I didn’t want to mention it before for fear of jinxing myself, but while staying at the beautiful Lake Kivu, my professor and I had a chance meeting with a British fellow. We were regrouping on the way back to our room at sunset and soaking in the last rays of the day when my professor commented to him about the lighting, since he was carrying a big fancy camera. They both chatted superficially about how beautiful the lake was, and my professor slid in a question about what he was doing here in Rwanda. The conversation then took a turn that will probably forever change my dissertation…
It turns out this semi-retired English teacher, now gastro-tourism journalist, was recruited by the British Council to fly to Rwanda for a month and give English lessons to four Ministers of the Rwandan Government. What a job! He’s done jobs like this in other countries before, so he knew it was hit or miss when it comes to participation and enthusiasm. To his surprise, the four Rwandan Ministers, despite their very different personalities and styles, are all deeply committed to learning the language, and even more impressively deeply committed to his experience there. They built him a busy schedule for outings for which they would each take turns to show him Rwanda and its culture, and they scheduled a weekly lunch outing with him just to get the most out of his time there. He was incredibly impressed by their initiative, and by the fact that he thought he would be teaching “diplomatese,” but it turns out they already speak that well and needed just regular conversations about family and daily life to round out their speaking abilities.
So, we were standing at our hotel lobby outside looking over the lake, and he rattled off the names of the Ministers he was working with. One of them just happened to be the Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs—the very one my professor and I had toyed with the idea of using our connections to meet, which hadn’t worked out so far. I told him what a fan I was of her—she is a really interesting person from her bio on the Ministry website—and he said she’s actually warm and personable in “real life” and texts him regularly to make sure he’s okay in Rwanda and sleeping well. So, my professor being who she is, offhandedly mentioned in her charming way how much we would love to meet her for an interview, “even just 15 minutes or so.” He offered to do just that! Afterward, when we met him at the Minister’s office a few days later, he admitted that perhaps he had overstepped protocol and he was worried that he had taken advantage of their teacher/student relationship, but if that was true she never showed it.
She proposed that we meet the very next day at 10 am, which was impossible because we were somewhere deep in the forest of Rwanda. My professor pleaded apologetically on the phone to our British acquaintance—“Any day and time except tomorrow at 10 am.” And just like that, the Minister to agreed to the day after that, 10 am. In what world do you call one of the heads of government and get a meeting for the next day after cancelling once? So we met our new British friend in the lobby of the Ministry and went up to the office. I don’t know what I was expecting. When the administrative assistants saw the British guy, they were all really receptive and warm—not exactly our experience in other ministries—and we waited about 3 minutes before we were led into her office. A woman dressed in bold African fabrics with flowing embellished sleeves, a neckline that draped gracefully from the tip of one shoulder to the other, and full-length flared skirt greeted us warmly and directed us to sit down. All along the far wall were overstuffed squeaky brown leather sofas in a horseshoe shape around the coffee table. As her tiny communication officer sunk into one, nearly disappearing into its folds, she regally placed herself in one and began with how happy she is to meet people who are interested in refugee affairs. “That’s me! That’s me!!!” I screamed in my head, but don’t worry, on the outside I calmly nodded and smiled.
We didn’t even have time to get out the recorder and ask her if it was okay to record the conversation. She had prepared answers to all of our questions and glided easily from one topic to the next. I know I’m in academic love with Rwanda sometimes, so forgive me as I gush, but she infused her policy-speak, which I expected, with so many aspects of her personal experience as a refugee of 17 years it was hard not to be taken with her. I leaned in close as she quietly talked about national policies and how her own experiences inform her decisions that she makes as minister. The windows were open and the traffic below nearly drowned out her soft voice, but I soaked up every word. She may have written the entire conclusion to my dissertation in the very, very generous one-hour long discussion she shared with us. Not only did she do her policy bit, but she was really interested in my dissertation and the possibility of working with us in the future. It was a dream come true, and something tells me she would’ve continued talking to us even longer. We didn’t want to use up all of her time, she is running a huge aspect of the country after all, so we thanked her profusely and said our goodbyes. Saying that she was an amazing public figure to meet, and an amazing woman roll model seems like an understatement, but saying that she changed the path and quality of the dissertation I will write certainly is not. I don’t know how these chance meetings always happen here. It constantly reminds me what a special place this country is!