Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Paul Kagame, the Entrepreneur President

This year is the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Personally, I didn't know much about the genocide until the Hotel Rwanda movie came out. I was amazed by the courage and bravery of Paul Rusesabagina and learnt some more about the events surrounding the events of 1994. A couple of years ago, I wrote a poem commemorating the anniversary which you can read here. Recently, I have fallen in love with the work Paul Kagame is doing in Rwanda but also more importantly, the work Rwandans are putting in to support him. A few months ago, Obama was all the buzz, but now he's in DC doing his thing while I pay more attention to Paul Kagame. Uganda's Sunna sang about Obama as an African hero, but Paul Kagame is ours, and is a leader we must begin to celebrate.

Paul Kagame was in MIT as an the first African leader to deliver MIT's prestiguous Compton lecture. Not George Bush's best friend J. A. Kuffour, or Thabo Mbeki, or Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, but a former guerilla warlord/leader. What has Kagame done to deserve this? He is placing Rwanda as the destination for Africa's IT development and "building a country on the basis of ideas" as MIT's president Susan Hockfield put it. He argued Africa needed to train and retain knowledge specialists - which he described as the "single most challenging task facing Africa". He called for more links and collaboration between MIT and Rwanda.

Watch the video of Paul Kagame's lecture.

I heard Paul Kagame sought out Rwandan students at MIT. I know one of such students and that must have been great for him. Imagine your president came to your arena and sought you out. This is the kind of leader Africa needs but guess what, we have him. How couldn't love someone called the 'Entrepreneur President'? Kagame's call for more MIT-Rwanda links have been heeded, and this year, Rwanda is one of the beneficiaries of MIT's Africa Information Technology Initiative (AITI) for 2009. Partnering with Google, AITI will sponsor MIT students to travel to Kenya and Rwanda, to teach summer courses in computer science (university level). I took part in this program 5 years ago when it was implemented in Ghana, as well as Kenya and Ethiopia. These countries were chosen because their students were attending MIT. Rwanda doesn't have the numbers but it has the growing reputation and goodwill.

In early April, Rwandan students all over the US organized events to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the genocide. I attended the one at Stanford and I couldn't be any prouder of the Rwandan battalion. There was a panel which preceded some performances. A few of the students talked about the experiences during the genocide and how it shaped their lives. It was hard to listen to them and even harder for them to share their stories given what they went through. They are now in Stanford 'running things' and giving a great account of themselves.

Paul Kagame recently received an honorary degree from Florida State University. One of my lifetime goals is get to an honorary degree myself even if coup d'etat perpetrators have been awarded some. People keep talking about how well Rwanda is doing, how the mobile phone revolution is spearheading development there, amongst other things. One thing I admire greatly about Rwanda is their use of Kinyarwanda, the tribal language. Google around and you'll see countless websites in Kinyarwanda. The localization effort is big in the country and Kinyarwanda is one of the languages most advanced in Fienipa's goal to house African languages on the web. See http://rwanda.fienipa.com/

Anyone who is conversant with African development will push for greater leadership participation and visibility for women. Like someone said to me recently, in Africa, men have the authority but women have the power and make all the decisions. Paul Kagame and his Rwandan leadership understand that, and we have about 56.3% of all Rwandan parliamentarians being women. The young ladies are also leading the charge. Stephanie Nyombayire, a Swarthmore College alum, was recently chosen as a Glamour Magazine hero. She and six friends formed the Genocide Intervention Network in 2004, which raised $1.5 million to support peacekeeping troops. The group is also spending $250,000 on armed escorts for women who risk being raped when they leave refugee camps to gather firewood. She embarked on a college speaking tour.

I am sure Paul Kagame has his detractors and he's done a few wrongs here and there. He's still called a dictator to some extent. But what haven't African leaders been called? Even Kwame Nkrumah had his critics who refused to acknowledge the good work he did. I am only praying for more leaders in the shape of Paul Kagame and hoping our leaders take a page out of his book to empower their own countries.

PS: Where are the young and upcoming Rwandan Pauls? Dedicated to all my Rwandan friends.
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