Q&A: Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga '13

 

Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga ’13 on economics, giving back, and why there's more to Rwanda than the movie

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Jeff Pouland
 

Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga ’13 is Colby’s first Rwandan student. He came to Mayflower Hill after attending a United World College in Costa Rica. Since he came to Colby he has traveled across China and has done community service work in New Orleans. Still, he continues to focus on his goal: to use his economics training to help Rwandans. He spoke with Colby editor Gerry Boyle ’78.

Jean-JacquesIt’s been three years since we interviewed you. How have you been?
Colby has been great. Especially for me, it feels like it’s not been just academics. Also interacting with people, all of the things I do, I am always learning. But it’s been also interesting how people react to me when I say where I’m from.

How do they react?
In the beginning it was a surprise to realize how people did know the negative side of what’s happening in my country. But they had no idea of what’s happening in good things, the progress after the problems.

They’d seen the movie and that’s it?
Yeah, pretty much. The first thing that comes up is “I’ve seen Hotel Rwanda.” It’s nice sometimes when you see some people who have actually been to Rwanda. They’re like, “Oh, it’s incredible to see where the country has come since the genocide, where we are now.” Those kind of words keep me positive.

You’ve talked about poverty as the cause of violence.
If I had the power to do something, I think poverty would be my biggest focus. When people don’t have anything, they can be misled by anyone who will tell them, “I will give you this. I will give you this.” And it’s easy to get jealous when you realize your neighbor has something you don’t have that you need. So I think poverty is the root of many African problems.

So development economics?
I haven’t decided whether I’ll go into the development field. I’m looking at connecting business and development. A business mind that’s not just about making the most profit, but using that creative business mind to help people. Creating jobs and doing something that would branch out to other fields so many people benefit.

Sounds like a plan.
So far it’s ideas. Hopefully one day a solution will come.

How do you prepare?
I’ve taken international economics to understand the politics behind different countries. I’m taking four more economics classes next year, including economics of development.

And then?
It’s time to move on, to translate that into real life and what’s happening at home and in other places.

Move on to where?
Well, I want to go to business school first. Business schools want experience but I’m going to apply and give it a try and see. If I get in, that would be great. If I don’t … .

Speaking of real life, does studying here sometimes seem too removed from the problems at home?
No, I think it makes me think about problems at home because when I’m here I mostly see the difference between here and home. There’s always the thing in my mind: why is it that here everything is perfect, most of the time, and there, there are positive things happening but there are so many things going really bad?

Do you come up with an answer?
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. I tend to think the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world is different from the relationship between other places. I was listening to this video, Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford University, focusing on African development. He says how we need to start making African problems our own problems. Because a few years from now our grandchildren will be suffering from what’s happening in Africa. He gave an example of how after the Second World War, USA was doing good compared to Europe, and USA had to intervene because America knew that it was necessary if it were to rise itself. Introducing the World Bank, the IMF, sending troops to Europe—it was a gain for both sides.

How do you apply that to Africa?
People look at Africa and say, this is a continent that is in need. But Africa is rich in natural resources, which is the will behind most of the people going to Africa. But that’s never the cover pitch. I think part of the reason some places are so unfortunate is how we consider them. It’s better if we consider someone as a partner, that we are both raising ourselves up.

Is all this daunting to you as one person?
I don’t think so. I think many people might say, “Oh, I’m going to run away from this, make my own life happy.” But I don’t think I’m the only one who believes this issue must be looked at. And I am sure there are so many other people who want to go back home and take part in making changes, like myself.

Do you ever think, how did I end up on such a different path from most people at home?
I certainly think about it. This is a privilege that very few people get. Not just from my home but even in this country itself there are some people not getting as good an education as I’m getting.

And you, in turn, educate people here about Rwanda?
I will say something before I answer that question. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to know that Rwanda had the war eighteen years ago. It happened. People should know that. But a couple of friends, they said they had programs that would take them to Rwanda and their parents said, “Are you crazy? That’s not safe.” Even the business minds get that kind of information. “You wouldn’t invest there. It’s risky.” You haven’t gotten the real information.

The rest of the story, you mean.
Yes. You know Griffin Richards? He graduated in ’09? He’s currently living in Rwanda. He’s opening up a restaurant. That comes after you’ve gotten to know the place and see the progress there. That’s why sometimes I get bothered that people only point at bad news.

So what is the good news?
The growth there is impressive. I think they are growing at about eight percent yearly. The country has managed to implement a health system that each family pays six dollars a year, and you can have access to free medication for basic diseases like malaria.

Everyone?
Ninety percent of the population. Tourism is growing. People who have gotten to know more have started to invest in Rwanda. Many banks are getting started in microfinance. Now we are moving to having an East African community where the five countries—Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi—will establish one-region integration. It’s in the plans that they will have one currency, one passport. And the mobile phone system at home is very advanced. I can do so much more with my phone at home than I do here. It’s incredible.

An East African EU.
Right. That’s a big improvement already happening. I was on a China trip last year. One thing that made me even more optimistic was how most of those cities in westernized regions in China are things that you wouldn’t have seen in China thirty or forty years ago. So you see this sudden improvement in development. I think there’s room and potential for that growth to happen.

Would you like to be part of that?
I’d love to be part of that. It’s one thing I’m passionate about. I would love to see someone who wants to go to school go to school without asking, ”Where do I get the school fees? Where do I get clothing? Uniform? Books?” When you look at home and just see the number of people who would have loved to go to school but had no way to do it, it’s a big issue.

I know you’ve talked about your dad and his wish for you to pursue your education. Do you think of him when you’re here now?
Yes, I wish he was still alive.

His wish came true.
Yes, it did. And it’s great and I’m grateful for that. He just wanted to make sure we knew he was telling us the right thing to do.

Interesting, the path that life takes you on, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. The path, it’s never straight.

 
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