Yes, that is Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Yes, that is me standing in the left corner grinning like a five-year-old child.
Now, if anything ever happens to me in Rwanda, all I have to do is pull out this picture and say, “See, President Kagame and I are best friends!”
(But not really).
Here’s the story of how it all happened.
Saturday, June 11, 11:00 AM – I am at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at 151 East Wacker Drive, downtown Chicago. The woman standing in front of me is scrutinizing my camera and she raises it to take a close-up of my face. Then, she turns my cell phone off and on and glares at me suspiciously when I roll my eyes.
I forgot how crazy the President’s security staff is – especially about technology – and I have a cell phone, camera, and laptop in my bag. The woman empties my entire purse onto the security belt and begins to peruse its contents. She finds my nail clipper and immediately starts waving it angrily at my face.
Really? A nail clipper? You think I am going to attack the President with a nail clipper?
She throws it into a pile of other confiscated objects and then grunts for me to move on. I grab my purse, shove everything back inside, and join B, Arthur, and Allan in the conference room.
There, all of the preparations for the President’s arrival are going through a final check. I notice that the banner has been changed from yesterday and the podium repositioned. Now, the two screens read simply: “RWANDA DAY 2011 – AGACIRO.” B is busy ushering people into one of the smaller meeting rooms, while Allan paces back and forth on the scarlet carpet, and Arthur sets up his video equipment.
“Lydia!” Allan says when he sees me, already stretching out his arms for a hug. “How are you? Did you get your press badge yet?”
Thank goodness for friends like Allan (friends who know people who know people who know people)! Minutes later, I have my press badge and official clearance to take photos and footage of the event.
I should probably give you some context.
This is Rwanda Day 2011 in Chicago – a weekend conference organized by the Rwandan government to bring together thousands of Rwandans across the United States and Canada to celebrate Rwanda’s achievements and Vision 2020, and facilitate “social, communal, and business relationships between the Rwandan Diaspora, friends of Rwanda, and the Rwandan business community.” [According to www.rwandaday.org]
The day before, the conference featured two panels – the first discussed “Connecting Opportunities, Creating Value for Rwandans,” and the second discussed “Investing in Rwanda’s Youth, Creating Solutions for the Future.”
Both panels were well-attended, but today’s event was going to be packed. Even the air felt different – I could taste the buzz and nervous excitement, it was almost as if even the walls and light fixtures were shimmering and whispering, “The President is coming! The President is coming!”
I go back into the conference room and help the staff put Rwandan flags on all of the chairs. Then, I select my seat by the stage and test the camera.
Everything was ready.
The room begins to fill at around 2:00 PM. The event opens with a documentary “Agaciro” created by my very talented friend, Allan. [You can view the documentary on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oBN_qmlQMU]
Then, at 4:00 PM, HE arrives.
Following the cues of all the “real” press people, I rush to the front and start madly snapping pictures.
But then he starts getting closer. And closer.
Conflicted, I decide to put down my camera, and then – YES.
I TOUCH HIS HAND!!!!
Elated that I had just accomplished the feat of a lifetime, I raise my camera back again and resume snapping pictures, but all the while with a huge grin on my face. I can’t wait to tell my parents: I JUST TOUCHED A PRESIDENT’S HAND.
Kagame ascends the stage amidst rapturous applause, and is immediately greeted with a children’s choir and a traditional dance performance.
Reverend Jesse Jackson introduces the President (with, as it turns out, an impromptu speech). Then, the Man himself takes the podium.
I wish I had a transcript of his speech.
It was so eloquent and given with such heartfelt sincerity. President Kagame expressed so much hope for the country’s future and for the new generation; he also addressed the inevitable dissent and criticism that would be directed toward his presence. As it turns out, there was a protest occurring just outside of Hyatt, led by none other than the (supposed) hero of Hollywood’s Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina. But the focus of the President’s speech was on the people, the economic progress, and the country’s plans for the future.
As I listen to the translated proceedings, I walk around the room snapping pictures of the audience, the performances, the stage. And at one point, when I lower my camera to review the photos, I see this:
I look up from my camera and Reverend Jackson is still beckoning for me(?) to go over to the side of the stage. I look behind me, no one else is looking in his direction, then turn around and point at myself. He nods.
I walk over to the side of the stage.
“Hi. I’ve been seeing you running around everywhere taking pictures,” he says, “Who are you here with? Do you have a card?”
Taken aback, I quickly explain that I am just a student (I don’t tell him about how I got my press badge), and briefly narrate my “connection to Rwanda.”
“Listen, the President is coming off the stage in five minutes. Wait here. I want to personally introduce him to you.”
I swear my heart stopped beating. Or else, it started beating so fast I couldn’t process what was happening anymore.
DID JESSE JACKSON REALLY JUST TELL ME HE WAS GOING TO INTRODUCE ME TO PRESIDENT KAGAME???
And five minutes later, it happened.
I shake the President’s hand – for REAL this time – and tell him about my two previous trips and my plans to return to Rwanda in the summer with a project.
With me is Kellogg professor, Michelle Buck, whom I had invited to the conference. Michelle had just flown in from a conference in Boston, and had another flight to Florida that evening, but she made a last minute decision to stop in Chicago just for Rwanda Day. Michelle is planning to teach courses on Rwanda at Kellogg and also looking into the possibility of developing a team to visit Rwanda in the spring.
Several photos later, the President leaves the conference.
Fortunately, only Arthur and PD had to witness my bouncing-squealing-oh-my-gosh-that-did-not-just-happen-excitement.
But isn’t that amazing?
Who would have thought that less than a year after my first trip to Rwanda, I would get to meet the President?
None of this – meeting Kagame, attending the TriBeCa Film Festival, going on a second trip to Rwanda – could have happened without the initial funding from the Provost’s Office through the Immersion Experience Grant [now known as the Undergraduate Engagement Grant].
I know months have already passed since June, but I wanted to tell you about all the amazing opportunities that have come my way because of that one initial opportunity.
So – THANK YOU. I can’t wait to see what other opportunities and adventures lie ahead.