Participant Profile: Allison Hoffman (USA & Cambodia)

Allison Hoffman is going to Rwanda because she wants to feel revitalized. 

Understandably, considering the 26-year-old entrepreneur from Illinois has spent the last two years creating a Cambodian development project from the ground up.   

“In Rwanda, I hope to be revived. I hope to reaffirm my commitment to the fight against poverty, which to me translates to the empowerment of the marginalized, which is the ultimate confirmation of a person’s basic rights,” she said from Cambodia.  “I hope to gain knowledge, insight and contacts that I can bring back to Cambodia and implement in ways so as to create tangible results.”

Allison already has a wealth of knowledge under her belt.  She was also recently the winner of the 2009 Paragon Fellowship for Youth Social Entrepreneurship. 

Her organization, the Pari Project in Phnom Penh, provides an array of fundraising, marketing, and organizational development services in the hope of professionalizing non-governmental organization services in Cambodia. 

“I am most proud of starting from nothing, and creating a social enterprise that provides vital services to NGOs that do great work,” she said.  “I am proud of them every day, I am deeply respectful of the thousands of people that they help directly, and I am honored that Pari is able to play some small part in improving the quality of their work.”

Eventually, Allison hopes to expand the project to other parts of Asia.  For now, she’s simply looking forward to her first trip to Africa.

Speaker Profile: Jennifer Elle Lewis

Jennifer is the manager of the Gender and Media Diversity Centre (GMDC) at Gender Links.  The GMDC is a physical and virtual resource centre based in Johannesburg, South Africa, with linkages throughout Southern Africa and across the globe. 

The centre envisions media that is diverse, ethical and responsive to the current needs of women and men.  Traditionally the media has reinforced gender and racial stereotypes, which has proved disempowering. 

The centre advocates, represents and creates media that is fair, unbiased and professional, and encourages women and men to empower themselves by critically engaging with the various forms of media around them. 

Jennifer will be joining the forum as a panelist around issues of Media, Democracy and Peace Building.  It will be her first time in Rwanda. 

Prior to joining Gender Links, Jennifer came to Johannesburg from New York City via the Dominican Republic, where she worked for the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.

There, she coordinated their Gender Training Community of Practice, a virtual, global “think-tank” for networking, resource-sharing and idea-generation in the fields of Gender Research and Advocacy. 

She has also worked at the grassroots level in rural Tanzania, where she organised a women’s collective to enable dialogue and empowerment for the survivors of rape and domestic abuse.

The Forum takes a roadtrip: Millennium Villages Project in Mayange

The Millennium Village cluster in Rwanda is located in Mayange, a sector of Bugesera District located about 40 km south of the capital.

Forum participants will have chance to tour the area, which suffers from sporadic rainfall and declining soil fertility, leading to endemic poverty, illness and a lack of economic opportunity.

The project began working with an initial 5,000 people in Kagenge in early 2006. The population was facing impending famine because of failing rains and a poor harvest the year before, and the health center was severely lacking in staff, medicines, equipment and supplies, and had no electricity or running water.

Declining rainfall over the past five years has made productive agriculture challenging. Following a drought in 2005, when the project arrived in January 2006 the team worked with UNICEF and the World Food Programme to facilitate the establishment of an emergency feeding center for severely malnourished mothers and children.

In addition to the many programs in agriculture, education health and infrastructure, many women are undertaking additional income-generating activities such as basket weaving.

The Imasirire (sunrise) basket weaving cooperative comprises more than 200 women who are learning basket weaving and business techniques, leading to additional income for their families. The project is also helping the community access microcredit.

Speaking to the tremendous success of the MVP in Mayange, the Government of Rwanda has announced plans to scale the Millennium Villages project to all 30 districts under its Vision 2020-Umurenge initiative, part of the national development strategy that is taking the project to unprecedented scale.

Participant Profile: Claude Migisha-Kalisa (Rwanda)

Claude Migisha-Kalisa has a dream. 

He dreams that one day he will see peace in Africa, peace everywhere. 

Claude also knows his dream has the potential to become reality, which is why he became involved in human rights advocacy.

In his short life Claude watched his country become a place compared to hell on earth.  Turned upside down by a genocide that ripped apart the heart of Africa, in which more than 800,000 people were murdered, the Rwanda of Claude’s youth was anything but peaceful. 

Yet just 15 years later it is an example in Africa; one success story on a continent more often associated with failure. 

“What motivates me most is that my country is entirely in the process of rebuilding itself after the horrible 1994 genocide,” says Claude.  “While in that process, human rights has been among the main focal areas.”

Although Claude knows his country still has a long way to go, he also knows what’s possible and he’s looking forward to sharing his experience with other young leaders.    

An activist associated with the Butare Rotary Club and the Rwanda Village Concept Project, Claude works to help his country achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  He’s also a member of the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS.

How well do you know your human rights?

You won’t be tested, but you might be surprised to see how you score on this human rights quiz.  

Check it out ahead of the Rwanda forum and compare notes with fellow participants.

Speaker Profile: Gerald Caplan

“The story of Africa is literally the story of the human race,” writes Gerald Caplan at the beginning of The Betrayal of Africa, his most recent work on Africa.

The book sets out Caplan’s argument that Western avarice has done more to harm Africa than any so-called ‘aid’ sent to the continent on behalf of the governments of developed countries. Its call to the citizens of rich nations to pressure their governments to reverse harmful policies is a refreshing addition to literature on the topic.

Caplan, a lifelong social and political activist with a passionate commitment to African development, will speak at the Rwanda Regional Forum on Saturday, January 2nd.

A former professor at the University of Toronto, he is also the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, written for the International Panel of Eminent Personalities established by the Organization of African Unity to investigate genocide.

In 2001, he was named by the United Nation’s Special Coordinator for Africa as a member of the senior experts’ team undertaking an evaluation of the UN’s New Agenda for the Development of Africa in the 1990’s. He has also acted as a consultant for the Economic Commission for Africa, UNICEF, WHO and the African Union.

Gerald Caplan speaks widely about African development issues and genocide prevention. He lives near Toronto.

Read his speech ‘Why we must never forget the Rwandan genocide’ (First published in Pambazuka News).

Participant Profile: Jessica Whitbread (Canada)

Every once in awhile somebody comes along and changes the way we think about a critical issue of our time, adding new layers and helping foster new solutions. 

Jessica Whitbread is such a person. 

Her open, constructive, no-holds-barred approach to HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health advocacy is a refreshing change to those in the field.  

Having conquered Canada, the 29-year-old activist is now taking her message to Rwanda and beyond.  The self-described poster girl for youth HIV issues in Toronto, Jessica is also looking forward to finding out what Africa has to teach her. 

“I want to see what the effect of HIV looks like in a post-conflict society,” she said.  “I’m hoping that being a white, female, HIV-positive Canadian will allow me to share my experience and learn from others who are there.” 

After participating in the UNESCO Chair and Institute of Comparative Human Rights Intergenerational Youth Forum in Connecticut earlier this year, Jessica knew she wanted to do it all again in Rwanda. 

“Being in Connecticut was one of the most interesting weeks of my life.  I don’t think I’ve ever had that much personal growth in that short amount of time.  It’s so inspiring to meet others who are doing such amazing things in their communities and at a global level.” 

She’s counting down the days until she can do it all again.