An American's love story with the ‘land of a thousand hills’

He has visited Rwanda 25 times in the last decade, 23 of them in the past five years.
Ambasador James Kimonyo and Noah participate in Umuganda in Kigali 2014. Kelly Rwamapera
Ambasador James Kimonyo and Noah participate in Umuganda in Kigali 2014. Kelly Rwamapera

He has visited Rwanda 25 times in the last decade, 23 of them in the past five years.

This year alone, he plans to visit Rwanda five more times, having been here once already.

He has donated a tractor, GPS gadgets to facilitate the use of satellite data in agriculture, paid tuition for students and has supported Rwanda’s presidential scholarship programme since 2007.

He has attended all Rwanda Day events on different continents and participated in Genocide commemoration activities abroad and has brought many of his friends to Rwanda, who have given direct or indirect support to Rwanda’s programmes.

His name is Steven Noah, a native of Iowa State, USA.

His story with Rwanda dates as far back as the 1980s, when, at one of the family readings, his daughter read aloud a book by Dian Fossey about mountain gorillas “in the northern mountains of a seemingly adventurous country called Rwanda.”

“My family became enchanted by the stories of the mountain gorillas,” he said, adding that much as he was fascinated, he never realised that this was the beginning of a love story with a country far away from home.

From then, the family “knew a little bit of Rwanda and so, during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, we were sadly aware of the events that were taking place.”

Noah’s first direct contact with Rwandans happened in 2005 when he “coincidentally sat next to the then Rwandan ambassador to the US, Dr Jack Nsenga, in three consecutive meetings, in three different states, in a period of six weeks.”

The systematic coincidence was due to the fact that ‘Nsenga’ and ‘Noah’ are alphabetically close, hence the proximity in the sitting arrangement.

“At that time Ambassador Nsenga told me about Rwanda’s programme for presidential scholarships for students to study at universities in the USA.”

Noah was not in the position to get involved at that time but the following year, in 2006, he became the Vice President for Advancement and External Relations at William Penn University which Rwanda happened to be looking into for presidential scholarships.

The scholarships at Penn didn’t come to fruition until the following year under the new Rwandan envoy to the US at the time, James Kimonyo, who Noah also happened to have met the very day he presented his credentials in Washington D.C.

Kimonyo was later invited to William Penn University in September 2007 for convocation where he also met Noah’s friend, Ted Townsend, who later donated three million dollars towards the conservation of Gishwati Forest.

INROADS TO RWANDA

After the acceptance by William Penn University to receive four Rwandan students in 2008, Steven Noah and his wife Jane travelled to Rwanda to meet the selected students.

The visit is one of his remarkable moments in life, he says.

“For the first time, I met with President Kagame, and I’ve since met the President twice,” Noah says, adding that he also celebrated his 60th birthday in Rwanda in 2008.

Two years later, some members of the board of trustees at William Penn University and their families, plus Noah and his family, travelled to Rwanda to meet with the families of the Presidential scholars.

“Mr and Mrs Joe Crookham, Gen. (retired) Tommy Franks and his wife and Col (retired) Michael Hays all travelled to Huye, Ngoma, Nyamasheke and Kigali meeting the students’ families in their homes but one significant visit was in Butare.”

Noah says Buhoro Hill in Huye was the home to the family of Bosco Nkurunziza, one of the Presidential scholars.

The mother’s warm welcome and the kind of trust she displayed overcame the Noah’s.

AGACIRO

Noah’s first two visits to Rwanda only ignited in him more questions about how a country and a people with one of the darkest histories of the century could recover so fast “in both the hearts of men and women and the country as a whole.”

It wasn’t until President Kagame was invited to William Penn University in 2012 as a commencement speaker when he mentioned a concept that revealed everything behind Rwanda’s success story, says Noah.

“President Kagame explained ‘there is really not a direct translation of the word Agaciro in English but basically an idea of self-worth, self-respect and dignity but also treating others with the same type of self-worth and self-respect. It is the very essence of humanity,” he said.

It is at this moment that Noah discovered that the doctrine of Agaciro must have played a big part in transforming the hearts of Rwandans.

“This may sound strange but it’s absolutely true. When I’m in Rwanda, I don’t feel like I’m any different from everyone else. I sit with people from China and all over the world here in Kigali and feel the sense of Agaciro binding us together,” Noah says.

Noah also narrates a virtue which was instilled in him by his paternal and maternal grandfathers in his youth, the idea did not have a definite term but he says it similar to Agaciro he found in Rwanda.

“One was a worker at a factory and one a politician. Both said that every person you meet is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect by the virtue of being alive.”

Having found the similarity between his grandparents’ idea and Rwanda’s concept of Agaciro, he finds himself drawn to Rwanda and feels unrestricted in the land of a thousand hills.

At this point he asks Rwandans to spread the idea of Agaciro globally.

“Look, the social fabric of Rwandans had been torn apart; the country itself had just emerged from colonialism unlike my country USA that has been free for centuries, but look at how you have transformed the country for yourselves and the hope it holds for generations to come. You should spread Agaciro to the world.”

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