Deepali and Mahika Halepete (left) visiting with Chantal Munanyire (right) and her daughters, Anais Wibabara and Sandra Blessing.

The women who come through our program are worth every single effort that we collectively put forth. Their personal stories of triumph over chaos and oppression ignite inspiration for women of all ages from around the world.

Recently, IEEW supporter Deepali Halepete and her daughter Mahika planned a strategic visit to Rwanda and met with our very own In-Country Facilitator – Rwanda, Chantal Munanayire, on the last day of their trip. Mahika Halepete, founder of AYANA International and a junior in high school in California, wrote a powerful article on her experience, featured below. Thank you, Mahika, for sharing with us the important reminder that sustainable change comes from those directly impacted by it. Our PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® women are living proof.

Reflections on Rwanda

By Mahika Halepete

We descended down the steps of the plane and took in the warm night air. After a long 36-hours, I could feel my body tingle with excitement and anticipation. Once we crossed the tarmac and reached the airport, we painlessly glided through immigration in a matter of few minutes before stepping outside again to meet our driver. Immediately, I marveled in awe, thinking, I wish the people who repost pictures of a poor, starving, and dirty Africa could see this. The roads were paved and spotlessly clean outside the airport, and I later discovered the same was true throughout the city and even in the rural towns. There were parking lots, plenty of cars on the roads, street lights, and other features I was accustomed to seeing, being from the United States.

Rwanda is a green, beautiful, hilly country mostly famed for its rare silverback mountain gorillas and unfortunately noted for its 1994 genocide. I spent weeks crafting the perfect itinerary, in which I knew I wanted to study pre-colonial history firsthand. Additionally, I wanted to understand peace and conflict resolution from a country that is now a beacon for promoting it. Rwanda has a painful page in history, as it underwent the trauma of genocide of a million people just over two decades ago. Yet, today, victims and perpetrators are working hand in hand focused ahead on success as a nation of Rwandans.

Most of all, I wanted to implement in person the Youth Innovation Lab workshop that I had designed and set up through my non-profit AYANA International a year prior. This program was designed to create sustainable and community-driven solutions to problems faced in developing nations, through a workshop that enables young people with leadership and creative problem-solving skills so that they can create a tangible impact on their communities.

I had set my sights on visiting Rwanda months before our trip, for its political stability in the African continent, and I begged my mom for over nine months to take me. I have long been an advocate against voluntourism trips which are often harmful to communities in the short-term impact they create. Trips advertised in the $173 billion voluntourism industry may satisfy the vanity of those volunteering, but often have either zero positive impact, or, worse, negative impact, on the communities. To ensure our trip was both enriching for us and positively impacted the communities we were visiting, my mom and I researched and carefully planned out our 2-week itinerary and, for logistical support, worked with a local tour company known for its commitment to the local community. In my research, in fact, I encountered a multitude of photographs on social media in which people posted about kids in a derogatory way, commenting about how the African child meeting them, a white foreigner, was probably the best day of that child’s life.

On our first morning in Kigali, we woke up bright and early to eat breakfast. At the breakfast bar in our hotel, I tasted a tart and sweet Japanese plum, a local delicacy, as well as locally-grown fruits including papayas, mangoes, and bananas. I could not wait to begin exploring the city. Our first stop was the Camp Kigali Belgian Memorial, the site in Rwanda‘s capital city Kigali where ten Belgian UN peacekeepers were murdered by the Hutu extremists in an attempt to provoke a withdrawal of the UN forces. My stomach was in knots as we entered a room where bullet holes were scattered along the floor and up the walls. I could imagine the moment in time, just over two decades ago, when the horrors of genocide began.

My sadness turned into anger and confusion when, at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I read stories and saw photos of the children who had been clubbed to death and killed with machetes. I couldn’t believe the level of cruelty, heartlessness associated with these families’ experiences: neighbors ruthlessly slaughtering neighbors, all in the name of their being “different”. At the Memorial, I learned about the history of the genocide and saw historical documents which demonstrated that Belgian colonists believed that Tutsis were naturally superior and distinguished between Hutus and Tutsis by the size of their noses, their height, and eye type. This incited tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, and eventually the French were also involved in training the Intermilitia Forces (executing the orders of the Rwandan government in killing moderate Hutus and Tutsis) militarily, thus enabling them to take more lives during the genocide.

The effects of colonialism are lasting. The genocide happened within the lifetimes of many of the adults today. The causes of genocide are complex and multifold. But in Rwanda, a few causes can be identified clearly. Hutu and Tutsi alike experienced suffering under the colonial rule of Germany and, later, Belgium. Previously, in the Berlin Conference, European countries arbitrarily divided up the continent of Africa in a “divide and conquer” strategy, making countries and designating them as their own territories; Germany took a large portion of east Africa, including Rwanda. The divisions of land in the African continent happened without any respect for the people who were already living there, or the existing cultural and tribal boundaries that existed. Through balkanization and arbitrary divisions, conflicting tribes and people of different ethnic groups were placed into the same countries that were then colonized, destabilizing existing sociopolitical structures and subjecting the people to suffering and being stripped away from their culture. Belgium later took control of Rwanda in 1916 during the first World War, continuing the legacy of oppression and exploitation colonialism had in Africa.

