“I always wanted to be in the military, ever since I grasped the depth of the genocide,“ said Cadet First Class Joseph Abakunda, a Rwandan international cadet at the United States Air Force Academy when asked how he came to be in Colorado Springs, Co.
At one time or another, all of us meet, quite unexpectedly, a total stranger who inspires us, someone who offers hope. The encounter may be brief, but you know that you will never forget that someone. For me, that someone is Joseph Abakunda.
As part of the U.S. Africa Command’s guest speaker series, Cadet First Class Joseph Abakunda was invited to share his story, “America through the eyes of a future Rwandan Air Force Officer.” He recently spoke to AFRICOM staff about his life, his perspectives of America and his hopes for the future of Rwanda during a “brown bag” event sponsored by the command’s Outreach Division on June 28.
I interviewed Abakunda, who will soon enter his fourth year at the academy and recently spent a month at AFRICOM learning about the relationships, missions and people whose job it is to partner with African militaries and non-governmental (NGOs) organizations while implementing the “whole of government approach” to build capacity and capabilities for Africans who are developing solutions to African challenges.
When asked questions about his boyhood dreams, his family, his life’s journey so far, most of his responses centered on what Americans know as “the Rwandan Genocide,” an event where an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutus over a period of a hundred days in 1994.
Q: What inspired you to choose this path for your life?
Abakunda: “I was just a very young child when this happened in my country. I was fortunate to be from a family who had the means to escape what most people could not. My father is a doctor and my mother has always worked in the church. Serving others has always been valued in my family. Military service is not compulsory, but my uncles were serving in the military. As a young boy, I was impressed by their uniforms and I would ask them questions about what they did. They were trying to help stop the genocide. What I saw changed my life – it inspired me to serve, to want better for my country. By the time I was 15 I knew I wanted to be in the military and defend my country.”
“Genocide is what brought me to this place in time. All of Rwandan society is defined by the genocide. In Christian cultures, time is defined by B.C. and A.D. In our culture, we have B.G. and A.G., before the genocide and after the genocide. This is how much the genocide has impacted our society.”
In 2010, Abakunda won a highly competitive appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. At that time, he was an academic star at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), majoring in computer science, when he was approached by Rwandan officials who were impressed by his performance there. They wanted to know if he might be interested in attending the U.S. Air Force Academy. He said, “I’ve never heard of this place.”
But he quickly became familiar with the opportunity, and the possible future it might mean. Among the hundreds of foreign officers who are the potential selectees to attend U.S. service academies, only 15 were selected to attend the year Abakunda was accepted, one of just two from Africa - both from Rwanda. Abakunda is a top-notch cadet in Colorado Springs and his fellow Rwandan attends the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
At the academy, Abakunda is a systems engineering management major and a commander in Cadet Squadron 18 who is directly in charge of 120 cadets’ military, academic and physical aptitude. Upon graduation next year, he’ll be an officer in the Rwandan Air Force.
He was one of five cadets selected to represent the Air Force Academy at the Army Air Assault School during the summer of 2012. While there, he was honored by the West Point Commandant for recusing people trapped in a car and subsequently administering CPR to a total stranger.
On his own initiative, he reached out to U.S. Africa Command, seeking an opportunity to spend time with the DoD organization whose mission area is Africa.
“Like most successful people, he’s not the kind to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Derek West, Chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Southern Africa and International Military Cooperation Division, nestled within AFRICOM’s Strategy, Plans and Programs directorate, or J5. West, himself a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, reached back to connect with the determined young man.
Getting Abakunda to AFRICOM was a team effort, led jointly by AFRICOM’s Strategy, Plans and Programs (J5) and Outreach and Communications Synchronization (J9) directorates, and coordinated across AFRICOM. Visits for Abakunda to component commands were also supported by U.S. Air Forces Europe/Africa (USAFE/AF Africa) at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti.
“The logistics of getting Joseph on board for a few weeks was challenging, but well worth the investment. His time with AFRICOM represented a lot of great teamwork by the Command. It was a great opportunity for the staff to work together and cross-talk coordination issues. Joseph has blazed the trail for what we are tentatively calling the ‘African Cadet Orientation Program’ we hope to launch. Joseph Abakunda is special. For a young man of his caliber, the sky’s the limit. I anticipate we’ll see him as a future leader in the Rwandan military or government,” concluded West.
In addition to his list of accomplishments, Abakunda speaks eight languages, but you will find no arrogance in this multi-talented young man. Joseph Abakunda is a study in humility. He’s soft-spoken, serious, but with a confident and easy-going smile. Trying to get him to talk about himself is no easy task, but getting him to talk about Rwanda, was.
