April 9, 2014
“What was your favorite place?” I got asked that a lot when I returned from traveling to 11 countries in eight weeks for the MSU President’s report last year. Anyone who knows me well knows I hate making decisions and picking favorites. (Right now my husband is laughing). I can tell you a bunch of my favorite movies, but don’t ask me to pick just one. Same with songs, bands, television shows, actors, meals, ice cream flavors—you name it. I just can’t choose.
The same went for my trip. The places were great, but the experiences in each place were absolutely amazing. There is no way I could ever pick just one place. Or even one experience. It’s like picking a favorite child—which I actually can do. My first-born is my absolute favorite, hands down. She also happens to be my only.
So let me get back to the question about my favorite place. Though I still can’t choose, my answer has always been that I was most surprised, in a good way, about Rwanda.
Before my trip, thinking about Rwanda brought up images of a horrible genocide, poverty, despair and tragedy. I would guess that’s how many people think of it. I knew that MSU had projects there, but for the most part, in my head it was still a scary, dangerous, ugly place.
But that was 20 years ago. It hardly seems possible that much time has passed since an estimated one million Rwandans perished in the genocide. This past Monday marked the beginning of a national period of mourning to commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy.
So what’s happened in 20 years? Let me first say that Rwanda is stunningly gorgeous. The hills and landscapes were some of the most beautiful sites we saw on our trip. I had no idea it looked like that, and I was completely in awe of my surroundings. The people were lovely and kind—and resilient. I can’t imagine what many of them have been through and yet they persevere.
They’ve had some help along the way from MSU. Dan Clay, professor and director of Global Programs in Sustainable Agri-food Systems, has used his considerable skill and expertise to help rebuild Rwanda using the creation of a gourmet coffee industry. He and his family were in Kigali, Rwanda, where he was directing a food security program led by MSU when the conflict broke out. He and his family had to flee the country but he never quit his dedication to helping the country prosper. Read the fascinating new MSUToday feature, Percolating Peace and Prosperity, to learn about his experiences and his work.
Clay’s work brings to mind the project we were covering in Rwanda and featured in an earlier FACULTY VOICE: Planting Rwanda’s Future, by University Distinguished Professor James Kelly. Kelly is helping the country grow better beans and training future plant breeders there.
But it’s not all agriculture and science that the country needs to prosper. Healing the heart and the mind is as important as developing an economy and food sources.
Laura Apol, an associate professor in the MSU College of Education, has looked for ways to help Rwanda recover. She visited the country and facilitated writing workshops for survivors of the genocide. Her experience inspired her to write a book of poems about hope and healing. She’s currently in Rwanda to attend memorial events and talk about her work. Read her FACULTY VOICE: The Power of Writing in Rwanda, to learn about her work.
Poetry, art and music can often soothe souls and help people get through indescribable tragedy and memories.
Justin Rito is a graduate music student who is trying to do just that. He is composing a piece to convey the emotion in Miklós Radnóti’s poetry. Radnóti was a Hungarian poet raised in a Jewish family and killed during the Holocaust. Read his STUDENT VIEW: Echoes of the Past to learn more about his work and why he draws inspiration from heavy topics.
As a Spartan, I couldn’t be prouder of the students and researchers who have reached out to help people like those in Rwanda. Look at that beautiful baby in the photo above that I took while visiting a local village benefiting from Kelly’s work. That photo is on my wall and gives me such inspiration and hope for the future every day. Knowing that MSU has played a role in bringing that child’s country back to peace and prosperity is a pretty incredible feeling.