Syracuse University graduate student uses education as a tool to rebuild African communities
Syracuse University graduate student uses education as a tool to rebuild African communities March 31, 2009Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
Fifteen years ago, David Mwambari was a normal 13-year-old, anticipating his weeklong Easter break from school in his hometown, Butare, Rwanda. War had come to the northern parts of his country; but even as refugees poured into Butare, the residents held steadfast to their belief that their town would continue to be a sanctuary, a place where Tutsis and Hutu lived and worked together in peace.
That belief shattered as Hutu youth death squads, aided by the government, invaded the town in April 1994 and systematically tortured, raped and murdered unarmed men, women and children. Over the course of a few days, scores were left dead or wounded, homes were destroyed and families torn apart, as Mwambari, his parents and three sisters fled for their lives.
Despite the hardships he and his family encountered, Mwambari, a graduate student in the Pan African Studies Program in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, never lost hope. As the United Nations commemorates the 15th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide on April 7, Mwambari and his international partner-Y-generation Against Poverty-will publicly launch Sanejo: Building Tomorrow’s Generation. Information about the U.N. commemoration is available at http://www.un.org/preventgenocide/rwanda/.
More than three years in the making, Sanejo is a nonprofit, grassroots organization that aims to rebuild African communities through promoting education and cultural exchanges. The organization, to be based in Kigali, will be formally dedicated in May, when Mwambari returns to Rwanda for the summer break. Sanejo’s partner organization, Y-GAP (http://www.y-gap.org), is an Australian-based, youth-run charity that works with schools, universities, and nonprofit and corporate partners to engage youth in international development projects that improve the lives of others.
“As I worked my way through high school and college, I prayed every day that when I am in a position where I am no longer paying for my education, I will do something to help other youth access education so they, too, can learn to see beyond the horror they have experienced and have hope for the future,” Mwambari says.
Sanejo founders plan to begin by focusing on five community projects-one project for each of the years Mwambari has been pursuing his university education. The first project is to work with the community of Ruhango to refurbish the school Mwambari’s grandfather envisioned before he was murdered during the genocide, along with many of Mwambari’s extended family members.
“My grandfather tried to do something for the community,” Mwambari says. “They cut him short. I want to complete his dream. Sanejo’s first project is dedicated to his memory.”
Mwambari is no stranger to grassroots organization and the sweat equity needed to succeed. After his immediate family escaped the slaughter, they settled in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father completed master’s degrees in theology and psychological counseling, and his mother worked as a registered nurse.
Mwambari worked part time to help pay for high school and continued working his way through Runder College in Nairobi, earning a diploma in business administration in 2003. One of his jobs was as a cultural tour guide in East and Central African countries. When he could no longer balance classes and lead the trips, he started his own business in which he organized, instead of leading, the tours.
Mwambari’s dream was to be accepted into the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi, but he first had to learn English, which he now speaks fluently along with French and African languages. These include his mother tongue, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili, spoken in East Africa. After finally being accepted at USIU, he earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and psychology in 2007 and a master’s degree in international relations in 2008. He came to SU last fall.
The world seemed to open up for Mwambari after he entered USIU. He became active in the Rwandan Youth Diaspora in Kenya, serving as vice chair for two years. He joined the Board of Not for Sale Campaign International as the East Africa director. Not for Sale is a nonprofit organization that educates and mobilizes opposition to global trafficking of human beings. He earned a scholarship to spend a semester at Shorter College in Rome, Ga., as part of the USIU exchange program, followed by a scholarship to attend the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa.
“I have been fortunate to have met some extremely good people who have mentored me and who didn’t give up on me, including my family and friends,” Mwambari says.
Mwambari’s extensive travel in Africa and abroad has enabled him to connect to people and organizations from all over the world. He is frequently invited to speak about the African youth diaspora, rehabilitating child soldiers, and post-genocide youth in communities, high schools and universities, and at major international conferences. His speaking engagements include the 17th annual Africa Diaspora Conference at the University of Sacramento, the Sweet Mother Tour Conference at Harvard University and the World Youth Alliance International Conference in Nairobi.
Mwambari has represented Rwandan youth in diaspora at the Annual National Dialogue at the Rwandan Parliament in Kigali, and he has organized monthly reconciliation events. He spends his SU semester breaks doing volunteer work in East Africa.
“Education opened my eyes,” Mwambari says. “It gives you tools to learn to think for yourself so you can resist things from which you cannot benefit-conflict and war. Education gave me language, context, presentation-everything. It has empowered me to share my hope with others, and Sanejo will be the vehicle. There is hope even in the most hopeless situations.”