I visited a magical place last week. A place with majestic hills covered in lush trees and fragrant flowers. Animals I have only seen in zoos were roaming by the dozens in protected habitats where their ancestors have lived for mellenia. Zebras, giraffes and elephants sauntered by, some stopped and stared at me directly, others only glanced with a subtle look of ambivalence as I stood in awe. Birds and insects performing acrobatic feats I had never before seen like building a nest while hanging upside down. They all entranced and enchanted me.
And the people, beautiful people with faces of near uniform symmetry that most often appear somber, smile in a way that makes you feel grace down to your toes, a joyous invitation to the possibility of friendship. Eyes that all at once display, hope, eagerness and a knowledge of sorrow most of us can only imagine. I was stunned by their beauty on a daily basis. They walk with a stature of pride and purpose and pride has been hard earned and won at a great cost.
This is Rwanda and it is not what you imagine and far beyond what you might dream. The air is dry and several times a day smells of fire and smoke. The streets and sidewalks so clean, because they have a tradition of a collaborative monthly clean up day that goes back for centuries. Always moving and working, making leaps ahead of their painful past without judgement of those who want to be a part of their growth even if they weren’t there for their near decimation. They welcome strangers who come for a month or year but end up making a life in this amazing country. “I came for a 6 month project and I have been here 12 years” is something I heard over and over from Americans I met there. Americans who went to help them rebuild after a blow that would have been the end of many nations.
It is astounding to see the resolve and determination of the Rwandan people and their ability to put aside decades of discord to come together as one people because it is what is necessary to survive.
Yes, there was a genocide and unspeakable devastation but it doesn’t and shouldn’t define them. They are so much more than their history.
I spent most of my trip meeting with individuals who are working on improving healthcare. Physicians from Yale who have been in Rwanda for many years and have seen progress but know there is so much more to do, told me about the limitations they experience and gave feedback on how my technology could help them provide better care and earlier treatment. Epidemiologists and technology experts who are excited about the advancements being made and the opportunity for ground breaking innovations that can be useful to other parts of Africa and developing nations, shared their expertise with me. Global health experts who want to be a part of the progress being made and have a strong desire to help the people of Rwanda shared their stories and experience.
I also spent time at amazing restaurants, shops and hotels as luxurious as anything you would find in the United States or Europe. Restaurant owners who shake your hand and say “You are my good friend” after a brief conversation about why they opened their establishment. The hospitality is unparalleled and given freely, something I find sorely lacking in the U.S. but that seems as inherent as a handshake in Rwanda.
We can learn a great many things from Rwanda. There are challenges to be sure, the many hills that make internet connectivity a challenge, a lack of necessary healthcare professionals and enough jobs for the many people who are eager to work are a few examples but if their recent history is any example of their potential for future progress, the sky is truly the limit. I am hopeful to be a small part of their amazing progress.
Michelle Chaffee is a healthcare professional, patient advocate and medical investigator with nearly 20 years of direct patient care experience in some of the US' leading hospitals. She is founder and CEO of alska, a technology solution designed to educate and empower patients and securely connect care teams to optimize health outcomes.