The weekend of March 5-7, 2021, I received a call from a leader within Rwanda’s Ministry of Education. He has been our key liaison for our school, Kigali International Community School, through the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m usually the one who is pestering him with questions, so I found it interesting that he was calling me on a Saturday afternoon. Surely, we weren’t going into another lockdown!
As I spoke to him, he said, “Ben, I need a list of your staff. We’d like to provide vaccines for them tomorrow afternoon.” I was dumbfounded, not sure if I was hearing him correctly. As foreigners, I did not expect that we would have access to vaccines here. I wasn’t expecting much from the U.S. government either as the Embassy told us they wouldn’t be providing vaccines for citizens. I imagined that maybe we would have a chance to get vaccinated when/if we traveled back to the U.S. this summer. Also, the vaccines just arrived a few days ago; how could they be distributing them so quickly? Vaccines? Tomorrow? Really?
Rwanda was one of the first six countries on the continent to receive vaccines, and the first batch was flown in on Wednesday, March 3. On Thursday, March 4, these were distributed by land and air across the country. On Friday, March 5, vaccination was rolled out. I was called on March 6, and by March 7, the vast majority of our staff had been vaccinated. Teachers were part of the first people to receive a vaccine because they are considered to be on the front lines. The government’s goal was to vaccinate 25 percent of their nearly 100,000 teachers during the first weekend of anti-COVID-19 vaccinations.
Land of Vision, Strength, and Courage
Murakaze Neza. Welcome to Rwanda, my friends! While many people may know of Rwanda because of the horrific 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, I’ve had a different experience. I’ve experienced it as the land of vision, strength, and courage, where all things are possible.
For the last seven years, I’ve had the honor, privilege, and joy of living and leading here. To say these seven years have been full of learning would be an understatement. I’ve seen the landscape of the city change before my eyes almost on a daily basis. I’ve witnessed one of the most strategic and positive responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve learned more about community and everyone making their contribution over and over again. I’ve been privileged to play a modest contribution to the development of this incredibly resilient and progressive country through the education space.
Rwanda has literally bridged the divide from destruction to progress, war to peace, and despair to hope. It feels like a real-life manifestation of Isaiah 61, where cities that were ruined are being rebuilt, places that were devastated are being restored, and the land is being renewed.
There are so many examples of how the Rwandan community has thrived, but let me share just a few.
On March 8, we celebrated International Women’s Day. Did you know Rwanda has 64 percent of women in Parliament, which is the highest number of any country in the world? Did you know that 52 percent of the president’s Cabinet is comprised of women? Did you know that Rwanda ranks ninth globally in gender equality according to the World Economic Forum? As Rwanda was rebuilding, President Paul Kagame knew he needed to value all voices, and that excluding women would be to the detriment of the country. He has said in various interviews, “Why would you exclude 50 percent of your population?” He has championed gender equality from the start and has modeled this at the highest levels of leadership throughout the country. As a result, industries have followed.
During the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, an entire generation was wiped out. As efforts were directed toward the country-wide Vision2020 (Oh, and yes—Rwanda has a vision for its people; I’ll share more about that later), one of the first goals was to ensure every child was educated. While there may be a few minor pockets where this is not happening, overall, the country has achieved this goal. Now that this has been achieved, the current goal for Vision2050 is to improve the quality of education in the country. Leaders want education to be built on critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They know education is the key to bridging divides and empowering children with the skills to be lifelong learners and will help them solve whatever problems they may face as a country.
Another example of how Rwanda has bridged the divide over the last 26 years has been through community service. While the government takes responsibility for caring for its citizens and providing infrastructure, it is on individual communities to also make contributions, outside of taxes, for community development to occur. Though COVID has paused this practice of gathering, the last Saturday of every month is known as Umuganda or community service. No businesses are allowed to open from 8 a.m. to noon. Everyone gathers in their local communities and works on a project together. It may be digging a ditch, fixing a school, or anything else that might be a priority for the community and country. Men and women come together and work on their community. This brings people together and helps them fix a problem together. This idea of Umuganda is a strong thread throughout the country. It allows everyone to make their contribution, where everyone is giving instead of taking.
