Micah Baker, third from right, arrives in Rwanda with her fellow Peace Builders in June. | Photo courtesy Peace Exchange

On July 4, more than 20,000 people filled a stadium in Kigali, Rwanda to commemorate Liberation Day, when the Rwandan Patriotic Army captured the country’s capital, prompting an end to the three-month-long slaughter of up to 1 million Tutsis who were murdered in 1994 at the hands of the ruling Hutu elite.

In the crowd, Micah Baker, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Proviso Math and Science Academy, stood in awe less than 20 feet away from Rwandan President Paul Kagame as native performers sang and danced.

Baker, of Melrose Park, landed in Rwanda on June 25. The international trip was the culmination of Baker’s experience in the Peace Builder Leadership Development Program — an initiative operated by the Peace Exchange, which is a leadership development program sponsored by several Chicago area organizations. Each nonprofit sponsors one young person, or Peace Builder, in each cohort. 

The young participants are required to complete 80 hours of education and leadership development in a variety of topic areas, including the Holocaust and genocide, child sexual abuse, trauma, domestic violence and conflict mediation, among others, according to the organization’s website. 

Once the Peace Builders complete their 80 hours of training, which took place between January and April this year, they were off to Rwanda, where they studied peace, healing and reconciliation from June 25 to July 8, during the 25th anniversary of the genocide.

“This was my first time out of the country,” Baker said during an interview on July 26. “I was really excited. I finally got to see something different besides America. Going to Rwanda was definitely a culture shock.”

Baker said that the African country’s food culture took some getting used to. 

“In America, you’re used to being able to eat different foods — pizza, Chinese, chicken — whenever you want,” Baker said. “In Rwanda, they have variety, but the average plate was beans, rice, vegetables, fruit and your choice of meat (goat, chicken, sometimes fish).” 

But what it lacked in culinary diversity, Rwanda more than made up for in moral sophistication, Baker said. The country is less than two decades removed from one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history, and yet women now make up more than 60 percent of the country’s lower chamber of parliament — the highest rate of female parliamentary representation in the world, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization that tracks such figures. 

Baker said that she saw Rwanda’s sophistication for herself during its Liberation Day ceremony. 

“We sat behind the presidents and prime ministers of more than 11 neighboring African countries,” she said. “The military marched through the whole stadium and it was so liberating. The women in the Rwandan military are celebrated and some are in command and in very important positions.”

Rwanda’s economic sophistication was also apparent. The country boasts one of the most developed, fastest growing economies on the continent and is renowned for its cleanliness. (One reason? Umuganda, a mandatory community cleanup that’s held on the last Saturday of every month, according to National Public Radio). 

During her stay, Baker said she lived in the home of a medical doctor and his wife for three days and two nights.  

“They were very welcoming and taught me how to wash my laundry by hand,” she recalled. “We made donuts and went to a smoothies shop. They also took me to the market and to an art gallery. We did so much in so little time. They were very welcoming and it was very heartwarming.” 

Baker said that her first trip outside of the country has made her want to leave again. 

“It’s not the last time Africa is going to see me,” she said. “I want to visit Congo or Burundi or South Africa next. I actually made a lot of friends in Rwanda, so I want to go back sometime soon.” 

In the meantime, Baker said, she’ll savor a lesson she learned from a student who attends a prestigious girl’s academy in Rwanda that Baker and her fellow Peace Builders visited. During their visit, Baker said, the young people talked about the 1994 genocide and the meaning of reconciliation. 

“We discussed what being a leader and what peace means to us. What are three things we should live by? One girl stood out to me,” Baker recalled. “She told me that her motto is, ‘Know your truth,’ because if you know your truth nobody can tell you differently. During the genocide, people were taught that killing Tutsis was a good thing. If you know your truth, then you can stand up — even in the face of evil.”