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Reflections on Rwanda

Student Diary:  Reflections on Rwanda

by Lindsay Pollak '08

In January of 2007, I embarked on what was to become the highlight of my time at Columbia. Along with eleven other MBAs, a faculty advisor, and a staff member, I traveled to Rwanda on a Social Enterprise trip organized by a fellow classmate, Folake Oguntebi. While there, I forged some of my deepest and most lasting friendships from business school. But it was primarily a time of reflection and exploration. Although I have been fortunate to have had many and varied experiences abroad, my trip to Rwanda was the most intense and challenging I have ever taken.

The trip was organized around a series of visits to NGOs, non-profits, governmental agencies, and private sector organizations. Our purpose was to better understand economic development in Rwanda, a country left devastated by the 1994 genocide. Many of our contacts were obtained directly through Columbia, while our trip organizers pulled together the remainder. We visited organizations of various sizes, spanning a variety of approaches to development, from traditional aid to social entrepreneurship in its most basic form.

Although all of us were intellectually well-prepared for our trip, emotional preparation would have been impossible. What was difficult to understand when looking at the trip itinerary before departure was the degree to which the genocide was the unifying current, running through each and every organization and person with whom we spoke, from genocide orphans we met at Kigali’s business school who like us were now studying for their MBAs, to the director of the Millennium Village project in Rwanda, Josh Ruxin, a frequent contributor to the New York Times. The experience of each person we met in Rwanda had been shaped by tracks that the genocide had left. Some had experienced it personally, while others had come to Rwanda after the fact, pulled by a family connection or simply a desire to contribute, in some way, to Rwanda’s rebirth.

Coupled with the recent and still chilling history of the genocide, Rwanda’s poverty was also striking. So many of the experiences we had on the trip were reminiscent of things we had only heard or seen about on television – visiting a health clinic in rural Rwanda, for instance, we were struck by real people on the brink of death from starvation or malaria, or both. So much of the country so visibly struggles to earn even enough to eat that it was difficult for us – over-privileged business school students from what seemed like a different world - to even begin to comprehend the depth of poverty that exists in Rwanda. Back at our hotel, evenings after our visits were often spent in quiet reflection of yet another experience outside our previous frames of reference.

The trip, however, was also filled with daily joy and surprises that left us instilled with a feeling of hope and expectation. We were encouraged when we met with a female entrepreneur, working to unify a group of rural women to sell local handicrafts to international buyers, and we left inspired to help her develop her business. On a trip out to screen a safe sex video with an NGO in the region, we were greeted by hundreds of schoolchildren wanting to touch, play, and practice English with us—one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Every place we visited left us with contradictory feelings of despair and hope. As Josh Ruxin told us, Rwanda “is a country of dreamers. It’s a country where ambitions far, far exceed capacity.” Many of the connections that we made on the trip have already helped to strengthen Columbia’s relationship with the country and its ability to help build the capacity that the country so desperately needs.

Last week, ten out of the fourteen of us on the trip met for a quiet dinner in Manhattan, a reunion before many of us graduate in May. As we celebrated the incredible friendships we have made with each other, we also spoke about the people we met and experiences we had in Rwanda, and we reflected on the fact that many members of our group are actively searching for solutions to development problems that countries like Rwanda face. As Columbia Business School continues to strengthen its Social Enterprise and International Development fields, trips such as ours will inspire our generation of business leaders to consider the impact that practical solutions can have on the lives of people all over the world.

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