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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.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Torgovnik

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Entrepreneurship has flourished under such a strategy. "It is fairly easy to work with the government. In my case, opening a restaurant, it took just two days to incorporate and certify all of the necessary paperwork," says Alissa Ruxin, 38. Seven years ago, she and her husband, Josh, relocated to Rwanda to start a family. Josh had seen great promise in the country since a consulting project first took him there in 1999. In 2003, he returned to launch Health Builders (then called Access Project), which has built five health clinics and provides management assistance to 89 other clinics and hospitals throughout the country. The couple also opened Heaven, a restaurant and inn, and their experience is chronicled in Josh's recent memoir, A Thousand Hills to Heaven.

THE BACKYARD OF THE Ruxin stucco home has a garden where the couple raises mint for Heaven's storied mojitos. (It also bears a scar from the past: Shortly after they moved in, a woman appeared at their door to exhume the bones of her brother buried behind the house during the genocide.) The Ruxins realized that the private sector could be as pivotal as nonprofits in moving the country forward. Borrowing from friends and family and maxing out on loans, they built Heaven with a clear goal in mind: "The best thing that you could possibly do for Rwanda—for health, for development, for political stability, for everything—is to create jobs in a sustainable way," Ruxin says. She sees plenty of Americans come and go, and is amused by the reality-show aspect of the ever-changing expat scene, especially the gender ratio. "It's about nine women to every one man who comes," she says. "It doesn't matter how awkward or socially inept a guy you are. We had a friend who had a different girlfriend every time we saw him." But transients might be adventure-seekers lacking a genuine dedication to rebuilding Rwanda. "People e-mail us every day asking about jobs. I tell them there is opportunity, but you've got to come on your own ticket and demonstrate your commitment to being here," says Ruxin. "They know within a few weeks whether or not they can hack it. It's not for everybody."

Photo: "I really feel like the government has created an atmosphere in which everyone wants to improve," says Sarah Manion, a consultant, shown here with members of a women's weaving cooperative.

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