The Story of Jean D
My story begins 14 years ago after a 6-week overland truck tour in Sub-Saharan Africa. I had caught the adventure travel bug which subsequently brought me back to Africa many times since. On my bucket list was a trip to Rwanda to see the gorillas. It was a dream I had for quite some time. So, when I had the chance opportunity to do a one week project in Uganda for mobile money, I jumped at the opportunity to take it and then to tack on a short trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda.
When planning a trip to Rwanda, the question, “Will you visit the genocide memorial?” invariably arises. I had heard it was a profoundly moving and disturbing memorial to see. I had decided that I did not want that to be my final memory of Rwanda, so I opted out. I wanted to remember the happy moments of seeing the gorillas.
I’m writing this on my way back to Kigali for my 48 hours of travel back home. The gorillas were amazing. It was a dream that I feel fortunate to have done. It was expensive… very expensive, but well worth the money. The trekking ended up being a bit more difficult than I had expected. The mountains where the gorillas are located are a chain of 7 volcanoes called the Virungas. The tallest is 4,500 meters. Others are around 3,000 meters. The mountains, or volcanoes, are thick with bamboo vegetation which becomes alpine forest as you gain altitude. The ascent can be quite demanding at times, depending on which gorilla family you visit. The closest town is in Kinigi, about 18km from the Volcanoes/mountains.
Interestingly, as I look back on my past four days in Rwanda, I suspect the gorillas aren’t the only memory I will take home with me… which brings me to today…
This morning, I went into the lovely breakfast area to have my last breakfast at the upscale lodge near the gorilla mountains, I was greeted by the friendly 20-something Rwandan staff with big smiles and perfect white teeth. Today, Jean D was at the breakfast area helping the guests. Actually, he was just helping me as the other two guests from the lodge were on their trek tour. We had friendly chat, and I asked where he was from. He told me the town nearby. As we chatted some more, I heard him say,” After the genocide…,” in a hushed tone.
When I landed in Rwanda 4 days ago, I saw billboards all along the road in Kingali that were memorializing the 18th anniversary of the genocide that lasted from April 7 for three months during which time 1 million Rwandans were killed out of a population of 8 million. There is no one in the country above the age of 17 who was not affected by this genocide. What was I doing during that time? I was one year out of college and working in Northern Virginia. I was probably working, partying, and definitely oblivious to the atrocities that were happening half way across the world.
While I conceptually knew and had read about the genocide in preparation for the trip, I guess I hadn’t really realized that EVERYONE, including this gentleman in front of me, was affected by it. I wasn’t sure whether to broach the subject with the Rwandans I was meeting, but I thought that since he brought it up, I would ask him about it.
“Do Rwandans speak to their children about the genocide?” I asked.
He was not fluent in English. French was the major language in Rwandauntil2007 when it was decided to switch everyone to English for ease of trade and business with neighboring English-speaking countries. He misunderstood me. He said softly, “Many, many children died.”
I decided to switch the subject, “Do you live nearby?”
“Yes, in a town near the lodge.”
“Ah, is your family there?”
He got quiet and shook his head. “No, they were all killed in the genocide.”
My light chit-chat took on a sudden weightiness I had not prepared for.
“How old are you?”
He said, “I am 28.”
“So, you were only 10 when it all happened?”
“Yes. My brother was 4. He is the only other one who survived. My mother, my father, and my sister died. My brother and I fled into the mountains.”
“You fled into the mountains? How long did you stay there?”
All of a sudden, I thought about the mountains which had nothing. No shelter, no food. No humans. I also remembered that the guidebook had said that the genocide and killings threatened the gorillas in the mountains and that they escaped into the Congo at that time. I didn’t quite understand how that was since there were no humans living in the mountains. Now I realized, people were fleeing for their lives in the forest. What kind of terror would children of the ages of 4 and 10 witness to be orphaned and fleeing in a forest, on the run from killers for two months, alone?
“We lived there for 2 months. We would climb down the mountain to find food in the farms and steal avocados… whatever we could find.”
When he returned, his family was gone. He heard later about how they were killed. I will spare you those details.
I couldn’t help myself. I suddenly began to cry. What a life this man has had. And he was only 1 of 8 million people with a story. He gave me a tissue. All I could say was, “I’m so sorry. This is so sad.”
He mentioned earlier that he wanted to go to university someday and is trying to save money working at the lodge to afford the yearly tuition. He told me this as chit chat, not because he was looking for money. I was embarrassed by the opulence in which I found myself there, now recognizing what his life had been. I thought about the fact that my four days stay at the lodge would have paid for his entire college education.
Suddenly, my head was spinning. Could I find money to send to him? Western Union? PayPal? For God’s sake, I’m in the mobile money industry, I should be able to send him money easily! Then I thought about whether the money would be used properly for college. Could I send the money directly to a University? Should I start a scholarship fund? What about the other people working at the lodge? What about everyone else in Rwanda?! I would start small. Help Jean D get a college education.
So, now here I am, putting on my entrepreneurial hat. I will figure this one out. Jean D deserves a college education after the life he has been through. And so do the others. I will start out small and see how things go from there. If any of you have ideas or would like to help, I’m all ears.
May 17, 2012
After I had heard his story, I requested his email and gave him mine. I did not tell him why, but at that moment, I knew that I was going to help him in some way. As if by fate, I had received an email from Jean during my journey home to let me know that the email he had provided to me had a few letters missing and to give me the proper email address. Had he not sent me that email, none of the rest of this would have been able to transpire…
When I returned home, I began thinking through how to remit the money safely to his University. I remembered that one of the companies I advise Willstream had set up a program exactly for this type of remittance to Senegal, the home country of the CEO. I reached out to him to see if he could do this for me in Rwanda. He set to work. Within a week, he had called the University and had verified the credentials. He called Jean and verified that he had the high school diploma and ID necessary to enroll. He set up the University as a merchant and confirmed the exact amount needed for registration, 4-year education, and living expenses. He contracted with a local bank to move the funds. We are now finalizing everything and will begin to send the money soon.
When I think about the connections that occurred to make something like this happen, I am amazed. The powerful combination of human connection, the Internet, and mobile has reduced all distances and obstacles to make things happen.
Once we successfully complete this remittance, I am also seeking to expand this into a larger scholarship program for orphaned genocide survivors of Rwanda and will be speaking to a few non-profit organizations to see who can assist with choosing recipients of such a scholarship fund. More to come…
June 25, 2012
Today I received confirmation from CEO of www.willstream.com, the company that I used to remit the payments to the university, that Jean D. is officially now enrolled this semester into college! Thank you to Toffene, CEO of Willstream for his dedication in making this a reality!!!
Where there’s a Will(stream), there’s a way!!!!