By Emily duBois, Frist Global Health Leader
The travel time was the most painstaking part of the process to return to Rwanda, not because it took me over 24 hours but because I was just so ready to be back. They say third time’s a charm so I guess we shall see. The first time I arrived was in 2009, I was as a freshly graduated young adult with hopes of changing the world. The Peace Corps was instrumental in curbing my idealism and provided a better picture of what development and progress looks like.
I worked as a health and development volunteer, provided trainings for community health workers, TOT for holiday camps for secondary students and taught health in secondary school. I left Rwanda in April of 2011 after my service only to return 3 months later after I had completed my remaining prerequisite classes for what would become an even more difficult journey than the Peace Corps - a nursing student.
The second time I returned to Rwanda I spent my time studying for the GREs and working, teaching English while I applied to graduate schools. I remember my interview with Vanderbilt – it was two women both on speakerphone, one shouting to ensure that I could hear her. Little did they know that Rwanda is one of the most connected countries with a 4G network, fiber optics and data packages through all three cellular companies.
Needless to say I was able to hear just fine but smiled to myself about the stereotypes of ‘Africa’ a continent, not a country and Rwanda being a model of hope and change within the continent. I left Rwanda for the second time July 14, 2012 and three years later I find myself more at home than ever here and equipped with a very different skill-set.
Rwanda is called the "land of a thousand hills" – Mille Collines, which is also the name of a hotel that the film Hotel Rwanda is based on. Of note though, the movie was filmed in South Africa and the "hero" of the story is no longer welcome back here in Rwanda. The filmmakers – I’m sure with the best intentions – didn’t do their homework and got the story a bit confused.
Rwanda is also called the Switzerland of Africa. Both nicknames stem from the fact that Rwanda is mountainous – not hills but mountains. It’s very deceiving but try taking a run here and unless you have been living in Denver, CO you will find it very difficult to breath due to both the altitude as well as the inclines.
Rwanda has a population of approximately 11.7 million people and is geographically the size of Maryland. In 2013, 43% of the population was under 15 years old and only 4% was over the age of 60 (Rwanda Ministry of Health, 2012). Due to the young population, the majority of women are of reproductive age.
The total fertility rate per woman in 2013 was 4.5 and the adolescent fertility rate of girls aged 13-19 years in 2012 was 41 per 1,000 (World Health Organization, 2014). This high fertility rate and majority of women in Rwanda of childbearing age equates to a high demand for safe women’s health and obstetrical care. In 2005 the maternal mortality rate was 610 per 100,000 live births and by 2013 had decreased to 320 per 100,000 live births (World Health Organization, 2014). The health sector in particular has made astounding strides but there is still work to be done.
I feel so incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to return and work in this beautiful country that was once synonymous with the word genocide and is now the definition of progress. Today Rwanda is known for the national parks, the IT development and the business opportunities.
As the plane descended toward the runway I had my face pressed tightly against the window, with butterflies in my stomach, watching the lights twinkle across the dark shadow of the majestic hills. Deplaning the smell caught me by surprise and, as I fought back tears all I could mutter was – ‘home’.