I arrived in Rwanda, my fourth visit in less than two years, on January 12, in time to hear on the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Haiti was shaking the world, thanks to the communication technologies that have the capacity to zero us in on disaster wherever it might be. In this technologically revolutionary era we can satisfy our curiosity, exhibit our empathy and, most important, send and support help to those in need. The coverage produced a global outpouring of assistance that was truly remarkable.
For nine days, I went about my work that took me to Rwanda—promoting the integration of The National Conversation on Prosperity and the Public Good into schools, non-profit organizations and other institutions throughout the country. The project was an outcome of roundtable discussion that colleagues from the University of Scranton and I held with education leaders in Rwanda in March of 2008 on “The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Civic Responsibility, Interdependence and Prosperity.” One of the recommendations that came out of that meeting was “engaging citizens in their communities in discussions of public issues, values and policies….” My approach to addressing that suggestion was to create a handbook, The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the Public Good, and work toward embedding the National Conversation in schools and existing non-profit organizations. The Conversation, while a new idea, is harmonious with a number of public/civic customs that have become traditions in Rwanda: The Gacaca courts, in which elders in their communities hear the cases of perpetrators during the genocide of 1994 and decide on their fates—a kind of Rwandan version of a truth and reconciliation process and the Ingando Camps, where high school graduates are obliged to spend time learning about their civic responsibilities before going on to universities.
Every night, when I returned to my hotel room, I switched on CNN—which was totally focused on Haiti—and listened episodically throughout the night.
It was particularly eerie to hear of the virtual< or perhaps more accurately, literal collapse of that poor nation under the power of an earthquake. I had two competing thoughts as I mourned the losses with the rest of the world. We call the earthquake a natural disaster—but in fact it is a disaster because of the poverty and lack of infrastructure of a place. In Los Angeles, where I have witnessed two earthquakes of similar strength—just about nobody dies. In Haiti, we know that the deaths number in the hundreds of thousands. One can surely say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” How does one escape being Haitian? What can we in the first world do to ensure that Haitians have the same opportunities for survival that we have? Those are the questions that we must ask ourselves in this increasingly interdependent world.
My second thought—an observation—was that the results of the Haitian earthquake were pathetically—tragically—ironically– similar to the results of the Rwandan genocide—producing countless orphans, childless parents, limbless survivors, hopeless souls who have no material goods—no food—no water. Dramatic survival stories are few compared to the growing casualty list. There is only the dauntless resilience of the Haitian people, displayed also among Rwandans, that keeps hope alive in the world.
The story is not over—and we know that in both places it will involve heroic measures to rebuild and make life, once again, livable—and much more. Let’s hope and work toward eliminating genocide and the unnecessary loss of life that “natural disasters” cause among the poor of the world.