In Kimironko Market, we got a more cheerful, noisy, and vibrant taste of the city. We met Ruth, a teenage entrepreneur just two years younger than me. Charming and chatty, she explained, in flawless English, the process of making clothes in her family’s shop. I purchased two pieces of colorful kitenge fabric, which the girls (and their brother!) stitched into culottes and a full skirt in just over an hour. I could not bring myself to bargain after seeing how much effort they had put into selling these items to me.

Facilitating my Youth Innovation Lab workshops was surely a highlight of the trip. I had never met the people from our partner organization, Rwanda Youth Solutions. Vincent and I had exchanged emails, but never spoken, so I was unsure how the program would work out. I remember arriving early in the morning in rural Muhanga, Rwanda, to greet two dozen high school students from many different schools. We held the program at the Muhanga Youth Center, which was a struggle to find up a long and windy road through the town. I remember looking out of the window and the car bounced up and down on the bumpy road, excited and nervous for what the day would bring. Finally, I saw children sitting on the benches outside the center.

Throughout the workshop, I saw many of the students come in unsure of themselves and a little shy. I watched as, by the end of the program, they spoke – some in English some in Kinyarwanda – confidently, and with conviction, about their ideas to change their communities for the better.

After the first day in Muhanga, we visited the office of Azizi Life, a social impact enterprise that empowers village women by allowing tourists to a spend a day in the village and shadow their lives, without interfering (i.e. by trying to educate their children or teach the villagers how to do something). We peeled and cooked sweet potatoes and beans and cut grass for the family cow and fetched water from a spring up on the hill.

As we walked down the dirt road to gather spring water, I realized that although I had read social media posts and documentaries about the tribulations of living in poverty and having to gather water from a spring, this walk to the spring was just a part of their life, no worse than walking to school is a part of people in the US’s.  Singing and dancing in their mud and brick homes, these women appeared content with their lives and overjoyed at how azizi (precious) life was. At the end of our experience, we purchased handmade wares from the women like sisal woven baskets, bracelets, wooden carvings, and more. Purchases of the women’s wares were creating sustainable livelihoods for the women, which afforded them a lot more dignity than short-term charitable efforts by foreigners to volunteer to teach their children or build a well.

Perhaps one of the most life-changing experiences was our interaction with the endangered mountain gorillas on the top of the Karisimbi Volcano. We trekked in the misty air through the lush jungle, and eventually reached a point where the porters were slashing the vegetation for us to trudge through. After a grueling two-hour-long trek, we finally found the family of 19 gorillas, comfortably nestled in the lush rainforest. For the next hour, we were just about 7 meters away from the majestic creatures, who we learned shared 98.4% of our DNA. In fact, how human-like these creatures were was shocking — the fiercely protective mothers held their one and 4-month-old babies close, while the majestic silverback dad was napping and lazily kept an eye on the human audience and his children, who attempted to swing down from vines, fell, and tumbled down the hill, continuing to run back up the hill for another go. Some members of the family were happily snacking on the vegetation, indifferent about the humans in the vicinity. That one-hour period of observation passed by far too quickly.

Towards the end of our trip, we visited the Ethnographic Museum in Butare. One of the main goals of my trip had been to learn more about Rwanda’s precolonial history. This visit allowed me to do so. We walked through the museum, taking in glimpses of centuries-old artifacts that showed traditional Rwandan life and culture before it was disrupted by colonization and forced baptism. I marveled at the stunning antique pottery and weavings and entered a traditional kagondo hut in the museum’s central exhibit to experience how Rwandans lived pre-colonization. I was fascinated by unique garments on display that had been made out of pounded bark. At the traditional King’s palace in Nyanza, we saw ceremonial Inyambo cows and were awestruck by their six-foot-long horns.

I learned a lesson about peace at the Unity and Reconciliation Village in Rwanda, where perpetrators and victims of the genocide live together and have created business cooperatives in weaving and farming for the benefit of the entire village community. After hearing the testimonies of the villagers and experiencing life in their village for a day, I came to the realization that peace does not stem from prosperity–rather, it’s the other way around. This is a mindset we must keep in mind, as inequalities in communities will surface when development interventions are in place, as inevitably some community members will be left behind if there is not an existing ecosystem of honesty, equality, and community.

Perhaps nothing is more impactful on one’s opinion of a country or event than hearing first-person stories of those affected by the tragedy. I didn’t have this experience until our last day in Kigali, when we met up with Chantal, a dynamic local woman entrepreneur and facilitator of women’s entrepreneurship programs in Kigali.

After engaging conversations over Ethiopian food, my mom asked her, “Do you remember the genocide?”. Chantal did not hesitate before nodding her head silently, and then telling us how she had lost her mom, sisters, and dozens of other family members during the genocide. Her two college-aged daughters looked down at their food as she spoke. I could feel her pain, and their pain, as she recollected this moment. And yet, the impression my mom and I had of her throughout our meal was that she had the most positive energy of anyone we’d met. We told her this, and she explained earnestly that she simply wanted to live a full life to make up for all the family members who couldn’t, and help as many people as she could in her lifetime.

My experience in Rwanda affirmed my opinion that it is not simply a poor and helpless developing country that the western world should continue to pity. Its people must be both respected for their shared humanity and collaborated with in any projects that impact their lives. My year of work in development projects from afar had not given me an insight like this trip did into the lives of the human beings I have been aiming to help for so long. We often, as people who are privileged, try to oversimplify issues in our heads so that we feel it’s easier to solve them. What I discovered on this journey is that human empathy is the key to finding lasting solutions to world problems.