I always knew that life could be different. I just didn’t know how different life could be.
After nearly 20 years of working for Fortune 500 organizations, I decided a change was needed. I wanted to fulfill a personal dream of traveling to East Africa to engage new business opportunities. I targeted Nairobi as my landing spot because my wife’s family is there and its always great to be near family. Through a conversation with a fraternity brother, I learned about the African Business Fellowship, a joint-venture between the African Leadership Network (ALN) and Management Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT). The objective of the program was to match successful business leaders from the US with trending companies in Africa. The program affords someone like me the opportunity to test the waters to see whether it’s a good fit or not.
While Kenya was my first choice, the program team thought to offer me an opportunity in Kigali, Rwanda, which is just an hour and a half by plane west of Kenya. I researched, consulted with family and friends, and signed up. I am now working with Entrepreneurial Solutions Partners, which is a management consulting firm with deep ties to the local government and banking community. I’m serving as a consultant for the firm and am currently leading and supporting several high-exposure projects. The firm, through research and insight sharing, is a strong contributor to the overall economic development of the country and it’s truly exciting to participate in that effort.
Working in Kigali means living in Kigali. It was always important to me to not only work here but to contribute to the community. This means that I wanted to participate in traditional customs, engage people in my neighborhood, and conduct some philanthropic efforts during my brief time.
Before doing anything with regards to Rwanda, it’s critical to understand a very important piece of its history. In the mid-1990’s, Rwanda experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history when nearly 1,000,000 Tutsi people were targeted by the government and killed in the span of 100 days. Communities were torn apart as neighbors were turned against each other, families were forced to flee their homes, and the country’s economic infrastructure was quickly destroyed.
It’s been more than 20 years since the genocide. Although the country is still recovering in many regards, the government has done a lot to get this country on the right path to recovery. President Paul Kagame, the former leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front responsible for ending the genocide in 1994, has implemented several government driven and socially adopted programs that have helped the healing process required to allow the country to move forward.
One of those programs is called Umuganda. The term refers to the act of coming together to achieve a purpose. Umuganda is performed once a month on a Saturday morning between 8AM and 11AM. Neighbors gather to work on a local project for the first 2 hours, usually cleaning up an area of the community. People bring their shovels, machetes, brooms, and trash bags. After the first 2 hours, people from several neighborhoods come together to discuss challenges and potential solutions during a 1 hour district meeting. Local politicians and activists show up to speak to the group and convey the messages of unity, positive thinking, and forgiveness.
It was my second week in Rwanda when Umuganda occurred. I had heard about it and knew I needed to participate. It was important to me to understand the traditions so that I might connect with my new neighbors. There were only a few people that spoke English, but I muddled through the directions regarding the cleaning of the sewers down at the bottom of the hill near a small teachers college and close to a soccer field. I had another African Business Fellow with me who was visiting from Nairobi, so we both participated. During the meetings, one of the elders directed a man to sit next to me so that he could translate the speeches and announcements. I was so appreciative of that gesture.
The meeting was kind of like church, longer than scheduled, but full of messaging that the people needed to hear. Several people presented topics ranging from promoting self-reliance to keeping drugs out of our neighborhoods to encouraging everyone to register/vote in the upcoming election. Men, women, elders, and secondary students all spoke on various topics. It was inspiring and people seemed to be grateful that I stepped out of the house and joined the tradition. Apparently, many ex-patriots keep to themselves and only come out when it is over.
The message that I received from this tradition is that we all must come together; open-minded and willing to find common ground that allows us to live harmoniously. When I left the US, there was nothing but constant fighting amongst people for so many reasons. Neither side on any topic appeared to be open-minded to the others’ plight.
Participating in Umuganda and seeing how such traditions support positive collaboration efforts between neighbors has been a blessing to my spirit. I always knew life could be different. I just didn’t know how different life could be.