A lack of memory leads to ignorance, ignorance produces prejudice, and prejudice breeds intolerance.
– Spanish journalist, Pilar Rahola
As one who lived through the hundred-day massacre in Rwanda in which a million people were killed in 1994, Vestine Ukiwishaka experienced the brutality, yet she is now interested in preventing racial and ethnic hatred, such as that of the Hutus for Tutsis. Inspired by Elie Wiesel, Vestine believes that though today’s young people are not to blame for past injustices, “we are responsible for the way we remember the past,” and, Vestine adds, responsible for the justice of tomorrow.
She points out that the UN and many countries regret their non-intervention in Rwanda, so it’s also important to understand the international failure to respond. Vestine says we must face our history and understand how a country’s people can turn against each other.
She cites the analysis in author Phyllis Goldstein’s essay.* “Once a collection of lies, stereotypes and myths are entrenched in a society,” Goldstein argues that power-hungry people exploit the mindset to create an us-against-them conflict. It is clear to Vestine that rabble-rousers of all sorts used stereotypes and lies to convince the Hutu and Tutsi that they were totally different and shouldn’t mingle. That conflict created hatred, poverty, the destruction of families and civic infrastructure, and death. Vestine longs to heal the past and help create a better future through education, responsible leadership, and socially conscious enterprise.
She prioritizes a micro-finance project that enables students to continue their education, benefitting the community and the region. Having completed two years of leadership courses at the Akilah Institute for women, she participated in her college’s “social change projects” that orient students toward different NGOs.
Through an NGO called Gardens for Health International (GHI), Vestine’s team played a significant role in aiding and reconciling people in the Ndera community. GHI teaches mothers, to overcome malnutrition and other problems through entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, hygiene, and saving money. Some of the mother’s children had stopped their studies because of money issues, so Vestine’s team helped women arrange loans through the micro-finance project.
The team employed a unity and reconciliation system focusing on forgiveness, however, many of the mothers balked. “You can’t solve our problems,” one said. “They are beyond you.” The group agreed.
“We didn’t give up,” Vestine says. “We used our own histories to convince them.” She shared that as a small child, she lost her grandmother while watching from a hiding place, horrified and afraid.
“Slow by slow, they changed,” Vestine says of the many mothers who expressed their belief that the mutual cooperation of team members had changed their thinking.
As social change team leader, Vestine always strives to unify her team, getting weekly input for important team decisions and activities within a framework of compassion and mutual respect. “Wherever we are, our actions teach more than what we say.” For Vestine, a leader is someone who helps others do and become more than they ever thought possible. The leader gets things done.
Vestine stresses entrepreneurial projects and aims to include vulnerable and disabled people, especially orphans, in her forthcoming bakery, naming it Hope for All. It will produce breads, cakes, and biscuits made with sweet potatoes and special items for diabetics. HSI awarded a special donation to help jump start her bakery. GHI said, “Welcome, new entrepreneur!” and will help her as well, the earliest phase being the harvesting of sweet potatoes.
The social change program has the potential to transform the community, Vestine believes. It aims for collaboration over compromise and promotes gender balance by motivating young women to understand their potential and gain confidence, thereby changing not only the community, but also the whole country and the world. “Empower a woman, you empower a country,” Vestine says.
*Phyllis Goldstein, “Anti-Semitism: A Convenient Hatred,” Huff Post, December, 2011.