Last year, as the world was struggling to cope with the pandemic, Dr Chukwuma Ekwelum and his wife Vanessa Ekwelum decided to pack up their entire lives and moved to Rwanda from the United States with their two children.
Their move was completely by faith, they say. It was inspired by a strong call that they felt to come home to the motherland (Africa) – with a desire to bring with them talent, education, and networks they had amassed in the West in hopes of joining efforts to make a difference in their mother continent.
When the two decided to move, they started looking around the continent for opportunities. They had considered Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda for settlement, and ultimately they went with Rwanda because of their prior connection to the country.
“We learned about Rwanda being called the ‘Singapore of Africa’ and we got very excited and inspired by that and wanted to be a part of it… we had a friend from Rwanda who had studied with my brother and through him, we came to learn that Rwandans are friendly people, and so when we remembered that, we decided to give it a chance,” Ekwelum recalls.
Ekwelum is an educationist and Vanessa is a scientist by training. As they set out to settle in Rwanda, their mission was to enhance the education system by establishing a school that would complement and expand the quality of education in Rwanda and Africa in general.
Fully virtual school
As a result, they set up a secondary school – Legacy of Excellence Academy – with hopes of offering students and their families a safer and more affordable option for private schooling while not compromising on quality.
Theirs is the country’s first 100 per cent virtual school and the couple expects that with it, the next generation of Africans will be ready to compete on the global market.
“Rwanda is a country that’s pregnant with innovation, its itching to become a giant in the digital space. And so with our school we are merely joining the movement,” he says.
With the school, they hope to tackle the current challenges in education, especially those imposed by the current pandemic.
“We all know Covid-19 has forced everyone to think out of the box and think of creative ways of doing all aspects of life, education included. In education specifically, while principles of great teaching and learning must remain the same, methods can change to adapt to the times that we are in.”
“What parents can expect is character development, our school is very big on developing good people. Our core values are resilience, optimism, accountability, respect and service. We have identified those core values as essential for students to go out there and do wonderful things in their communities,” Ekwelum explains.
“Compelled by its design and purpose, MINEDUC has even dubbed it a school for not just the present time (re: Covid-19), but also for the future. We are happy to have the ministry’s full backing and support. Should we reach our fundraising goals, our anticipated start date/grand opening will be September 6, 2021,”he adds.
Decision to move
The couple says their decision to move wasn’t an easy one since they had spent their entire lives overseas. Ekwelum was born and raised in the US while Vanessa was born in Nigeria but raised in Denmark. (She moved to the US when they got married almost five years ago).
For them, life in the US has been an eye opening. Ekwelum and the wife reveal that at some point they got tired of being seen as black people and wanted to be seen as people, and so they had serious conversations about where they would want to invest the rest of their lives – a place where their children would thrive and not have to go through that type of treatment they had faced.
“And for me being particularly a black man, dark complexion and big size, when certain people see me in the US, I already become a threat on sight without knowing anything about me. That was very hard to deal with and I dealt with it for the whole of my life living in the US. Very often, I would be harassed by police.”
Vanessa recalls the hardships that came with the anxiety of her husband going to work and not showing up or not being sure if he was going to come home safe.
“It was difficult because we got to a point where his mental health was deteriorating; even going down the street or going to the supermarket, he had to ask me to go with him or at least go with the kids so that he can be seen as a human being first before he is a black man. It was difficult for us, we had to keep it real to ourselves.”
Vanessa reveals that even taking their children to the playground wasn’t easy, especially with the shootings.
“You can’t really be comfortable going there. But here, our kids run freely, they eat dirt and play with worms. Just watching them thrive, the peace it gives us is incomparable.”
‘No place like home’
Vanessa is grateful that Rwanda opened its arms and accepted them as a family.
“We love it here, we couldn’t have made a better choice. Rwanda has opened its arms to us, welcomed and accepted us. It’s really been a blessing, our quality of life is better; we reclaimed our mental health.”
She notes that whereas Africa is not perfect, it is growing and those who seek greener pastures abroad should look into the facts before they take the decision.
“There is no place like home. This is one of the things we decided to do when we came here, to shed Africa a good light, to tear down the negative stereotypes that the media has put on Africa. We have this hashtag going on #MakeAfricaGreatAgain – it’s our passion to showcase Africa, the Africa you won’t see in the media.”
For those whose dream of building a successful life is still in the West, Ekwelum recommends being informed and understanding certain facts.
“Here, you might not be seen as just a person; you are part of the majority but be prepared for a cultural shock when you go to the west. Because then you will start to feel different by the way you are treated.
It’s dehumanising, and confusing because race is a social constraint. It’s not rooted in anything that’s genetic or biological, it was created to classify individuals and to justify treating people differently – it’s not meant to make sense.”
As for Africans in the diaspora looking to come back home, the couple believes all it takes is a leap of faith – it takes coming and seeing for yourself.
“Come home; it’s so different and free here, you actually feel appreciated for who you are. Africa is opening its arms, in Ghana for example, they are doing ‘A year of return’ you can see there is a real sense of yearning. If Americans or people abroad are not willing to see us for who we are, see what we bring then, let’s just leave and come where we started. Let’s come rebuild Africa that was and still is great.
Before they moved to Rwanda, the two were associate pastors at a church in Boston called Destiny Life Centre International.
Their faith is a big part of their lives. “Jesus means everything to us and we wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for Him. Everything we have gone through has led us up to this moment,” Vanessa says.
“Just like my wife said, it’s been all about our faith and God guiding us. Our faith is what grounds us and we would like to say that our school is grounded, authentic and evolving coming from Christian principles. We don’t exclude non-Christians though, everyone is welcome,” Ekwelum adds.