We land in Kigali at various times from our respective cities of Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Indianapolis and are met with the scent of fresh rain and burning wood. Our 18 plus hours of travel time quickly fade into the background as we take in the "land of a thousand hills" with awe and appreciation.
UNICEF NextGen attracts young leaders who want to make a difference in the world
Arriving during daylight hours allows us to observe the orderliness of our surroundings and connect the dots between the trashless, plastic-free landscape and the firm questioning from customs officials who wanted to confirm that we hadn't brought any plastic with us. We later learned that Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008 — and the policy clearly works.
As with all UNICEF field visits, we hit the ground running in order to maximize our short stay in the country. Day one starts with a briefing at the UNICEF Rwanda office, where they somehow manage to cover a brief history of the country, where we are today (tracking towards Sustainable Development Goals), the focus of UNICEF's work in the region (nutrition; child protection; health; early childhood development; water, sanitation and hygiene; social policy and research; emergency response), and the sectors or programs that demand greater attention.
Field visits give NextGen supporters a chance to see UNICEF programs in action
At the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, we wend our way through the exhibits, taking in the shocking series of events that boiled over into an unfathomable period of brutality between April and July of 1994. With heavy hearts and minds, we depart the Genocide Memorial and spend the car ride to Rubavu (in northwest Rwanda) trying to process the inhumanity that seized the nation during those dark days.
The following day, we visit a faith-based Early Childhood Development (ECD) center in Madjengo, and soon we're all on the floor, playing with the kids. We don't want to leave, but eventually we're told it's time to head to our next stop, the "Petite-Barriere" border crossing between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 45,000 and 50,000 people travel back and forth daily, depending on the day of the week.
At least 45,000 people cross the border between Rwanda and the DRC every day
As we pile out of the UNICEF jeeps, we immediately hear a booming rhythym surrounding us. Veronica Houser, the UNICEF Rwanda communications officer, worked to produce the music video blasting around us in collaboration with local rappers, musicians and dancers. The theme of the music video, "Twirinde Ebola," is Ebola prevention and preparedness. It will replay on LED screens during the mass migration that takes place every day between the two countries.
We follow the immigration officer through an open-air market, passing heaps of bananas and tree tomatoes and stacks of corn. We notice women singing and dancing to "Twirinde Ebola" as we round a corner and pile into a room large enough for a big desk and an adjoining radio booth separated by a glass window. A portrait of Avril Lavigne sits on a shelf above the desk. Two local radio hosts welcome us into their studio and begin to share their story.
A UNICEF music video delivers Ebola prevention and preparedness tips
"We started our media company when we were in college together," says Jean-Baptiste Micomyiza. "We started this to get information out to students, and now we do it to get information out to the people. It's very important to us to share these messages. We hope to continue to share new issues beyond Ebola [prevention] as they arise."
They conclude by inviting us to say something on air. NextGen Los Angeles Steering Committee member Brittany Letto slides into an extra seat in the booth to test the mic. The DJ pauses "Twirinde Ebola" and hands her a pair of headphones. She leans in with a smile and says, "Whaddup Kigali, it's Brittany Letto from Los Angeles!"
At first, many of our NextGen leaders were surprised at the volume of Ebola awareness programming that UNICEF is implementing with partners across the country. We'd seen the amazing, innovative ways the messages were being communicated at the border, in tandem with handwashing stations, vaccination stations and guards checking fevers with a thermometer gun as people walked into Rwanda.
The Ebola prevention campaign is working: No cases have been reported in Rwanda to date
Earlier that day, we'd seen how ECD centers promote Ebola education programming for parents and community members. We visited a hospital and learned how the staff had been trained and prepared to receive potential Ebola patients. We even met with community health workers who go out into the community to distribute information on Ebola and who use rapid SMS to distribute key messages via text (for those of you who are wondering if that's effective, globally more people have access to cell phones than toilets.)
As of March 8, 3,310 cases of Ebola had been confirmed in the DRC, almost 30 percent of them children, including 2,264 deaths. Yet there has been no evidence of Ebola transmission in Rwanda to date — proof that emphatic preventive messaging campaigns really do save lives. Not long after we left, the World Health Organization announced a milestone in the fight against Ebola: no new cases have been reported in the DRC since February 17.
UNICEF categorizes this work as "C4D," which stands for "Communication for Development." C4D involves listening to people in order to understand their beliefs and values and the social and cultural norms that shape their lives. It is a symbiotic relationship that incorporates valued insights from community members to help UNICEF propose solutions that empower individuals to take actions that improve their lives. For decades, UNICEF has been using C4D to amplify the voices of children and communities in this way to promote child survival, development, protection and participation.
UNICEF works with local communities to create successful public health campaigns
Successful examples of C4D include polio immunization campaigns and the fights to end female genital mutilation and delay marriage for girls until they are over age 18. While learning about C4D on a visit may not be quite as fun as playing with kids for hours, it's equally if not more important to UNICEF's work. Without the behavioral changes encouraged by C4D, UNICEF's development work would not have the sustainable outcomes it does today.
The millennials who comprise NextGen are the perfect candidates to champion this work. We love to adopt new social norms and practices — we already do this in our daily lives, within our friend groups and our companies. To this end, we're excited to find a way to make something more abstract like C4D as compelling to the general public as UNICEF's emergency work.
We owe it to our UNICEF colleagues to find a way to spread C4D's messaging. Our love for Rwanda and the Rwandan people after just one short week in country was overwhelming. When we reflect back on each day and all that we saw, we're inspired all over again to do whatever it takes to support the programs we saw in action.
We loved visiting the ECD centers, where 1- to 3-year-olds play with loving caregivers and eat healthy meals, instead of being left home alone or in the care of another young child. We saw community health workers in action, sharing important information about childbirth, sanitation, Ebola prevention and more. We met UNICEF-supported "care-leavers" transitioning from orphanages to family care models and being provided with opportunities for education and technical training.
We truly saw the full spectrum of UNICEF's work in Rwanda, and now we understand just how very far any amount of funding we commit will go.
UNICEF Next Generation is a group of leaders in their 20s and 30s committed to doing whatever it takes to save children's lives. NextGen members study issues that affect children and commit their resources, resolve and enthusiasm toward supporting UNICEF's lifesaving work. Since 2009, NextGen has raised more than $13 million and supported 19 UNICEF projects around the world.
Top photo: In February 2020, a delegation from UNICEF USA and UNICEF NextGen visited Rwanda to learn about UNICEF programs in early childhood development, child health, Ebola prevention, and private sector engagement. © UNICEF/UNI306373/Rudakubana