Rwanda Rises: A Lesson in Hope

Let's face it, our world has seen better days. Take a look at the newspaper on any given day and you'll find enough tragedy and disaster to send you scrambling for the nearest mound of sand in which to stick your head. The planet and its inhabitants have sustained some pretty nasty bruises of late -- ecologically, politically, economically and even spiritually speaking -- and hope for what tomorrow brings has grown uncertain. In these troubled and chaotic times, where can we look for assurance that things will get better; that with time, wounds can heal? This week, on the 17th anniversary of one humanity's darkest moments, we might look to a place where hope was once all but eviscerated. A nation that now, incredibly, can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about humanity and betterment. The hope we so desperately need just might be found in... Rwanda.

In 1994, Hutu extremists began a campaign to wipe their ethnic rival, the Tutsis, off the face of the map. Over the course of 100 days, close to 1 million people were murdered, while countless others were raped, mutilated and forced to witness the murders of their loved ones. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. While Rwanda went through one of the deadliest and most horrifying events in recorded history, the rest of the world did little else but watch and wonder how a country so beautiful and so rich with culture and history could ever be the same.

Of course, it never would be. In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda's agricultural output came to a halt. Its economy all but collapsed. The educational infrastructure was decimated, while the rate of infant mortality -- not to mention the rate of HIV infection -- went way up. Those survivors remaining were left with the daunting task of rebuilding a country that had let them down so unforgivably, alongside those very same neighbors who quite possibly had killed their families and tried to kill them, too.

The fact that any of this happened, particularly within the last 20 years, is beyond comprehension. But when you take stock of the monumental amount of healing and progress that Rwanda has achieved since 1994, it is even more mind-boggling. As it turns out, Rwanda has made a turnaround of unheard proportions. Tourism is booming. There are now two major airlines making near-daily flights into Kigali, and at least two five-star hotels have been built. Agricultural exports have also increased, particularly coffee. Rwandan coffee is now sold at Starbucks and a Rwandan coffee chain called Bourbon Coffee recently opened in the U.S. The rate of HIV is down from 13 to a mere 3%. Life expectancy has jumped twenty-five years, and infant mortality has been reduced by half.

Yet, Rwanda has progressed far beyond the point of having simply reconstructed the most basic elements of a stable society. Rwanda flourishes. Primary school attendance hovers around 95% each year. More than half of the Rwandan parliament is made up of women (compared to 16% of Congress.) Rwanda also recently instated a 1,380 mile fiber optic network, opening up the country up to growing Internet accessibility, e-commerce and direct foreign investment.

This enormous amount of positive change -- change that any country, including ours, would find envious -- is surely not the result of blind good fortune or the inevitability of time passing. The betterment of Rwandan lives comes as a result of the country's unique and steadfast commitment to optimism about the future, reconciliation and hard work across all sectors of its society. For example, in 2001, the Rwandan legal system established transitional gacaca courts where community leaders would have the opportunity to bring those suspected of participation in the genocide to the stand in an open-air court. This experiment was put in place not as a method of persecution, but as a means of coping with past traumas. It has allowed survivors and witnesses of the tragedy to face the accused head-on, provide evidence and ask direct questions if they feel comfortable doing so.

In addition, those who are convicted only spend half of their allotted sentences behind bars. The other half of the time is devoted to work that benefits the public interest. It is in this respect, and so many others, that Rwanda has succeeded in turning the memory of an unspeakable tragedy into a motivating force, propelling it forward into a bright and promising future. In fact, the country sets aside an allotted period of time each year for remembrance of the genocide and its victims, where the entire nation is able to mourn together as one. But when this allotted time has ended, focus returns to the hard work that must be done in order to continue moving forward and build a positive future.

There is, no doubt, a great lesson embedded in Rwanda's history. I learned this lesson first-hand during my work with HIV-positive women artisans as part of Same Sky, a trade-not-aid jewelry initiative I founded in 2008. While at the artisan's collective in Kigali, I sat with a group of women and observed them working together. I soon realized that one woman had been married to a man who murdered the family of the woman next to her. Incredibly enough, these women, survivors of the same genocide, found a way to move past their terrible shared history -- one brave enough to seek forgiveness and the other brave enough to grant it. Thinking about this moment still gives me chills, and I continue to be staggered by how far Rwanda has come.

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Think how different our world might be if we could master reconciliation the way Rwanda has. We can all learn a great deal from what Rwanda has achieved in 17 short years. If nothing else, on this anniversary of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda shows us plainly that humanity can and will lift itself out of the darkest despair, oftentimes in spectacular ways.

We all could use a little hope right now, and we have Rwanda to thank for it.