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"Happy Birthday Rwanda, thank you for hosting me on your soil"
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"Happy Birthday Rwanda, thank you for hosting me on your soil"

Fifty years ago this month, Rwanda won independence from Belgium. Since that time the country has experienced desperate brutality and, latterly, an economic resurgence. Fale Lesa, 22, a Commonwealth Correspondent from New Zealand, recalls his own life-changing trip to the heart of East Africa.

In September of 2010, life was very much a nestle of normality. I was in my second year of undergraduate studies and everything was moving in a positive direction.

I didn’t know it then but a few days later my whole world was to be tipped upside down, never to be the same again.

One Saturday, I was preparing lunch when my mother burst in from outside, clutching what appeared to be a great big envelope. It looked rather important and so I brushed it aside almost simultaneously as “something for father.”

In a few seconds, I learnt that the mysterious envelope was actually addressed to me, and that it included the official Royal Commonwealth Society emblem on the front. My heart skipped a few beats as I recalled that fateful application that I filed a couple of months earlier.

For a fleeting moment I was beside myself in the unknown, but adrenalin and a surreal sense of excitement leaped forward and forced me to open it right then and there. The rest is history. The letter congratulated me for being appointed New Zealand’s official participant at the 2010 Commonwealth Youth Leadership Programme: I was going to Rwanda!

My only real knowledge of Rwanda at the time was exclusive to the Hollywood blockbusters portraying genocide and political turmoil. Apart from that, I expected Rwanda to be a lot like the rest of Africa, poverty-stricken, humid and plagued by disease. There was more than enough ignorance for the whole family as my parents warned me not to go, fearing the genocide (not knowing that it was all over in 1994) and death through illness. The Royal Commonwealth Society assured our safety in writing and that was enough for me. I boarded that plane and never looked back.

The programme was exactly two weeks and coincided with the inauguration of his Excellency Paul Kagame, who was sworn in as President of the Republic of Rwanda for a second seven-year term on 6 September 2010 following the country’s August election. We were invited to the biggest public stadium in Kigali city to witness the formalities in person. A number of African leaders were also present for the occasion.

In the aftermath of the inauguration ceremony, we met with His Excellency Paul Kagame in private and were able to embrace him individually. I used my brief encounter to urge the president to visit New Zealand and thanked him for the hospitality rendered by his country men, women and children.

Throughout the programme, we visited a number of genocide memorial sites (where hundreds upon thousands were ruthlessly butchered in 1994) laying Commonwealth reefs in their honour, rural village development efforts, community schemes and education projects. We discussed conflict-resolution and peace-building efforts and suggested grassroot projects to raise awareness and exposure in our own home countries. The experience left me exhausted on my return.

Rwanda is the youngest member of the Commonwealth of Nations (it joined in 2009) and one of the few members that do not have a colonial past with the British empire. Interestingly, young people represent more than 65 percent of Rwanda’s total population (14-35 years) making it one of the youngest Commonwealth members in age as well as membership. Therefore, it was only fitting for the Republic of Rwanda to host a youth programme as its very first international Commonwealth initiative on Rwandan soil.

Rwanda has come a long way from 1st July 1962 when it severed its ties to Belgium once and for all. Today, it is considered an African success story. Its economic transformation is in a class of its own, tipped to be the Singapore of Africa by most indicators. Education continues to make waves as more and more Rwandans embrace higher education and international scholarship programmes. Infrastructure in Kigali is a delicate reminder of fifty years of progress with Rwandans behind the wheel.

Happy Birthday Rwanda, thank you for hosting me on your soil, and for sharing your struggle for identity and your journey of growth. I am all the more informed of your country and its profile, and all the better for it too.  Murakoze Rwanda.

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About me:

I am an international diplomat having represented the New Zealand youth sector in a host of international initiatives. The completion of my tertiary education at the University of Auckland (BA/LLB) will usher in a professional dedication to diplomacy and foreign affairs.

My interests include community development, foreign affairs, globalisation, youth empowerment, reading (non-fiction/fiction as well as current affairs), creative/critical writing, chess, debating, history, linguistics and social interaction. My passion for writing has led me to this forum.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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