My time in Rwanda changed my behaviour.
Written by Ben Gardner
Landing with a bump into the Heathrow and the cold, damp funk of Brexit Britain, I cast my mind over the week’s events, to the people I have met and the brief glimpse I had into their lives. Whilst writing this, I was compelled to think back to 100 days prior, the same amount of time that past from when Habyarimana's plane was shot down to when the RPF declared victory. The 19th of October. It was my brother’s birthday. A lump appears in my throat, and my tear ducts fill. I have just spent three days in Rwanda with men and women who over the same 100-day period lost their brothers, their sisters, their mums, dads, aunties and cousins. People who will never share the joy of a birthday celebration with these loved ones again.
I recently joined the board of Emerging Leaders and have just returned from my first trip to Rwanda. The aim was to experience the work of the charity first hand. It’s easy to sit in our offices in London and talk about some of the biggest challenges facing the world and empathise or sympathise with those that have not had the same opportunities we have had, but to experience the work of the charity first hand is something quite different. So there I was, I landed in Rwanda on the 27th of January. Fresh-faced and prepared to soak up every single thing I learnt, to put context to some of the work I had heard about back in the UK.
In the years that followed the Rwandan Genocide that claimed the lives of over 800,000 people in just 100 days, the survivors filtered back into the country, attempting to resume “normal life”. Over lunch, on day two Grace Kirabo, an incredible lady who had been my partner during one of the sessions talked to me about how the survivors started to rebuild their new lives. The creation of new ‘families’ formed from members in the local communities, each with anywhere between 5 and 30 members. Every ‘family’ nominated a ‘mum and dad’ often the same age as the rest of the children. It was these parents that would take part in the Emerging Leaders training for three, intensive days. The wider mission was for the heads of each family to pass on our training to their families and local communities amplifying our message and instilling hope in people that had very little left.
Reflection is not something we in the Western World give much thought to, certainly not in London. The idea of taking time to reflect on the weeks and months that often pass in a blur is today more of a luxury, albeit one we take for granted. Yet for the 100+ genocide survivors that took part in the Leadership for Life programme, 2019 commemorates 25 years of reflection. Reflection and heartache that we simply could not even begin to understand. The physical scars of that the survivors I met were obvious, the emotional wounds were deeper, and in some cases, we would find, still open.
During my time in Rwanda, I was struck by the sheer force of their resilience. The combined desire to rebuild life when trust and hope has vanished overnight? When any hope has disappeared and all that remains is an overwhelming sense of despair, this makes way for hopelessness. 25 years of Hopelessness crushes emotions, passions and dreams. It was our job for three days to help these men and women rediscover their dreams, plant the seed of their potential and excitedly help them find their pen to write the remaining chapters of their story.
To date, I have been evangelical about what Emerging Leaders do. I had spent time with Trevor Waldock, I had studied the impact reports and I had poured over infographics, but I had never seen the training in action. I had never experienced the inspiration and hope that Trevor, Jane and Steve instil through three days of intense training. I sit here now on my sofa, back in my flat, more convinced than ever that in a world that is becoming more and more divided everyday and where trust in governments and leaders is diminishing, Emerging Leaders is what we ALL need. And that this programme has the undeniable ability to impact the world’s most vulnerable. Not just those it is primarily designed for, but for us all, for you reading this now and for Grace. Emerging Leadership principles can be taught to anyone, anywhere, from any culture, and have a transformational effect.
I am excited to hear the stories and projects that come out of Kigali in the next 6 months, and I cannot wait to go back to Rwanda and taste Graces Chinese food, John Pauls freshly butchered meat, Landry’s newly picked mushrooms and the honey from Emmanuel’s bees.
I will finish with what really has stuck with me. It’s now my turn. This is where I am. Holding my own pen. Where do I want to be?.