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Happy Anyway: A Sojourner’s Surprising Discovery of the People of Rwanda

Carolina Fernandez in Rwanda
Carolina Fernandez in Rwanda

By Carolina FernandezI have a confession to make right off the bat: I have never had a heart for Africa. (There, I wrote it, and somehow feel like a load has been lifted off my chest…and conscience.) Everyone knows someone who just has to make a pilgrimage to Africa. They literally feel like they must get there, as if their very survival depended on it. It’s at the top of their bucket lists, lifelong obsessions with a land and a people who are always top of mind. I was never one of those people. For even though I believe that I dohave a heart for all people facing disenfranchisement of any kind, regardless of locale, the people of Africa, specifically, was never a group whom I envisioned meeting.So it was with complete surprise that I found myself accepting an invitation from Dean Hanno to travel to Rwanda. I admit: I needed to look on a map to find its precise location. East Africa? (yes, actually.) Sub-Saharan? (yes, that too.) A smallish country roughly the size of my home state of Connecticut, it is a place of which my own children were particularly concerned. Memories of Hotel Rwanda, the movie, and the relatively recent genocide, were ever-present in their minds. “Mom, aren’t you nervous to go there?” my oldest two sons asked, just weeks before my departure. “No, why?” “Because, looking at you now, your blonde hair and chartreuse polo shirt collar turned up outside your pink sweater, makes us know how much you’re going to stand out there! Be really, really careful there,” they begged.

But for some reason, I now felt called to go there. I cannot explain it, but a deep-seated desire to get to the land and the people of Rwanda overcame me. I found myself, suddenly and unexpectedly, developing a heart for Africa.

It would seem that teaching English and entrepreneurship, the goal of this Babson summer initiative, fighting illiteracy on both fronts, would be quite simple, really: send ten smart, energetic gals from their Women’s Leadership Program, along with several dozen cartons of manuals into a village – and, along with the teachers already in place there — the rest should take care of itself.

But matters of the heart are never that simple. And when you examine, firsthand, the plight of the poorest at the fringes of civilization, fighting illiteracy becomes a matter of the heart. It was the softening of my heart, the all-too-frequent lump in my throat, and the tears which formed frequently, that caught me most off-guard during this, my first trip to Rwanda, made just a few weeks ago, under the guise of the Babson-Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center and the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. Even though I had traveled to the third world before, to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba, where I had witnessed extreme poverty firsthand, I had slightly different expectations of the land and the people of Rwanda. I expected them to be mostly disheartened. To be saddened, almost beyond repair, by their history of unfathomable loss. By separation. Instead, I was disarmed by the grateful, uncomplaining spirits of this gentle, soft-spoken and humble people. By their quiet resignation. In short, I was surprised by joy. I was surprised by the fact that, regardless of their circumstances, they were happy anyway. This would become the dominant matter of my heart. And one would not be fully human to not allow, and be surprised by, the pricking of one’s heart.

My own journey there began calmly enough. Three legs got me to Rwanda: New York to Montreal, Montreal to Brussels, and Brussels to Kigali. Uneventful, I was rested and percolating with excitement by the time I got picked up at the Kigali airport by Ben Cox, the visionary behind the BREC, where he has been gainfully and happily employed for the past two years. My three-nights and two-plus-days visit there, settled in to a guest house across the street from the Rwanda Development Board, and nestled amongst high-rises in this shockingly cosmopolitan city, displayed the hope that I was most encouraged to see. Businesses were thriving, green shoots were everywhere, and the vibe of the city was highly energetic. I was able to meet with the country’s top artists while there, serving in my area of work expertise and hoping to add value to their professional endeavors. Business acumen in Rwanda is still a far cry from what it is in the states; part of African culture teaches to place community before the individual. So in the case of individual artists, working in an essentially nascent industry, professional movement is challenging, since they have been acculturated to work not toward individual pursuit of excellence, but rather, to move as a community. Despite those challenges, they were happy anyway.

The next four days took me to explore parts of the country specific to personal relational goals I made once I learned of this trip. I visited the village of Rugerero, where an artist friend of mine from Philadelphia designed a genocide memorial. Getting the opportunity to visit Rugerero, along with meeting the Red Cross volunteer who maintains the site and the people who survived the tragedy there, exceeded expectations. The people of this tiny village, poor beyond belief yet with housing, clothing and food, were happy anyway. Followed by a visit to the Imbabazi Orphanage, more than an hour’s drive away, and thirty minutes down a bumpy dirt road, dust flying as we continued bouncing to avoid one pothole after another, I found myself once again surprised by joy. Two American women who run it, one of whom I met “by chance” in Greenwich just a few weeks earlier, treated me to a homemade lunch and a tour of the one-hundred acre compound, including a British-inspired cottage home and flower gardens, the beauty of which were right out of a story book. A gorilla trek the next day, five hours high into the mountains of Musanze, left me with yet more discoveries: muscles heretofore unknown, an outdoor adventure I would never have dreamed possible (we slid down parts of the mountain on wet mud, bottoms down, with porters and canes providing literal life support!), and creatures beyond the beauty of man’s imagination. I was fortunate to see the Agashas, the Silverbacks of Rwanda whose name translates as “special” and who came highly recommended by the women who run the orphanage. I stared into the eyes of the daddy Agasha from less than thirty feet away; the mama came within eighteen inches of my toes, a “no-no” otherwise, except that her appearance was not expected, so the close proximity could not have been avoided. Gentle, docile creatures, they attract travelers from all over the world; indeed, many of the trekkers came to Rwanda just to see the gorillas. While it remains a mystery to me that creatures could overtake man in ultimate travel destination, I was thrilled to have enjoyed their company and it will rank amongst my top travel memories.

