"We don't choose the things we believe in. They choose us." I once heard this in a film and never was it more true than my involvement with Rwandan genocide survivors.
When I was in college, I had intended to join the Peace Corps after graduating. Unfortunately, this plan got sidetracked by various personal issues and never came to fruition. About 6 years ago, I circled back around to that idea. Unlike the carefree days of my young twenties, I now had a wife, child and a business to run. Because of these commitments, I couldn't leave on a long term overseas assignment but I was interested in spending a few weeks a year volunteering. Luckily, my almost ridiculously supportive wife approved of that plan. Almost as randomly as spinning a globe and putting my finger down, I chose Uganda. I purchased a guide book which contained the names of some NGO's that accepted short term volunteers. I started emailing them and found one that would be happy to have me. I spent two weeks painting schools near the Nile River and touring Uganda. The next year I went to Kenya and spent two weeks working in an orphanage on the Indian Ocean coast and touring Kenya. As awesome as those two trips were, they weren't exactly what I was looking for. I really was looking for an opportunity to use my skill sets in accounting and business to help improve peoples' lives in a way that wasn't being accomplished by local professionals. The next year I chose Rwanda and emailed the Survivors Fund. It turned out they really needed someone who knew QuickBooks to come and help some of their partner organizations implement that software program. Since I had been working with QuickBooks on a daily basis for over a decade that turned out to be a great fit. Last month I made my fifth trip to Rwanda and I am now a trustee of the Survivors Fund.
My involvement with the Survivors Fund has been one of the most rewarding endeavors of my entire life. The 1994 Rwandan Genocide was an ethnic cleansing that occurred in the midst of a civil war in the tiny Central African country of Rwanda. From April 7, 1994 to July 15, 1994, approximately 1,000,000 ethnic Tutsis were murdered in horrific violence. This was approximately 15% of the entire country’s population. When the violence ended, Rwanda laid in ruins. There are approximately 300,000 survivors of the 1994 genocide living in Rwanda, primarily widows and orphans. During the past 19 years, they have received almost no meaningful reparations or meaningful aid. The genocide perpetrators have been sentenced to shamefully inadequate punishments at both the local level where individuals have been tried and at the international level where the planners were tried by the United Nations for crimes against humanity. It is not uncommon for a man who has murdered and raped to be in prison for a few years and then return to his village and be living next door to the survivors of the family who he victimized. Meanwhile, the survivors live with psychological trauma, AIDS infection, and loss of family real estate, property and financial income. The Survivors Fund has been one of the most effective NGO's in securing grants for programs to aid these widows and orphans. In most cases, when a program can help them, it is the first time in their lives they have received any aid. Unfortunately, there are so many survivors, the Survivors Fund can't help nearly all of them. It will require aid that can only be funded on a governmental level. There is a movement to establish a trust fund for the survivors that would be chartered through the United Nations and funded by donor countries. This would not be unprecedented as it has been done in other countries, namely in Sierra Leone. It is our feeling, that the 20th anniversary may very well represent a now or never moment for the establishment of this trust fund. To this end, we are doing everything humanly possible to raise awareness for the 20th anniversary and the ongoing plight of the survivors.
About the time I was making my first trip to Uganda, I was well over 300 pounds. Sadly, that was about 50 pounds down from my heaviest weight. I had been walking a few miles every day to exercise but I was starting to develop plantar fasciitis. I decided to switch to cycling to try and reduce the stress on my feet. I bought a low end mountain bike and started riding it for an hour every day. Because of my weight, I constantly had to take it into the shop for repairs. I became a regular at my local bike shop - Blue Line Bike Lab. Blue Line is owned and operated by two brothers, Fred and Dave, who I came to know pretty well. My confidence on a bike was pretty much non-existent. In addition to being huge and out of shape, I didn't know anything about bicycles. I didn't even know how to change a flat which resulted in a few phone calls to my wife and/or taxis to come pick me up. After coming in regularly for two years, they finally convinced me through their constant encouragement to step up to a better bike and start riding with their group. I realized pretty quickly that even though I was bigger than everyone else, I had developed some pretty good stamina by riding every day. I didn't have too much trouble keeping up with everyone. Around this same time, I decided to join weight watchers. I was 37 years old and my goal was to be back to 200 pounds or less by my 40th birthday. During the first two years, I kept getting faster and going further. I completed the MS 150 which is a two day 150 mile ride from Houston to Austin. However, on my 39th birthday, I was still 65 pounds away from 200. I needed to do something drastic. That's when I thought of riding a bicycle across Rwanda to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide. I wanted to do something substantial on a personal level for it. The 20th anniversary also happens to be a few months after my 40th birthday. If I planned and promoted a bicycle ride across MOUNTAINOUS, HIGH ALTITUDE Rwanda, I would have to lose that final 65 pounds. For the past year, my mantra has been "failure is not an option". I exercised even harder every day. I counted my weight watcher points meticulously. I attended meetings every week. 6 months after my 39th birthday, I got below 200 pounds for the first time in almost 20 years. As a major bonus to all this riding, Fred, the co-owner of Blue Line, who has heard me talk about Rwanda on countless rides together, decided he wanted to come along as well. I couldn't be happier to have my cycling mentor to be joining me on this amazing trip.
Now, I am ready to combine my passion for helping the genocide survivors with my passion for cycling. I have seen firsthand the power of cycling to change people's live, individually and for entire causes.
David Chaney is a CPA in Houston, Texas. You can read more about his ride at www.rideforthesurvivors.com .