Written by Megan Blevins Tuesday, July 31 2012
Elizabeth Dearborn Davis looked up from a pile of books and smiled.
“I never go to bookstores anymore — you’d better save me before I buy all of them,” she said.
Davis forced her way through the bookstore and into the café, where she ordered French toast, fresh fruit and green tea. She’s just in from Rwanda and traveling in the United States for two weeks — attending board meetings, panels and visiting family throughout the east coast. While in Washington, D.C., she’s speaking at an event for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program through the State Department.
Davis is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda. In 2003, her life was changed by a piece in The Economist on the 1994 Rwanda genocide—and since then, she has worked to educate a new generation of Rwandan women by giving them the tools to rebuild their country and their lives post-genocide.
“What I quickly learned is in Rwanda it’s common for people to live in the villages where their family was killed just right down the road,” said Davis, as she sipped on her green tea and got quiet. “It’s such an intense process of reconciliation, and I wanted to be a part of it in some way.”
Obsessed to Make a Difference
Davis grew up in Tampa, Fla. In 2001, she moved to Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt University, and during her sophomore year of college, Davis read a piece in The Economist magazine about the 1994 Rwanda genocide, where more than one million people were killed. It sparked her interest in learning about genocide, reconciliation and how a country rebuilds after going through something like that.
“I developed an obsession, and I did a lot of reading and research, just trying to understand — I was so blown away by it and that I had never heard of the genocide before,” said Davis.
In May 2006, Davis graduated from college and moved to Rwanda a few days later — she had no job, and she knew no one. On Davis’ first day in Rwanda, she remembers the intense sadness of finally being in the place that she spent so many years learning about.
“To be in a place that has suffered so much and to somehow try and relate — it’s indescribable,” said Davis. “I think it’s gotten better today, but in 2006, there was still a very much a feeling of sadness and loss and pain. I think that it gets better every day. The people [of Rwanda] are very optimistic of where their country is going.”
Davis spent her first two years in Rwanda, from 2006 to 2008, volunteering with a home for street kids in Kigali. During that time she met Dave Hughes, a volunteer who came to Rwanda from England. As the two became friends, they began to realize the lack of opportunities for young women to continue their education.
Davis explained that meeting a young woman in Rwanda who has finished high school, yet alone college, is very rare. One percent of Rwandans go to college after high school, and less than a third of those students are women. Of those women who do attend college, a third drop out before they graduate.
“Dave and I wanted to create an alternative to the traditional university system by giving them leadership and career development and a real career path,” said Davis. “There was no system for helping women get into schools and into good jobs — Akilah changed that.”
Akilah is the Key
In the fall of 2008, Davis and Hughes co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women. They researched and analyzed the country’s economy (discovering that hospitality was the fastest growing industry), worked with the private sector and businesses to create a curriculum, selected the inaugural class from the thousands of applications, hired teachers, and in January 2010, with less than $10,000 in the bank, they opened their doors to the first 50 students.
At Akilah, the students range between the ages of 18 to 30, and the institute offers a 2-year business diploma with a focus in hospitality management. In September 2012, Akilah will begin offering a 2-year business diploma in entrepreneurship.
“We want to rebuild and reframe the country’s situation,” said Davis. “Most of the women at Akilah have never thought about becoming leaders or a business woman or entrepreneur — at Akilah, it’s about turning the key and unlocking that ability inside them.”
Davis explained that in Rwanda, there are two options for women: They can either become like their grandmothers and live in a field and die at a young age, or they can receive the skills to get a job and send their children to school.
“This is what motivates the students to excel. They are driven by the bigger picture of trying to create a generation of women who can rebuild [Rwanda] after the genocide,” said Davis.
A Future Built on Shared Responsibility
By 2020 Akilah plans to graduate 1,780 young women who will be working and serving as leaders in their communities. Over the next 10 years, Akilah plans to develop a network of campuses in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, including the newest campus opening in the Bugesera District of Rwanda in September 2012. In August, Akilah will graduate its first class of women — all of them with guaranteed jobs.
With the upcoming graduation, Davis feels like they’re just now getting started. With the supporters who believe in Akilah’s mission and a system that works, they can expand and educate more women in more locations.
For Davis, it is the women of Rwanda that push her onward.
“I have met the most incredible and powerful women who are committed to rebuilding their country despite losing everything,” said Davis. “Each student feels a shared responsibility, even though it wasn’t them who caused the genocide. It is their responsibility to rebuild for themselves, their children and future generations that keeps me in Rwanda.”
Inspiring stories from Africa on organizations and leaders working to uplift women and children in torn communities:
International human rights activist Naomi Tutu is motivated by her past experiences as a black woman in the midst of apartheid South Africa to empower underprivileged men and women.
Andrée Simon, acting CEO of Women for Women International (WfWI), is rebuilding lives torn apart by war in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
Dedicated to bringing electricity to African villages, Solar Sister follows an "Avon-like" model that utilizes social capital in order to improve communities.
Megan Blevins lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia., and is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has been featured in newspapers and blogs including The Washington Post Express, Urban Organic, the Daily Citizen News, Get Storied and Wildlife Promise, a blog of the National Wildlife Federation. In January 2013, she relaunched her personal blog, One Girl In, where she publishes fictional short-stories and personal tales. In 2010, she was named a Rotary International Ambassador for her volunteer work with the local Rotary Club in Bariloche, Argentina.