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Mark Matthews

Up From Tragedy

Therese Kankindi, a wrinkled, rail-thin widow of 70, was comforting her 5-month-old granddaughter when we met in late spring 1994 at a crowded refugee camp redolent of wood-fire smoke and wet earth. The baby, Carita, suffered indigestion from her new diet of corn porridge, having been abruptly yanked off breast milk when soldiers shot her mother to death in the unfolding Rwanda genocide targeting minority Tutsis. Kankindi, seeing two daughters killed and the church where her family had sought protection become a charnel house, picked up Carita and fled on foot with two sons toward neighboring Burundi, pursued like quarry by soldiers and machete-wielding thugs. One of her sons was hacked to death en route.

One could easily imagine Kankindi being immobilized by grief and shock. Instead, an enduring memory of my reporting assignment in Rwanda and Burundi at the time is of her cheerfulness. Life, she told me, “is sweet.” Other surviving Rwandans proved similarly resilient. Digne Rwabuhungu, whose brother was killed in the genocide, returned in 1995 to join five other lecturers in rebuilding an engineering department at the National University of Rwanda (NUR). They started from “zero,” with no paper and no computers, he told our correspondent Don Boroughs, and were paid in food rations.

Sixteen years later, this land of a thousand hills is harnessing the tools to leap from its mostly agrarian past into the 21st-century knowledge economy. As Boroughs reports in our cover story, NUR may have the most advanced computer lab of any school in Africa. A second school, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, is growing, and Carnegie Mellon University plans to open, also in Kigali, the first U.S. degree-granting campus on the continent. Entrepreneurial undergrads have launched a high-tech start-up.

Rwanda’s achievement owes much to the vision of rebel leader turned President Paul Kagame, who has led the country for 17 years. He shrewdly steered the remorse of Western powers, which mostly stood by as Rwanda descended into hell, toward worthwhile nation-building.

Kagame’s notable success obscures the autocratic tendencies he shares with other “big men” who have dominated so much of Africa’s post-colonial landscape. Boroughs’s sidebar on Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe shows how such a system can also reverse the fortunes of a promising, relatively advanced country. Once prized engineering degrees offered by the University of Zimbabwe are no longer accepted at face value by the Engineering Council of South Africa. Collapse of the nation’s economy rendered salaries worthless and caused many faculty members to leave. An expatriate professor told Boroughs he doesn’t anticipate the university making a full recovery “in my generation.” Yet Mugabe survives. Like Thérèse Kankindi, he’s resilient.

We hope you enjoy this issue of Prism. Your comments are welcome.

Mark Matthews




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