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December 12, 2013

Into Africa

Driven by equal parts passion and ambition, young Americans are taking a career path less traveled to Rwanda, turning life experience into a world of good, almost 20 years after the genocide.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Torgovnik

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The vibe in Kigali is electric with passionate people pursuing a shared goal to work in development and make a difference. (There was a time when that impulse might have been satisfied by volunteering with the Peace Corps—now, it's working at an NGO [nongovernmental organization] or even setting up your own shop.) People like Cher-Wen DeWitt, 24, the former country director of HIV outreach program FACE AIDS, which collaborated with Boston-based Partners in Health, who now works at an agriculture NGO that provides aid to farmers. Or 28-year-old Sarah Manion, who has worked in five African countries. Having served as the technical adviser at the Ministry of Infrastructure, Manion now consults for Karisimbi Business Partners International on building and growing local companies. "There's a vibrancy and a sense of forward motion that I've never felt in any other place," Manion says. Or Sasha Fisher, who moved to Kigali fresh out of college to start Spark MicroGrants, which funds development projects that rural communities decide upon, such as forming agricultural cooperatives or building main power lines or schools. "The Rwandan people know how to solve their problems so much better than I ever will," Fisher, 25, says. "People starting NGOs and finding new approaches to alleviating poverty care so much about the projects and so little about their egos."

IT'S BEEN NEARLY 20 YEARS since the Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsi were killed by the Hutu majority over 100 days. Since then, Rwanda has emerged from its grim past to become one of the safest and most livable places in Africa, its clean, green capital a magnet for social entrepreneurs seeking hands-on opportunities. Cell phones buzz ceaselessly over lattes at Bourbon Coffee, and in Kigali, people are as serious about their work as they are about unwinding after hours at Papyrus Bar's rooftop lounge or at happy hour around the pool of the Hotel des Mille Collines. It's hard to comprehend that this is where the horrific events dramatized in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda took place. The movie starred Don Cheadle as manager Paul Rusesabagina, who, in April 1994, allowed more than 1,200 Tutsi and moderate Hutu to take refuge in his hotel as the United Nations and world leaders looked on. By mid-July, the streets were awash in blood, and Rwanda's infrastructure had been annihilated. The leader of the Tutsi rebel force, Paul Kagame, took charge of the country and the reconciliation, and he remains president today. (In 1998, President Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan apologized to survivors and the Rwandan Parliament, respectively, for standing idle during the atrocities.) Claire Ingabire was 15 during the genocide and a full-time mother by age 17. Today, she supervises 12 field educators at GHI. "There was so much that needed to be fixed after the genocide," says Ingabire, now 35. "When GHI came, it took the time to train Rwandans like me to guide other Rwandans. We are like family, together in everything we do."

Photo: The downtown area of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.


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