I am sure that many of you have read of the horrors that occurred here in Rwanda almost exactly 15 years ago, but few of us can actually envision the magnitude of such tragedy and its consequences on a society.

Upon arrival in Rwanda I have noticed many hindrances to development and I have generated a lot of criticism for the country’s economic goals etc. But my first visit to a genocide memorial changed my perspective on the place. Rather, it reminded me of the individuals that make up Rwandan society, and how truly extraordinary it is that they have managed to create a peaceful and functioning Rwanda after their experiences 15 years ago.

At Nyamata, a town about an hour south of Kigali, the capital, I was taken through a Roman Catholic church where 10,000 people were slaughtered and dismembered in the most unthinkable ways. These crimes were personal… each person was slain with deliberation and intent. Many were spectacles, butchered in front of their families and peers, killed on the church alter as the entire crowd was forced to watch. My guide, 23 year old Benoit, was there to see it all. A terrified 8-year-old forced to watch his entire community be murdered, survived to tell the tale and later become a participant in the society that so badly injured him.

I think to the majority of Rwandese that I have met, and almost all have stories of victimization during the genocide. Either that or they grew up outside of Rwanda in refugee camps often suffering from starvation and disease and other traumas that come hand in hand with living as a refugee. If none of the above, many would have grown up with their fathers and mothers in prison for having perpetrated the crimes. Ultimately, this genocide affected all in Rwanda. All. In my own society, if someone grew up with their parents in jail, we would call them “at-risk youth” and we would celebrate in if they went on to become functioning participants in society. If someone were exposed to the atrocities Benoit was at so young an age (or at any age), we may expect him to be in post-traumatic stress therapy for the remainder of his life, perhaps be prone to drugs and alcohol and have tremendous difficulty integrating back into the society that took his family away from him. If you were one who grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, like thousands of Rwandese and like my friend Innocent, and had your sisters both die of starvation, your father die in the genocide and your mother die in an off-chance car accident, my society would probably be very surprised to see you become a hopeless optimist, one of the country’s leaders in development, and the holder of a Masters’ degree from the United States.

What I am illustrating here is the degree to which Rwanda has decided to push forward. One million people were killed in Rwanda in 1994, and many more in the previous “mini-genocides” that occurred from the 1950’s, 1970’s, and early 1990’s. That is the size of Calgary, my home town. I imagine my entire city of just over one million—obliterated.

Rwanda is an entire society comprised of people that we may have written off to be hopeless, potentially dysfunctional, if put in the context of our own society. And yet, their national motto is “hope” and they are combining efforts to live peaceful and productive lives, and to build up their country and their neighbours. Beyond doubt, Rwanda is one of the safest and most peaceful places I have ever been, however historically ironic that may be. This place truly is a miracle.

Rwanda's national symbol, the peace basket

Rwanda's national symbol, the peace basket

It is clear to me that microfinance is one in a multitude of efforts in Rwanda that has enabled the country to the place where it is. Vision Finance Company (VFC) was established in 1999, just five years after the genocide. Its founders saw that if just this one area of stress— that of the family business— is put at ease through access to capital, savings programs, and insurance, there just may be less anxiety in the other areas of life. Its founders saw even so soon after the genocide that with financial security and economic empowerment often comes a safer and more stable community.

I don’t mean to sound trite, but perhaps microfinance’s contribution had more happening than just poverty alleviation. Partnered with good-governance and foreign aid, perhaps by taking away the single anxiety of financial uncertainty, microfinance helped make possible stability and peace.

If you would like to participate in what microfinance, make a loan to an entrepreneur!

Read some good news about Africa’s progress in development: Great article in the Globe and Mail !

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