Babson College Team in Rwanda

But it was in Save, a village several kilometers down another ubiquitous boulder-embedded dusty dirt road, one lined by simple huts and walked over and over again by this gentle, soft-spoken and humble people, where I would find the greatest joy. Despite the seven-hour drive required to reach it from Musanze, where I had just left the Agasha gorillas, the golden-haired monkeys and my last really good bowl of homemade porridge (a morning staple I had come to love), within five minutes of getting out of the SUV as well as the protection of my wonderful driver, Peter, I had found a loving home. Set on dozens of acres of beautifully-tended flower gardens, bordered by farm stables, a cemetery, multiple school buildings, dorms, a church, chapel and gazebo, the convent where the Benebikira Sisters have called home since 1918 became, for me, a place of rest. Of comfort to my aching body. To my heart and to my soul. For it was here, where the ten Babson gals had been teaching for one month, that I was surprised, again, by a disadvantaged people who were, continuously, happy anyway.

Most of these students, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty, had long ago been separated by their families, some because of the genocide, and all because they boarded here, miles away from the places they had called home. Now in the care of the sisters, educational goals and spiritual growth transcended bloodlines, if only temporarily. Sponsored by families whom most will never meet, who have sent in monies to cover their tuition, these students wore exuberance as we might wear new clothing. They radiated! Eyes glowing, white teethy-smiles showing, they grabbed me from the very start. Littler ones, students at the public elementary school next to the convent, who appeared to have literally crawled out of the earth, greeted my arrival with wraps around my legs and kept after me, like chicks to a hen, arms outstretched for much-needed hugs, with giggles to match their wide-eyed enthusiasm for pictures to be taken by the camera which remained nearly-continuously strapped around my neck.

Students in Rwanda

Watching the Babson team in action, intermingling with the students, exchanging quick smiles and warm glances with the students they had come to know and love, encouraged me that the work here had been done with a high degree of integrity. The gals truly cared about enriching these students’ lives, and modeled the “teach someone to fish” pedagogy; it was hands-on for these Babson-student teams, and one got the sense right away that, despite the challenges, these bright Rwandan students were happy anyway. And ever-grateful for the opportunity to learn at this level. The teachers, most of whom had to travel hours, if not days, to get to the school in order to do their jobs, were fully-committed to these kids, to their work and to the future of Rwanda. For they viewed these students as just that: Rwanda’s future leaders, the brightest and best the country had to offer. A closing ceremony, held on our last night there and hosted by the students, cemented the bonds that had been formed before my arrival. Traditional African dance was performed by the students, who had just won a national competition and who electrified the large auditorium by their joyful, exuberant finale. Regardless of what tragedies they had already faced and what challenges lay ahead of them, they were so happy anyway.

At all times when we were not at the school, we were at the convent. It was here where we were enveloped in hospitality, our bellies nurtured by the sisters and by the cooks we came to know with such fondness and respect, and our souls enriched by the witness of their tending to their own souls.

I didn’t travel to Rwanda to fight physical poverty. Nor to stamp out illiteracy. Nor to combat disease. Countless organizations are committed to meeting these goals head-on. Babson embraces the notion that entrepreneurship is the cornerstone of global enterprise and even of global transformation; its students embrace the notion of making things happen towards that end. I came to applaud both Babson and its students. But honestly, I came simply to meet a land and a people. I left, eleven days after I began, heartened, that I had found a little corner of the world, in East Africa, in the Sub-Sahara, where a gentle, soft-spoken and humble people are, regardless of circumstance, happy anyway. And my heart, which had become enlarged in the wait, left even fuller in the process. I plan to return, next year, to re-join a land and a people which, even now, are pulling me closer, with a heart that has, at last, been developed for them.

Carolina Fernandez, Parent ’14, is an author, artist, and advisor. She and her husband, Ernie, have made a commitment to the Babson-Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center and to the people of Save, Rwanda.

Parents are invited to travel to Africa to work on Babson projects just like Carolina did. There are several projects that could use your support and involvement. Email Dean Dennis Hanno for more information.