BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD Tall, slender and unassuming, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke softly about rebuilding his country and investing in its key assets — the Rwandan people — during a recent visit to Oklahoma Christian University.
It was hard to envision Kagame, 48, as a military commander who served in a revolutionary army in Uganda and later led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to end the 1994 genocide in his home country.
But Oklahoma Christian President Mike O’Neal compared Kagame to liberators such as George Washington and pledged his school’s support of Rwanda’s education goals.
“This is a family of faith,” O’Neal told Kagame after a question-and-answer session with the school’s students, faculty and visitors from other states and the United Kingdom. “We want to be your friends and brothers, as we are all God’s children.”
This fall the Oklahoma Christian will provide five full scholarships for Rwandan students, on the condition that they return home after graduation to help their country. The university plans to add two scholarships each year until the total reaches 11 students and will offer additional half-tuition scholarships for Rwandans.
Kagame thanked the school for its decision to “actively support our drive toward our vision.”
“Oklahoma Christian is an institution known for academic excellence, anchored in Christian faith ... and service to its students,” he said.
Kagame, who won a landslide victory in 2003 to become Rwanda’s first democratically elected president since the genocide, visited the 2,000-student school after attending an education conference in Montreal, Quebec. Kagame accompanied his wife, Jeannette, Rwandan ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Zac Nsenga and a number of cabinet members from the African nation.
The president answered questions from students about how Rwanda is promoting unity after the devastating, ethnically charged genocide that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives 12 years ago. Kagame’s government has attempted to redraw lines of political districts and downplay the distinction between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis that sparked the conflict.
One student asked what steps the president has taken to avoid the corruption that plagues other African nations. Kagame said that Rwandan law now requires everyone — including the president — to disclose their income and its sources.
"Corruption has been a very serious problem in countries on my continent," he said. "It has hindered economic development in other countries and we recognize that."
After speaking at a luncheon and receiving an honorary degree from the school, Kagame addressed a joint session of the Oklahoma Legislature and met with the state’s governor. Gary Bishop, president of church-supported World Bible Translation Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and his wife Donna presented Kagame and the First Lady with embossed Bibles.
Kagame said he chose the school as a stop during his visit to North America at the invitation of O'Neal, who visited Rwanda in November 2004.
Richard Lawson, an Oklahoma Christian graduate and founder of St. Paul, Minn.-based Lawson Software Inc., and his wife, Pat, made initial contact with the Rwandan government and invited O’Neal and his wife, Nancy. Dave Jenkins, then a visiting missionary at the school, joined the group.
Jenkins now serves as the first full-time missionary from Churches of Christ to Rwanda. From his home in the capital, Kigali, he read reports of the visit in Rwandan newspapers. “The Lord is doing something far beyond what any of us could anticipate,” he said in an e-mail message from the African country.
In the summer of 2005, 12 students worked as a mission team to Rwanda. Six more students will travel there this summer, accompanied by Oklahoma Christian faculty members Bryan and Holly Hixson. David Johnson, a faculty member at Faulkner University, Montgomery, Ala., and his wife, Marlea, will teach in Kigali this summer. Kyle and Luz Beard plan to move to Rwanda as missionaries later this year.
Sam Shewmaker, longtime missionary to Africa and facilitator for African church planting for Missions Resource Network in Bedford, Texas, offered Kagame “a belated — though deeply felt — apology that the government of the United States did not come to the aid of the people of Rwanda in their darkest hour.”
“This fact is a stain on our national honor for which we are deeply sorry,” said Shewmaker, who has visited Rwanda and plans to assist church members in future mission work there.
“We look forward to a harmonious working relationship with Rwanda that expresses Christ’s spirit of compassion and service,” he said.
The Rwandan president said that he hopes the scholarship program will be the first step in ongoing cultural exchanges between the Christian school and his country.
“We in Rwanda value these continuing contributions,” he said. “We trust that this is only the beginning of the road that we are to travel together.”