Gashagaza has big plans for Rwanda after finding success in America
Chuck Gordon

Every year for the past decade or so, Dr. Bill Roper has taken a trip overseas with his son, Will Roper ’11. China. Peru. Southern Africa. Australia. Anywhere that seemed interesting.

In 2010 they found themselves in the city of Musanze, in northwestern Rwandan, visiting Sonrise, a Christian boarding school. Sonrise started as a school for orphans, of which there were many in Rwanda in the 1990s and 2000s. Even today many Sonrise students are without parents and permanent homes. A good percentage of them dread school breaks, because it means they go from three meals a day to only one.

Joel Gashagaza back home in Rwanda

The Ropers had heard about the good work being done at the school, and they wanted to see it firsthand. After touring Sonrise, they were getting ready to leave when a khakis-and-polo-clad high-school student came loping down the hill toward them. “Are you Dr. Roper?” he asked.

Roper was taken aback.

“It reminded me of the scene you’ll know from history when the guy walked up and said, ‘Dr. Livingston, I presume,’” Bill Roper says. “It was kind of that thing, out of the blue.”

That forthright kid was Joel Gashagaza ’16, a minister’s son with big dreams. He had been tipped off that Roper might be visiting his school, and he didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to introduce himself. He confidently told Roper that one day he would study at the school where Roper served as dean, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. They exchanged email addresses, and the Ropers went on their way, leaving Gashagaza to head back to class.

A year later, father and son returned to Rwanda and to Sonrise. They made sure to check back in with Gashagaza, now nearing the end of his schooling.

Full of ambition, Gashagaza was confident enough to approach a stranger with a pie-in-the-sky declaration. He made an impression on both Ropers: Bill, healthcare CEO, med-school dean, one-time head of the Centers for Disease Control and White House senior staffer in the first Bush Administration; and Will, a senior psychology and sociology double-major at Wingate. On the flight back to the States the Ropers discussed the possibility of making Gashagaza’s dreams come true.

They wound up sponsoring Gashagaza to come study in the U.S., and although he never did attend the UNC School of Medicine, he did earn a biology degree from Wingate University and now works in quality control for a pharmaceutical company in Portland, Oregon. He also has big plans for the future, for a Rwanda that is still feeling the effects of the genocide a generation earlier.

The buildup to 1994

Gashagaza has a bachelor of science in biology from Wingate, with a minor in chemistry. He uses both fields on a daily basis as a quality-control analyst for Health Wright Products. There, he tests the chemical and biological makeup of the vitamins and supplements that are shipped to health-food and drug stores across the country. It’s fulfilling work. “I actually get to use my degree in something that’s meaningful,” he says.

But it’s nearly miraculous that Gashagaza even got the chance to earn a degree. To understand where he is now, it’s important to understand where he came from.

To much of the world, Rwanda is known mostly for its mountain gorillas and, unfortunately, for the 1994 genocide. The country is split into two primary ethnic groups: Hutus and Tutsis. The minority Tutsis are, generally speaking, taller and thinner than their Hutu counterparts, but otherwise the two groups speak the same language (Kinyarwanda) and inhabit the same geographic areas.

Soon after colonizing Rwanda, in 1916, Belgium began favoring the Tutsis, considering them to be superior. This stoked ethnic tensions, which simmered for decades and ultimately led to a series of riots in 1959 that claimed 20,000 Tutsi lives.

When Belgium granted Rwanda its independence, in 1962, the Hutu majority took over, and many Tutsis, fearing for their lives, fled for neighboring Uganda and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Joel and the rest of the Gashagaza clan.

Gashagaza’s Tutsi grandparents were among those who left the country. They remained in exile in the DRC, where they raised their families. Gashagaza’s parents met and married in the DRC, where Gashagaza was born, but they always wanted to return to their ancestral land.

In the early 1990s, economic woes led to flagging support for Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu. A group of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Uganda decided to take advantage of the situation, forming the Rwanda Patriotic Front. After some initial skirmishes, the RPF and Habyarimana signed a peace accord in 1993. There was still tension, but also a ray of hope.

“We were about to come back,” Gashagaza says, “and that’s when the war broke out.”

