17 year old Neysa Sanghavi first heard about Rwanda in her history and literature class at her school, Singapore International School in Mumbai, India.
The perceptions that she and her classmates had about Africa were far different from what her mother had. Her mother Dr. Sejal Sanghavi is a pioneer of Homeopathy in Rwanda and had always explained to her about the state of the country.
“Because I had always learnt a lot about African countries in my history classes, we honestly had a different perception about what my mom had because she always told me of how it is developed, about the nice cities and infrastructure while I and my friends thought of it as an old traditional country with people still hunting and living in huts.”
As I frown at the comment, she is quick to add: “I’m not lying to you but one of my friends called me when I arrived at the airport and asked me whether I see people carrying spears and arrows which got me confused. I realized that there is a lot of negative stuff associated with African nations. In general it’s wrong because you can see that it is developing but people only see the negative side of it,” she says.
That was in September last year when Sanghavi made her first trip to Rwanda accompanied by her mother. It is then that she decided to embark on her first project ‘The study Rwanda project’ which “focuses on the different aspects of Rwanda that people do not really understand.”
Visiting genocide survivors
Sanghavi started by learning Rwanda’s history and came up with a project on the Genocide after she met some survivors.
“My project focused on initiatives that gives genocide survivors income to do much better and try helping other people look at the positive outcomes of the Genocide by focusing on how they have been inspired and how they are inspiring others and not just the negative outcome.”
“From my interaction with the Avega Agahozo Genocide widows, I figured out many of us in India are good with handcrafted material and by talking to people we can help market them and help with a little innovation changes,” she says.
After her four day visit to Rwanda, Sanghavi went back to her home country with a promise to change her school mates’ perspective about Rwanda and encourage them to come to Rwanda to see the country for themselves and work on a project to help genocide survivors.
“I had video and photograph evidence and I realized that breaking stereotypes is not as hard as it sounds. They were happy about this new experience and agreed on a trip to Rwanda where they would also work on some projects.”
“Not to say that India is very developed but my school mates and I all live in cities with many opportunities and a much more fascinating environment. Something that would excite us is travelling as a group to help an international community,” she says.
While in Mumbai she got a chance to speak at a Kwibuka event in April in Mumbai where she shared her experience on Rwanda and the basic aspects about why people think of Africa as backward.
“The only reason John Look called Africa a land of silence is because he didn’t understand the language but he eventually became famous and people got a wrong perception about what African people are really like. Many people out there look at Africa as a country and not a continent and this feels very offensive even though I am not an African,” she says of the need she had to share her experience.
At the Mahama Camp
The World Refugee Day came around the same time that Sanghavi had planned to come back to Rwanda and therefore decided that she would visit the refugees at the Mahama refugee camp.
On June 20, Sanghavi celebrated the World Refugee Day at the Kiziba Refugee Camp where she spoke in front of 17,500 refugees and several other dignitaries.
“I looked at how Rwandans treat refugees. Many countries in the world do not really accept refugees as their own and think of them as a burden and liability but was inspired by how Rwanda had accepted them even if it was a small country,” she says.
The next six days Sanghavi travelled to Mahama Refugee Camp where she eventually started her research on malaria because of the report from the health centers there. According to the reports, 50% of the population at the Mahama camp are regularly diagnosed with malaria.
“One of the things that I appreciate from what I learned is that malaria is not just a scientific problem but also has a cultural aspect to it. Many of these people do not really care because it has been part of their culture for so long. To them malaria is normal because they have been brought up with mosquito bites as part of their daily lives.”
“No one really realizes these aspects and yet these lead to a political aspect where people really think that the government strategies are ineffective. The government and UNHCR are looking at trying to change community behavior which is necessarily important,” she says.
As a science student pursuing an IBDB (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) in Biology, Mathematics and Economics, Sanghavi made research on the possible projects that would help lift refugees out of poverty and make them self-reliant. Together with her mom, Sanghavi came up with some of the business ideas for the refugees.
“The truth is no one deserves to just sit there idle and wait to be given everything. We are species that need to do something and not become lethargic.”
“My mom and I decided to do something with the red soil in Rwanda which Rwanda is blessed with in abundance.
It is rich in iron oxide, silica magnesium, calcium, sodium and other minerals and also with kaolinite which is used by firms in the cosmetic industries around the world these days. This means that it has international market,” she says.
Also, the use banana peels for organic fertilizers is a project that the duo believes can engage the refugees into earning income.
“Banana peels can accumulate enough money for the refugees because anything organic is very expensive which is also one of the ways to make the refugees get busy and work on things that can help them.”
The other business project is the use of Eco-friendly and Eco-inclusive use of old Newspapers whose raw material is available at very cheap prices and at the same time the recovery rate of recycled product is as high as 88%.
“If the refugees are engaged the country’s GDP will definitely go up. One of the things that I thought were lively were having other outsiders come to the camp and make use of their market so the refugees can make income,” she says.
However, her idea is to encourage the refugees to start with painting their houses and garden their compounds to create a good image and make the camp a comfortable place to visit.
“They shouldn’t just view it as a temporary home but something that they cherish. Liveliness comes with experience and it’s one of the things that they should be taught.”
As the interview comes to an end, Sanghavi receives a call from Azam Saber the UNHCR representative to Rwanda, to schedule for a meeting before her flight back to India that is in three hours’ time. Sanghavi’s mother says her daughter is now considered an associate of the UN refugee agency in Rwanda.
Sangahvi with 25 other students from her school will be flying to Rwanda to begin on the projects, accompanied by Clarence Fernandes, a close friend of Rwanda, with assistance from UNHCR and MIDIMAR.