Grace Burton-Sundman, age 25, set off on a Rwandan adventure at the end of last year, a journey she was able to make with the support of her family and the Martha’s Vineyard community where she grew up. Grace, a 2006 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is home for a visit and provided a glimpse into her life in Rwanda during a presentation, The New Rwanda, at the Vineyard Haven Library on August 6.
Grace was working in New Jersey after graduating from St. Lawrence University when her best friend suggested she join her in a move to Rwanda. Her friend lives in neighboring Burundi now, and Grace has learned to navigate on her own.
What she found in Rwanda was a shock, she explained. She expected a Third World country but found a place burgeoning with development and rebounding from the catastrophic effects of the 1994 genocide. While the trauma lingers, the country, Grace explained, is rebuilding.
“I am in the capital, Kigali, and it is growing so quickly that it looks different than it did 10 days before,” she said. New roads, traffic lights and pavement are installed every day, she said.
President Paul Kagame, the general who led the Tutsis in their defense and eventual defeat of the majority Hutus during the genocide, promotes order and structure, Grace said. This has led to growth and a resurgence of the economy. What remains, however, are people who need support and encouragement after suffering unimaginable loss.
Grace said she had naively imagined flying to Rwanda and soon after changing the world.
“I realized it was so hard to get things going without the right tools,” she said. Grace said she felt very naÃ¯ve and, frankly, dumb after she arrived. She realized she needed to support herself and found a job at a marketing agency and then volunteered at orphanages, vocational schools, nutrition centers and also helped young people who are HIV-positive. Before long she was making a difference by working with one person at a time.
“Now I realize it takes baby steps,” she said. “Rather than build an orphanage by myself, I helped the woman who cleans my house and the guard at my house with their English lessons.” Her housekeeper recently graduated from technical school and the guard went back to secondary school to finish his studies. They have become her family in Rwanda, Grace said.
Grace’s housekeeper and guard are orphans of the genocide, as are many of her friends. The country goes through a period of mourning from April to July, observing the 100 days of the genocide. Rwanda is experiencing renewal, Grace said, because many people have returned to the country after fleeing years earlier. She gets excited when she talks about the entrepreneurial spirit of the young people there.
“They want to reclaim their heritage and they are so proud of their country,” she said.
Grace presented a slideshow of photographs depicting the vibrant countryside, hills and deep lakes of Rwanda. She also shared photos of her new friends and her garden.
Her parents are glad to have her home, but Grace’s return to the Island is temporary.
“I can’t wait to get back,” she said.