Students to gather books for Rwanda

Rwanda’s president addressed an audience Monday at Williams Arena.

by Josh Verges

Ten years after the Rwandan genocide that killed approximately 1 million people in 100 days, Minnesota organizations are helping redevelop Rwanda one book at a time.

St. Paul-based Lawson Software is teaming with Books for Africa and University volunteers to send books to the nation.

“The need for human capital, for teachers, schools (and) books is tremendous,” said Pat Plonski, executive director of Books for Africa.

At Lawson’s invitation, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke before an audience of 3,800 – mostly Twin Cities seventh- and eighth-graders – Monday at Williams Arena.

As a former refugee whose family fled to Uganda in the early 1960s, Kagame spoke about the struggles refugees face.

“It meant life as a second-class citizen without basic human rights,” he said.

Kagame said the United Nations should have helped Rwandans in 1994 but did not because Rwanda had nothing to offer.

“At some point, our plight wasn’t anybody’s concern,” he said. “Where were the international community and the United Nations?”

During a trip to Rwanda in 1998, former President Bill Clinton acknowledged the United States did not realize the scope of the problem there and should have acted more quickly.

But international organizations still have not learned from the Rwandan genocide, Kagame said.

“We must act collectively to make sure there is no more genocide and no more refugees,” he said.

University students will collect books in May that will go to some of the 24 countries Books for Africa serves.

Plonski said he received hundreds of donated textbooks from the audience at Williams Arena. Rwanda will receive 25,000 books in June, he said.

The June shipment to Rwanda will be Books for Africa’s first to that country. Plonski said his organization sent $18 million worth of books to Africa in 2003.

Lawson Software helped establish a St. Paul chapter of Project C.U.R.E., a medical relief organization, earlier this year. The organization will deliver $10 million of donated medical equipment to Rwanda in the coming years, Lawson Software officials said.

Like many African countries, Rwanda is losing the fight against HIV and AIDS. Still, Monday’s speakers delivered a hopeful message about Rwanda’s future.

Lawson Software community relations director Winston Hewett told the Williams Arena audience about the progress Rwanda has made since the genocide.

“I have been awed by their determination to never, ever give up,” she said.

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly spoke at the event about his trip to the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand and the impending immigration of Hmong to the Twin Cities.

“What will be key to our success and their success will be the Hmong living in the Twin Cities,” he said.

The successful recovery in Rwanda might also depend in part on the generosity of Twin Cities residents.

The history department is hosting an academic conference titled “History, Healing and the Human Spirit: Ten Years after the Rwanda Genocide,” on May 8 at Coffman Union.

The event will feature King Kigeli V of Rwanda, former U.N. Commander General Romeo Dallaire and genocide survivors.