In April of 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down. No one has ever proved who killed the president, but it sparked a Hutu power play of historic proportions. The Hutus’ retribution was swift and bloody. The barrage of violence, often referred to as “a hundred days of slaughter,” was brutal, with the Hutu-led government believing it had to exterminate the Tutsi population if it were to remain in power. Encouraged by government-radio propaganda, unofficial militias mobilized to carry out the assault. Neighbor killed neighbor, sometimes for compensation, sometimes under pressure from armed military personnel.

“My mom’s aunt’s family was literally wiped out,” Gashagaza says. “Her and, I think, her son or her daughter are the only surviving people in her family. One of my mom’s brothers, he fought to liberate Rwanda and actually died on the battlefield. He was raised in Congo and joined arms with people who wanted to liberate Rwanda.

“My dad’s brother also was fighting for freedom and ended up dying on the battlefield. I went to school with some kids whose families, dad and mom and all siblings, were killed in the war.”

A healing country

By the time the RPF managed to gain control of the capital, Kigali, in July of 1994, as many as 800,000 people had been killed. It was three more years before Gashagaza’s family felt it was safe to return to their homeland – one they hadn’t lived in for decades.

Gashagaza grew up in a country under repair. After years under the rule of one group, a coalition government was installed in 1994. In 2003 a new constitution was drawn up, and Paul Kagame, leader of the RPF, was elected president. In a bid to unite the fractured country, the new constitution eliminated all references to ethnicity.

“I was raised in a way that I’m more Rwandan than anything else,” Gashagaza says. “Growing up, for this generation, it’s important that we see ourselves as Rwandan, so we can work together to shape our country.”

The result has been some awkward arrangements. “You’d think after 20 years, everything would be great,” Gashagaza says. But it’s difficult, he says, to “have to live next to someone that killed your family or live next to someone that didn’t want you to be there in the first place.”

Economically, the mostly agricultural country has slowly improved. It has one of the fastest-growing economies in Central Africa, but still about 60% of the population lives in extreme poverty.

Gashagaza grew up in a loving, stable family, but, as his “American mom,” Martha Vetter, put it, “they were very, very poor.” Gashagaza’s father was an Anglican minister in the local diocese, which meant that one of his children could go to Sonrise free of charge. Joel, the middle of seven children, was chosen.

Joel Gashagaza and Martha Vetter

Joel and his "American mother," Martha Vetter.


That’s where Vetter first met Gashagaza. Vetter, a nurse, teacher and missionary from Rockingham, N.C., taught religion at Sonrise and served as interim headmistress for a while. She later worked for the local diocese, where she had an office near that of Gashagaza’s dad, Pastor Frank. She even arranged for Frank to travel to India (alongside Vetter and Frank’s wife, Peace) for heart surgery. Over the years, Vetter and Joel formed a strong bond. (Frank Gashagaza died in 2014, while his son was a Wingate student.)

Joel excelled at Sonrise, showing a drive to succeed and an aptitude for science. By the time he was in high school, he was already telling people he wanted to attend either Johns Hopkins or UNC for medical school.

“I said, ‘Joel, you can’t go to med school right out of high school. You have to go to university and make really good grades, and then you might could go to med school,’” Vetter says.

That’s when she told him that Dr. Roper, whom Vetter knew from church back in the States, would be visiting the school soon. Gashagaza then surprised his would-be benefactor and set the wheels in motion for his eventual life in America.

Becoming a Bulldog

It was actually Will Roper who had the initial idea to sponsor Gashagaza, floating the idea on the flight home. Bill Roper and Vetter both thought it was a great plan.

“This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Vetter says. “It would have been hard for Joel to go to university, because of the expense, even in Rwanda. To come here would have never happened.”

But first he needed to brush up on his English. Rwanda’s Belgian history means French is the predominant European language spoken. To improve his English, Gashagaza spent a semester at the Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. During this time, he lived in Vetter’s Durham home, but the Ropers visited him often, and Bill Roper could see just how focused and determined Gashagaza is.

“He is very thoughtful, very considerate of others, extremely dedicated in his studies and the rest of his life,” Roper says. “He’s an easy person to relate to – quiet, initially, but under that he’s a deep person.”

In addition to improving his English, Gashagaza spent that semester becoming acquainted with the American way of life.

