Saturday, May 26, 2012

Shake Hands with Tomorrow

The National University of Rwanda students were as intelligent, bright-looking and hopeful as any I had ever seen. But as we stood to speak to this group of 75 young people, it was hard not to think about what it must have been like for them as very young children during those bloody 100 days exactly 18 years ago. The image of those days was not because I have any actual recollection of the events of 1994 that changed everything for Rwanda. My perspective has been primarily based on reading "Shake Hands with the Devil" written by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Lieutenant General in charge of the United Nations troops in Rwanda at the time, as well as seeing the Oscar award-winning movie, "Hotel Rwanda". Whatever the source of my limited perspective, approximately 1,000,000 people were the subject of mass murders during that hundred day period.

It took us 2½ hours to travel the 125 kilometers from Kigali, in the center of the small country, to Huye, the city of less than 100, 000 residents in the south (still known by its old name, Butare).  During the drive we learned a great deal from our host, Jeff, about the significant transitions that have occurred. It seems clear that great economic advances have been made, apparently outstripping other African nations for the last two years. But the morning's car ride was interesting for additional reasons. First, was the overwhelming number of people that were walking from place to place, many of them carrying large bundles of firewood, fruit or vegetables, salable goods or large containers with whatever in them. Sometimes bicycles were piled so high with material that they were impossible to ride and really served as two wheel carts. What I did not realize was that this country, which is the size of Vancouver Island or Belgium, has the densest population in continental Africa (in excess of 400 people per square kilometer) and the seventh most dense population in the world (of countries in excess of 1 million people). By comparison, Canada has a population density of less than 4, and the United States 32, people per square kilometer: this explains a great deal. 
Faced with a lack of any excess arable land, the use of terracing in this country of 1000 hills is logical from both a food production and the erosion protection point of view. Driving through the country one is struck by this small, landlocked country's greenness and cleanliness, the carefully tended small fields everywhere, and the apparent cheerfulness of its people. I also noticed that there is a lack of heavy-duty equipment of any kind, including farm machinery. Hand labor is the way things are done. While it may seem less than efficient, it does provide work. This is just one of the things that anyone visiting this country must come to grips with. The reality is that this is not a Western nation, despite its significant strides in attaining progress beyond what anyone would've expected 18 years ago.

Our presentation to the students about leadership and life challenges (including unanticipated events, such as my Parkinson's disease) seemed to go very well. They understood, as opposed to many in the Western world, that life brings adversity that must be dealt with. They also understood that these tragic events will leave scars that heal slowly. But my sense from the students, who appeared anxious to learn more, was that while they recognize the pain of the past, both personally and nationally, they are prepared to accept the challenges that lay ahead.

I learned a lesson from those students, whether they learned anything from me or not. Perhaps in the same way Rwanda is an object lesson to the world and its people. Whatever the horrific events of the past, whatever the overwhelming demands of the present, and regardless of the odds against a successful future, we must all have hope and a vision, courage and conviction, and the desire and discipline to accept our challenges and move forward. We must all shake hands with tomorrow.


  1. Fascinating story, Bob, and well written as usual. Shaking hands with tomorrow is something we all have do with as much grace as possible. Isn't it amazing how sometimes young people instinctively understand and accept things that the adults around them struggle with?

    Shaking hands with tomorrow hmm... wait; I have shaking hands today!

  2. Shake Hands With that's a song title if I ever heard one! Great post today. Our daughter in law has spent time in Rwanda and she continues to be affected by it and continues to carry a love for the Rwandan people. Enjoy each day of your travels, friend!