Power of Vision, Power of Leadership
What has this meant for me as a school leader and how I go about bridging the various divides that are present? Well, it has shown me the power of vision and the power of leadership. We live in a country that works. (Just search #RwandaWorks on Twitter.) The leadership of Rwanda has been courageous at every turn. From literally liberating and rebuilding the country from the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide, they are now transforming it into a model for the rest of the world. As they were in the early days of recovery, leaders gathered together every Saturday for two years, and dreamt about what they wanted to be true for the country. Out of this, Vision2020 was born. (Here’s a link to the full document: Rwanda’s Vision2020.) Vision is everything. And leaders are vision-bearers. They work off a clearly defined vision. They update the vision regularly and have clear benchmarks for measuring progress and setbacks. I have never seen a more vision-driven people, community, and country than what I have witnessed in Rwanda. Over my seven years of living here, I’ve seen a people not only united by vision but also led by strength and courage.
Kigali International Community School (KICS) is comprised of students from over 30 nations and a staff from 11 nations. We get a small glimpse of the diversity of heaven, here on earth. Around 50 percent of our students are from Rwanda, 20 percent from the U.S., 8 percent from Korea, and the remaining 22 percent from 30 other countries. About 65 percent of our students are from various African countries. Diversity brings with it a lot of daily divides that must be bridged. Taking the lead from the country of Rwanda, we have led with and toward the vision of KICS: To impact the world for Christ by preparing servant leaders who choose character before career, wisdom beyond scholarship, service above self, and a lifestyle of participation over apathy.
When I arrived in 2014, KICS was in a precarious place. KICS was a school that wasn’t quite sure of its identity and certainly faced its fair share of leadership transitions. I joined the school as the third director in as many years, and I was also director number five in a school that was only 8 years old. How was I going to bridge the existing divides? That certainly wasn’t one of the trainings I received in my crash course on school leadership! (Wait, I never had a crash course…did you?)
At one of my first meetings with the parents and staff, I placed our vision and mission on the screen. I shared with them that everything we do, starting that day, would be based on our vision and mission. I also shared that if we lived this vision out, I believed we would become the best school on the continent of Africa. I was surprised to see that that statement ruffled some feathers and made some people very uncomfortable. Regardless, our vision has been our guide. We have bridged the divides of race, ethnicity, culture, and religion through vision. Our vision is at the forefront of every decision. From admissions, to hiring, to building a new campus—the vision is the guide. For a school that was unsure of its identity, KICS has positioned itself as one of the most secure anchors in the Rwandan community today.
Vision has allowed us to bridge the divides that once seemed insurmountable. This is so strong that some of the people who think most differently than us feel most comfortable at KICS. This is briefly reflected in this video of one of our families who comes from a different religious background than us. This is so important for us as Christian leaders. Did you know that “86 percent of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus do not have personal contact with a Christian?” I fear that we often build walls, instead of bridges, to address the differences that we encounter.
Given the context of Rwanda and the backdrop of KICS’s diverse community, bridging divides has required me to live into Joshua 1:9—“Be strong and courageous”—every day and in every situation. Choosing to be courageous in conversations that are naturally uncomfortable around race, ethnicity, culture, and religion. Choosing to be strong in leading us as a community, ensuring we stay together, regardless of the differences we face. Choosing to model a lifestyle of bridge-building. All of this is hard. Not one part of it has been easy. I’m thankful for God’s strength and courage that have been made available in Christ Jesus to meet the challenges of every situation, and the grace when I fall short.
Friends, I’m not sure of the leadership challenge that is in front of you today, but I do know there is one at your doorstep. I don’t know how large of a divide there is between where you are and where the solution might be. I don’t know how great the differences between you and the person on the other side. Let me encourage you to face these divides head-on and build a bridge and not a wall. Let vision be your guide as you lead with strength and courage to bridge existing divides in your sphere of influence. I know that God is faithful to lead you through it all and provide for what you need. If you are looking for a little inspiration, get to know the amazing country of Rwanda, and learn from their many lessons of resilience and strength—rising from ashes to hope.
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Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity 1910-2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 316–317.
About the Author
Benjamin Thomas is the founder and CEO of B2THEWORLD and the leader of Kigali International Community School in Rwanda. He is a New Yorker, the son of Indian immigrants to the U.S., a husband and raising four kids in Rwanda. Ben is passionate about global leadership (leading people from multiple nationalities), education for children in post-conflict countries, and most passionate about being a dad and a husband.
The last eight years have been leadership-intensive for Ben—navigating through serious health realities for his wife, leading KICS toward its vision, and co-founding B2THEWORLD. During this season, Ben earned his doctorate from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in global Christianity and development. Ben loves to eat, laugh, compete, and spend time with the ones he loves. Ben also loves to learn. He consumes audiobooks and a select group of podcasts while he runs the hills of Rwanda in the mornings.