“He didn’t know how to use an iron, so of course the hot iron goes on my counter in the bathroom,” Vetter says, in the tone of a lovingly exasperated parent. “He didn’t know how to use a washer or a dryer. He’d never even seen those things. He didn’t know how to use a toaster oven. He didn’t know how to use a microwave. He didn’t know how to put a cup under an ice-maker.”

Vetter already knew how little Gashagaza had, but his luggage threw that fact into stark relief. “He brought one bag over, and it was about a third full.”

The never-married Vetter took Gashagaza clothes shopping and had him do chores as she became a full-time mom for the first time. “Suddenly I was having to create meals every night – real meals,” she says. “I’ve had other children live with me, in Rwanda, but he’s the only one for whom I became a mother.”

Gashagaza’s English improved greatly, and pretty soon he was ready to take college tours. At Dr. Roper’s suggestion, he visited Wingate.

“The reason he wanted me to apply was that his son had just graduated from there and had a really good experience,” Gashagaza says. “He said, ‘Let’s go look at it and see what happens.’”

Gashagaza was impressed to get to meet Wingate’s president at the time, Jerry McGee, on his first visit to campus. “I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever,’” he says. “It was a school but also a family, whereby you would actually grow as a person.”

Wingate was also just the right size for a kid from rural Africa. “Coming from a small country to the United States, for a kid who grew up in a village, in a small place, it would have been overwhelming for me to have gone to a really, really big school,” Gashagaza says. “I came in as a shy, timid, person, but by the time I graduated I thought, I am ready to go out and conquer the world.”

Joel Gashagaza at his Wingate graduation


Giving back to his homeland

Gashagaza worked diligently from the get-go, earning a place in Pi Eta Sigma, the freshman national honor society. He was pleased to learn that at Wingate he could easily consult with his professors or get free tutoring, and most of his classes were structured in a way that helped him actively learn.

“It was kind of like a discussion. They wanted to get you involved as much as you can,” he says. “Not only was I getting a college degree, but also I feel like I graduated from the school of life in a way. They train you and make you a better student, but in doing that they also make you a better citizen, a global citizen.”

Joel Gashagaza gives the benediction during Commencement in 2016

By the end of his four years, Gashagaza wound up as the only student with a seat on the platform at Commencement. He gave the benediction, asking God to “use us for something bigger than ourselves.”

For Gashagaza, that something bigger lies in northwestern Rwanda. Although he’s on his own, living in the Pacific Northwest, Gashagaza is plotting his eventual return to his homeland. As a junior at Wingate, he took a business class with Professor Larry Bishop, where the kernel of an idea began to form. “I remember the professor talking about entrepreneurship,” he says. “I took that to heart.”

Gashagaza started thinking about businesses that could improve the economy in Rwanda. He is now developing a hog-breeding business in his home country, one that he hopes will help drag a few more Rwandans out of poverty. He envisions, down the road, a pork-processing plant that will export meat to neighboring countries.

“I want to help the country, to alleviate poverty in communities,” he says. “At the end of the day the idea is to make money, but also to create opportunities for others. I have been given this knowledge, and I have to use it to help others in some way.”

He’s cheerily optimistic about his chances of succeeding with the hog farms. “If you come to Rwanda, maybe you’ll have some of the bacon I’ll be making there!” he says.

Gashagaza’s family is, as expected, extremely proud that he’s earned, and is making good use of, a degree from an American university. “My family is really proud of me – like, really proud,” Gashagaza says. “In African societies, when you get an opportunity and take advantage of it, it’s seen as something to be proud of as a whole family. In other words, they are living their dreams through me.”

It warms Vetter’s heart to see Gashagaza become a man. Living in Portland, without Vetter or Roper or any of his safety nets nearby, has been an adjustment for him, but he’s thriving – while, for the first time, paying his own way.

“He’s beginning to fly the coop,” Vetter says. “He’s beginning – What do they call it? Fledge?

“I try to be like a parent, still, who is watching out and standing by but not trying to dictate all his circumstances, for good or for ill. That’s a very gratifying thing for me.

“I think that just being able to stand by this young man and watch him blossom and have the excitement of getting into the honor society as a freshman and get on the platform at graduation. How do other parents feel? A lot of gratification that he came out OK.”

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