Sunday, April 15, 2012


History shows that during times of great society building the key turning points are choices of the next generation. What will those who follow the original vision bearers believe, become, and do? Sometimes, they are spoiled brats who want their seemingly entitled privileges. Sometimes, they squander opportunity. However, sometimes they catch a vision; and build it to places their predecessors could not dream. Sometimes, it is the youth who provide zeal, energy, ideas, and inspiration. I believe Rwanda’s youth inspire.
Clarisse Irabagiza won $50,000 at the Inspire Africa competition. (photo Dave Jenkins)
Clarisse Irabagiza won $50,000 at the Inspire Africa competition. (photo Dave Jenkins)

Rwanda has a lofty vision for the year 2020. Many of us currently providing some measure of leadership will be in our 50’s to 70’s in 2020. It will be a season of transition. The key question in the year 2020 will be what does Vision 2040 look like. Rwanda’s youth must inspire us to 2040.

I have the privilege to know some of the leaders of Rwanda’s 2040 Vision. They inspire. Some are youth at a church I pastor. Some are students and former students at a school I was fortunate to found. Some are Presidential Scholars. Some are students and former students at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). All inspire.

A few months ago, I noticed Facebook buzz among several former KIST students about an event called, “Inspire Africa.” The buzz was coming from some of my more inspirational former students. I did not understand what the entire buzz concerned. A friend provided Jana and me invitation cards. We came eager to be inspired.

The event started with drinks and conversations. I met a few of Rwanda’s leaders at the Serena reception. I felt privileged in the conversations to be able to mention some of the participants were former students who I now called friends.

It’s dangerous to admit that professors have favorites. However, if you sit near the front, make me laugh, have the courage to stand up to me, and talk to me after class, you will become one of my favorites. Clarisse Iribagiza is one of my favorites. She was one of three Inspire Africa finalists on Sunday, 1 April. The grand prize was US$ 50,000.

Clarisse faced off against two equally youthful opponents from Uganda – Davis Musinguzi and Manuela Pacutho. Davis brought charisma and assertiveness. Manuela brought beauty and passion. Clarisse brought humility, vision, pragmatism, and character. I whispered to all near me, “I know her. She’s the real deal.”
Davis was leading the competition, but when the eliminated contestants were polled Clarisse was their favorite. Tough questions were asked. Davis gave populist answers that would stir misplaced hopes of a desperate crowd. I worried a bit that his populism would carry the day.

The final judges were RDB’s Claire Akamanzi; South African billionaire, Graham Power; and Inspire Africa CEO, Nelson Tugume. Graham Powers asked Clarisse a tough question about her “being swallowed up.” She kept her dignity while speaking straight. She spoke of delegation and team work. Then she spoke of inspiring young Africans. It was classic Clarisse. Those of us that knew Clarisse cheered for her not because she was the home town girl. We cheered because we knew Clarisse’s character.

During breaks the moderator would ask the night’s VIP’s and celebrities their perspective. I was seated one row behind the VIP’s, and never was asked to speak. I would have preferred to have been quiet until Clarisse was misjudged as “being swallowed up.”

Following is the response I was not given the opportunity to speak:

“Mr. Powers, with all due respect allow me to speak to the perception that Clarisse was “swallowed up.” We expect the diplomats in our midst to be diplomatic in their responses. They have succeeded. We expect the political leaders to endorse their home people. They have succeeded. I am only a pastor. This crowd expects me to tell the truth about my friends. Truth and friendship become biased. Davis is obviously charismatic. Manuela is obviously beautiful and passionate. Clarisse has traits that endure beyond the strength of youth. She is a character-led visionary. I once was Clarisse’s friend and professor. Today I am only her friend.

Allow me to tell you about the first day I met Clarisse. On the first day of class I suspected the attendance list would be a forged document. The only way I would know was to allow the students to sign a list, and then I would count to see if the number of student bodies matched the number of signatures. Thus I refused to lecture until I had a list of student signatures in my hand. Clarisse watched me with a puzzled look. I suspected she on one hand thought I was wasting time, but on another wanted to know why I was so stubborn. As the attendance list was placed in my hand I began counting student bodies. Clarisse was the first to begin a nervous giggle. I suspected she knew exactly what I was doing. My intuition was confirmed. We had a class made up “ghost students.”

I would not tolerate forged documents in an ethics class. Yet I also believe sound ethicists are willing to listen. I asked the students how long they had been ghosting. The answer was years. I asked, “Why?” I heard many responses. The responses were eloquent and wordy. Clarisse cut through the chase. “We have ghost students because we have ghost lecturers,” she said. The class roared in laughter. The issue for both students and faculty was accountability. At the end of the class I had promised the students that they could expect me to keep time, come prepared, and never bore them in a lecture. The students had agreed to take responsibility for their attendance.

We were “swallowed up” by Clarisse. She did not need to be the center of attention. She just made us all better people with pointed insight and a desire to live in community.

Mr. Powers you should declare Clarisse the winner for the very reason you sought to criticize her.”
Clarisse Irabagiza won $50,000 at the Inspire Africa competition. The Ugandan newspapers were astounded. The Rwandan newspapers hardly noticed. My Rwandan bzee friends spoke with me as we left. They were wise enough not to cheer for Clarisse just because she was the home town girl. They cheered for Clarisse because she represented all we admired about Rwanda’s youth. She was humble. She did not need to be the center of attention. She was practical. She did not pander to our selfish whims. She was concerned with our community first. Her vision was for our good. Clarisse represented what we find so inspiring about Rwanda’s youth. In her most recent statements Clarisse deflected praise to her fellow youth. She does not need status.
Rwanda’s youth inspire.

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