By West Point Department of Behavioral Sciences and LeadershipJuly 16, 2010
WEST POINT, N.Y. (July 16, 2010) -- When most people think of the Republic of Rwanda, the tiny landlocked country located in central Africa, the first thing that comes to mind is the 1994 civil war and genocide. However, many are unaware of the remarkable transformation and rebuilding effort the nation has undergone.
In June, six West Point cadets from the departments of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, Law and Social Sciences spent 12 days in Rwanda studying the causes of genocide and actions in the aftermath, as part of an Advanced Individual Academic Development trip titled, "Exploring the Psychological Implications of Conflict and Reconciliation," led by Lt. Col. Diane Ryan, a BS&L assistant professor.
Following a taxing 37-hour journey across three continents, the cadets were greeted on their first full day in the country by Rwandan Defense Forces Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Caesar Kayizari and his staff, who provided a comprehensive overview of the role of the military during the genocide and in rebuilding the nation.
Kayizari repeatedly stressed the importance of leadership and strong values in the tremendous success that the country has experienced in the past 16 years-a theme that was reiterated at nearly every agency visited by the cadets.
The cadets also had an office call with Gen. James Kabarebe, the Minister of Defense, and met with officials from the ministries of Finance and Local Governance, as well as the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, National Association of Trauma Counselors and the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide.
Any assumptions the cadets had about Rwanda before the trip were soon challenged over the course of the visit. They arrived to find the capital city of Kigali remarkably clean and safe with signs of progress and development on every street corner. Even in areas where poverty was evident, the people appeared to be positive and self-reliant.
The desire for a better life was visible everywhere. The cadets were surprised at how prominent a role women played in the reconciliation process and in the country's leadership. Rwanda's National Assembly is comprised of 56 percent women-the largest percentage in the world.
During a visit to Parliament, MP Connie Bwiza Sekamana explained that increasing women's representation is a matter of tapping talent-a philosophy that flows straight from the President on down. After losing more than 10 percent of the population of the nation to genocide or displacement in 1994, the women parliamentarians have pushed through critical legislation regarding health and education, as well as serving as role models for reconciliation.
These factors are among those directly responsible for the growth Rwanda has enjoyed in a relatively short amount of time.
Senator Aloisea Inyumba summed up the visit with an oft-quoted saying, "Behind this soft voice is a strong arm and a warm heart."
The students soon learned that all generations of Rwandese are part of the reconciliation effort. Following the briefing at Parliament, they visited AVEGA-an association of widows and orphans from the genocide that began with 50 members and now provides health, legal and economic support to more than 25,000 members nationwide.
They also had the opportunity to spend time with some of the most outstanding students at the FAWE Girls' School-a highly competitive public secondary school in Kigali that is focused on science, math and technology. All of these girls knew about West Point and asked for more information about how to apply.
In addition to these inspiring agency visits and trips to several museums, cultural and genocide memorial sites, there were several other highlights that will likely never be forgotten by the participants.
On the first weekend, the cadets "scored" a highly-coveted invitation to the annual gorilla naming ceremony called "Kwita Izina," which was held in Volcanoes National Park.
Rwanda is home to approximately two-thirds of the world's remaining mountain gorillas and they are a tremendous source of national pride. During the ceremony, held in conjunction with World Environment Day, dignitaries from across the globe gave names to 13 gorilla babies born in the past year to include "Zoya," who was named by American actor Don Cheadle.
Following the ceremony, the cadets were honored to have a private meeting for more than an hour with President Paul Kagame. As the first democratically-elected president in Rwanda's history, he shared his personal leadership philosophy and vision for the country and answered each cadet question with extraordinary candor and detail.
"The unprecedented forgiveness and reconciliation can be largely attributed to the vision of a great leader who was able to adhere to principles amidst a cycle of violent ethnic revenge,"
Class of 2011 Cadet Aaron Trobee said. "To succeed, he challenged his people to be better than their history-ushering a new era of Rwandan identity and prosperity. I was humbled to be in his presence."
The group was able to see firsthand evidence of the reconciliation process in action as they visited the Mutobo Demobilization Center where ex-combatants are socially and economically reintegrated into civil society.
Two program participants shared their personal stories with the cadets-a colonel who spent the last seven years planning his escape back to Rwanda after 16 years in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a noncomissioned officer who dreamed of a better life for her two small children after the death of her husband.
Both described life in the bush as unfathomably austere and dangerous. Despite the rustic conditions of the Center, all of the participants appeared truly grateful for the opportunity to be there and the chance to experience peace and stability for the first time in many years.
It was impossible to not be moved by their resilience and hope.
The cadets finished off their visit to the Northern Province with a return trip to Volcanoes National Park for an early morning gorilla tracking excursion.
After a short briefing by the guide about the do's and don'ts of interacting with gorillas, the group set off into the bush and soon found itself surrounded by more than a dozen of these gentle giants in the middle of a gorilla nest. Class of 2012 Cadet Lisa Ward was amazed at how calm the gorillas were around humans.
"I realize they share 98 percent of our DNA and see people nearly every day, but I didn't expect them to be so unfazed by our presence," Ward said. "It was fascinating to see them up close in their natural environment."
The trek underscored the tremendous role ecotourism has played in Rwanda's rebirth.
Most foreign visitors to the park apply more than a year in advance for a tracking permit and the visits are strictly regulated.
The conservation efforts have clearly paid off, as Rwanda has seen the gorilla population double in the past eight years.
After 12 full days, the cadets reluctantly returned to the U.S. The end of the visit does not mark the end of their journey, however. The group intends to present a series of papers on their experience at a panel titled, "Officership: Learning from Social and Behavioral Science Perspectives in Rwanda," at the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society annual conference in Toronto in October.
Several cadets also plan to apply their experience to additional future academic projects.
Despite being unsure what to expect prior to arriving, every single cadet left Rwanda highly impressed by the progress they observed and deeply grateful for the hospitality and opportunities provided by their hosts.
Class of 2012 Cadet Brian Tsien remarked that the greatest natural resource Rwanda has is its citizens.
"After seeing how far this country has come, I am excited to see what the future has in store for the Rwandan people," Tsien said. "At least from my perspective, the future looks very promising."