Martin Luther King, Jr. had 24 hours in a day. Benjamin Carson, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has 24 in a day. We all have 24 hours in a day.
Denis Rugira, a native of Rwanda and a sophomore UA computer engineering major, likes to remind himself that he has just as much time every day of his life as the heroes he admires, who have saved lives and changed the world.
“If I have 24 hours too, why can I not make a difference?” he said. “I’m really inspired that one person can make a difference in people’s lives. As a student here at the University of Arkansas, I’m trying to use my time wisely and benefit the people here on campus.”
Rugira is making a difference this week by helping lead Rwanda Awareness Week, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the Rwandan genocide and reconciling the differences that only 17 years ago led to the death of as many as 1 million Rwandans.
The genocide came about after decades of ethnic hostility between the Hutu people, who had controlled the country since the early 60s, and the Tutsi minority. The 100 days of mass-murder were touched off when the president of the Hutu-led government, Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated in April 1994. The Hutu-run government reacted by attempting to systematically murder every Tutsi man, woman and child.
“Here in Arkansas we have people that belong to those tribes, but we don’t use those tribes anymore—we’re all Rwandan. It’s about the importance of forgiveness. We’re trying to emphasize how forgiveness can heal a nation,” Rugira said, who was only four years old when the genocide happened.
“Rwandans commemorate the genocide every April wherever they are,” Rugira said. “Since we are Rwandans and we are in Arkansas, we thought, ‘why not do it here in Arkansas?’ and let the Arkansas community know what Rwanda is all about and what the commemoration period is all about.”
So far, Rwanda Awareness Week has included a screening of “As We Forgive,” a documentary about the Rwandan genocide and presentation on Rwandan culture and geography. The event will culminate in “A Walk To Remember,” a silent march around campus honoring those slain in the genocide. Everyone is invited to participate in the walk, which will start in front of Holcombe Hall at 12:30 Friday April 15 and last for about an hour.
Rugira and his fellow organizers have worked hard to promote and orchestrate Rwanda Awareness Week, putting up flyers around campus and using social media to advertise featured events. He, other Rwandan students and Namiko Ochi, a UA international student program coordinator, have also been selling “Walk to Remember” t-shirts and bracelets.
“He’s been wonderful, not only for Rwanda Awareness Week, but also in general for the international students,” Ochi said.
“He’s like the leader of everything actually,” said Ines Nizeye, a sophomore architecture major. “If anything goes wrong, we go to him.”
But Rugira wanted to make it clear that Rwanda Awareness Week has been a team effort.
“There are a lot of people I’m grateful have helped out,” Rugira said. “First is Nami [Ochi]. She kept pushing us when we weren’t moving forward.”
He also said that all of the Rwandan students on campus have been involved with the event and contributed in some way.
Rugira moved to the United States after graduating from high school in Rwanda. He attended Washington State University in Seattle for one year before transferring to UA where his two older brothers also study. His two younger sisters, mother and father still live in Rwanda.
“I’ve been honored to have an education in America,” Rugira said. “And I don’t want to just keep it to myself. “
After graduating with a computer engineering degree, Rugira plans to return to Rwanda where he wants to help rebuild his country.
“I’m not sure where exactly I’ll fit in,” he said. “But I do know my skills are needed in my country.”
Rugira hopes that he can touch lives here and leave a positive impression behind him when he returns to Rwanda.
“I don’t know how that sounds, but my goal in life is to be an inspiration,” he said, laughing.