was to do something meaningful or make money.” He adds, “Communication was my only way to contribute.” He went into production design and marketing and worked with top NGOs. Then Coca-Cola and Heineken called him. He was struck by the level of responsibility he had. “Within a few days, I was writing strategy for the companies.”
I asked, “How important is the language, Kinyarwanda?”
Several of them did not grow up speaking it and have tried hard to learn it. Michaella, “Kinyarwanda is key.” Joan, “Kinyarwanda is cultural context.” Amin, “Kinyarwanda: it is not just the language, it is the hidden culture.”
“What are other personal struggles?” I asked.
Amin says, “But first, you need to know that in Rwanda, the system is not against you. You don’t have to know anyone. You can dare to dream big.”
Joan laments, “The problem was that for a long time, we used to go to work, see family, and just go home. There was a lack of identity. There was Canada, Uganda. We had no idea what it meant to be Rwandan.” Then she adds, “We needed to find like–minded Rwandans, and it took awhile.”
Hubert misses some things though. “I am a big fan of cinema and fast food,” which makes the others at the table laugh and nod in agreement.
Anne says, “There are definitely struggles, salaries are low.” But then she adds, “Meeting the challenges here outweighs my personal financial goals. And, I don’t think Rwanda has broken my heart, even once.”
We will stay to do this
I asked, “What do you think about the leadership of Rwanda?”
Joan, “The President is present.” Amin, “We connect with the President. He tweets with us.” He adds later, “We need a hundred more Kagames by 2017.” Faith jumps in and says, “In 2017, when the President steps down, we will be among the hundred new Kagames.” Amin now owns two restaurants and has a staff of 40 people. “I now believe that in Rwanda I can make money and do what I love.”
Ashani agrees, “I will always come back to Rwanda. I always learn something new here.” Serge refers to his earlier comment on pre-1994 identity, “Rwanda is now more of a spirit.”
I think back to the old Belgian priest, his fingertips stained in tobacco, and his lips pursed around an ugly black cigarette. What he told me wasn’t just a fashionable cynicism. He was right about dépaysé.
It is a phenomenon that these young Rwandese are experiencing. But they are educated, ambitious, and could compete for any position in Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. They have a shared vision about the future of Rwanda and understand their roles. Most importantly, they have found each other at an exciting place and time. And, for a moment, I wished I was 30 years younger, and one of them.
Joan interrupted my thought, “I feel I am amongst this group of people who wish to contribute to the country. We have come to do this, and we will stay to do this.”
 These young, dynamic members of the Rwandan Diaspora discuss, how hard is it to come home? What are the sacrifices? And what do you really think about the President? A hundred thousand of their peers in the metropoles of Europe and North America want to know, what is it like to be young, Rwandese, and Dépaysé?