In a twist of fate, Walla Walla Community College is lending a hand in helping to shape the future of Rwanda.
Since last spring Walla Walla has been home to seven Rwandan students: Eliane Wibabara, Grace Ingabire, Sarah Benimana, Sandrine Iradukunda, Ornella Usanase, Aline Uwase, and Ariane Kangabo.
All are enrolled at the college, studying soil science, irrigation technology, precision agriculture and water conservation. All seven are graduates of the Gashora Girl’s Academy of Science and Technology near Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.
The young women hope to change the future of their central African country’s agriculture sector, and WWCC is going all out to help them lead Rwanda forward.
The students will be the first generation of Rwandan women to become leaders in modern agriculture, and they have big plans.
Wibabara and Ingabire hope to own large commercial farms. Iradukunda would like to work for the government, in addition to owning a farm. Benimana plans to work on agricultural development throughout Africa. Uwase is studying to become an irrigation expert. Usanase plans to start an agricultural technology company.
These are lofty goals for Rwandan women, who’ve historically played more traditional roles. But over the past 24 years, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, whose Rwandan Patriotic Front army put an end to the genocide in the mid-1990s amid a civil war, the country has undergone a massive unification and reconciliation process.
Among the outcomes of this re-education campaign was a sea change in the role of women, and the seven WWCC students, with their thirst for knowledge, devotion to their country, and endless optimism, are the product of that campaign.
In recent years the Blue Mountains region has forged some close bonds in Rwanda.
Ben Henson, from Wallowa’s Renewable Energy Solutions, runs the 50 acre working farm attached to the Gashora Academy. He contacted Jerry Anhorn, WWCC’S dean of Workforce Education, inviting him to go to Rwanda for a week and teach an “agriculture camp” at the academy. Anhorn and Lindsey Williams, WWCC’s Agriculture Center of Excellence’s marketing coordinator, flew to Kigali in April, 2016.
Williams recalls her luggage situation.
“They have a lot of water in Rwanda,” she explains. “The drinking water side of things is difficult, but they have amazing water resources for farming. So we took a couple of suitcases full of drip irrigation equipment with us, tubing, different sprinkler heads, a lot of things that would be useful for low-growing crops like beans and yams.”
Anhorn remembers the students’ dedication.
“We found ourselves standing there in the dark at 10 p.m. with 30 students standing in a line to ask us questions because they didn’t want to quit learning, even when we were completely exhausted.”
By all accounts they are studying diligently at WWCC.
“These girls are incredibly elite, incredibly intelligent, and they’re excelling while they’re here,” Williams says.
All are taking a broad series of agriculture courses until they are ready to specialize. Already there have been some surprises.
It was at WWCC that Uwase and Usanase first heard about bioremediation, and they are intrigued by the idea of using plants to solve water pollution problems. Ingabire is surprised by the way that WWCC’S solar panel installation moves to follow the sun.
And they wish Americans knew more about Rwandan history.
Most of them have encountered people here who assume that they are refugees, and that the genocide that ended 24 years ago is still going on.
“We’re proud Rwandans, and we love our country” they add, almost in unison.
American food has also made an impression. Iradukunda turns an enthusiastic thumbs up for ice cream and burgers. Together the students have been exploring such staples as pizza and lasagna, and with Lindsey Williams’ husband, Matt, who is WWCC’S Plant and Soil Science instructor, they have invented the “Gashora burrito,” a tortilla stuffed with spaghetti.
On a more serious note, Ingabire wishes that Americans would learn what she knows.
“Happiness doesn’t come from things, it comes from people,” she says. “Lots of people here ask us why we are always laughing, why we are so happy. It comes from always being by one another’s side and sharing our emotions.”
That sentiment is echoed by Benimana.
“Rwandans are happier than Americans, yet we are poor. We have more reasons to be depressed yet we are not,” she says. “Having things is not the source of happiness. It’s interacting with people and sharing with them.”
Anhorn sums up what others feel when they meet this group of remarkable young women.
“They’re brilliant, they’re very motivated to learn, they’re enthusiastic about being here and learning a new culture,” he says. “We at WWCC strongly believe that these ladies are going to change the world, and that we may have met the future President of Rwanda.”
Abra Bennett is Walla Walla Community College’s writer in residence. She can be reached at 509-527-3669 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.