Q: What are your expectations for yourself? What is your vision for your career? Your life?
Abakunda: “I just want to get done with school and start flying! Helicopters – I’d like to fly those. But my love for the infantry matters more. Fighter jets are cool but I want to commune with the ground. I don’t want to lose that. My vision for my life? I have not thought about that. I don’t want it to end with a rank. What I want is for my country - I want Rwanda to not be dependent on other countries’ taxpayers.”
Q: Okay then, tell me more about your vision for your country, what does the future Rwanda look like to you?
Abakunda: “The vibe with my generation today is that we want to depend on ourselves. We are trying to be a better friend. We very much appreciate the help of Americans – but you can understand that a man wants to know he can take care of his own family. That is our vision – our goal. No one wants this more for us than we do. In my mind, the big picture is we are working to be off donor aid.”
Q: For those not old enough to remember – your generation, the soon to be leaders – what is Rwanda like for you today?
Abakunda: “Rwanda is a miracle. We want the world to know that we are a miracle. We have come together as a country. People on both sides said, ‘Look, let’s not lose our country; we must find a way’ and we did, in Nairobi. Moderates from both sides came together to save Rwanda. We have a long way to go, but we have started. We know we are on the right path, but we need to do a better job of telling our story because we want the world to see the Rwanda of today. We have the highest percentage of women in our legislative body, more than any other country in the world – about 56% I think. But we also have challenges with literacy. America has a literacy rate well over 90%, but ours is around 45% - that is a challenge we must address. We have a very young population and we are ambitious, we are growing.
“Everyone is familiar with the phrase, ‘never again’, but when we say it, we really mean it. It’s not a perfect Kumbaya, and there have always been extremists, but the next two-three generations will need to work to mitigate those influences that drive old hatreds.”
Q: You said earlier that your family was able to escape the worst of the genocide. So how have you seen people coming together? How have people moved beyond that hatred?
Abakunda: "I was too young to remember when my family left, but when we returned, I was a little boy. I remember playing with my friend – we played football, soccer; for years I played with this boy. Then, one day his father, who had been convicted and sentenced for crimes, returned home. He had killed 11 members of one family. He was required to make apologies to the surviving members of that family. This man remembered where he buried these people, whose heads and hands he had cut off with a machete. When the bodies were uncovered, another boy watching from nearby exclaimed, ‘That is my father!’
“Even without a head, this boy could identify his father from the shirt his father had always worn. Yes it was hard, it is hard. And the man who did the killing, he was very sorry. This is the man whose son I had played soccer with all those years.”
Asked if people still wonder if he’s Tutsi or Hutu, he stood up, pulled a card from his wallet to which he proudly pointed and said, “This is my I.D. card, and it says that I am a Rwandan! We are all Rwandans now. Our government has done a good job of helping us to establish our national identity. Are we perfect, no, but we are making progress. I was six years old when I was issued my Rwandan I.D. card. Now, imagine you are forty-five, or even sixty and you now have a new card that tells you this, after your whole life you have been identified as a Tutsi or Hutu. This is our challenge; many want to hold on to those old hatreds. You can walk down the street and you can see in the eyes of some that they want to hurt you, to kill you. But the younger generations are the hope of Rwanda, working together. This is our goal for our country.
“Americans must realize how fortunate you are – you have natural borders to protect your country; your enemies are not right next door. We are a land-locked nation with no natural borders. That is why it’s important to me to serve my country, to help defend our nation when others seek to harm us."
Q: What do you think U.S. Africa Command can learn from you?
Abakunda: “I am on the learning side, here. I have learned about how multi-nationals work, how complicated policy is. Now how can AFRICOM learn from Rwanda – we have credibility in conflict resolution.”
Q: What do you think AFRICOM should be doing that we are not? What is your advice for us?
Abakunda: “I’d answer that if I were a colonel or general! But I’m a cadet. Bring other cadets – it’s good for us to come here and learn.
Q: What is AFRICOM doing right in Africa?
Abakunda: “Building the partnerships. More importantly – the African to African partnerships. Some of these would never meet eye to eye without the U.S. Africa Command.”
Abakunda’s next assignment will provide him an opportunity to see policy made at the national level, up close and personal, in Washington, D.C., where he will spend a month working in the office of Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, before returning to Colorado Springs to complete his final year at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
This young man, this future officer of excellence for the Rwandan Air Force, was inspired by one of the world’s worst recent atrocities to seek the best in himself and to work for good. No doubt he will, and in turn, be an inspiration to others. With vigilant young men like Joseph Abakunda on watch, “never again” will be Rwanda’s reward.