By SUSAN MENDE
A Canton native now serving as the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda described Monday how the small African country has rebounded since a 1994 genocide, during which nearly a million residents were murdered.
Peter H. Vrooman, 53, was joined by his mother Sally Vrooman, Canton, during the luncheon meeting of the Canton Rotary Club at the Best Western University Inn.
“I try to encourage people to visit Rwanda. It’s a very safe country,” Mr. Vrooman said. “It’s a place you can get to; it’s fairly well-served and connected with airports. It’s just a long way to go.”
In March 2018, Mr. Vrooman started a three-year term as ambassador to the Republic of Rwanda, working at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, the country’s capital. He resides in the country with his wife and two children.
Rwanda is a small country near the equator in central/eastern Africa. It’s bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east and Burundi to the south.
From 1990 to 1994, the country saw civil war and genocide.
Although reconciliation programs continue, Mr. Vrooman said the country has made great strides economically and politically during the past two decades.
As ambassador, he oversees projects related to four main areas. Those include preventing the spread of Ebola disease into the country, improving education and literacy, creating mutually beneficial trade opportunities, and human rights and democracy.
In regards to business opportunities, he said Rwanda is similar to Northern New York.
“It may seem odd, but in many respects there’s a lot of similarities between this part of the world and Rwanda, in terms of geography and in terms of professions. There’s dairy farming. There’s poultry farming,” Mr. Vrooman said. “Even though it’s near the equator, the altitude is about a mile high. The country is very green, the land of a thousand hills.”
He said the land is fertile and there are commercial opportunities for Americans in Rwanda, including extracting methane.
“As a country if we’re able to help Rwanda stand on its feet and become self-reliant they’re going to be better able to resist failed state status,” he said. “I’m trying to work to create an American chamber of commerce in Rwanda.”
He said Rwanda has made great strides in rooting out corruption and advancing its economy since 1994.
“To see that transformation is really amazing,” he said. “The ability for Rwanda to make progress toward reconciliation and recognize there is still work to be done is tremendous.
Mr. Vrooman has been involved in Rotary for many years and is a member of a club in Rwanda.
“Rotary was an inspiration for me to become a Foreign Service Officer,” he said. “I wanted to pay tribute to the Rotary Foundation. As my mom and others have mentioned, the Rotary Foundation really is an important institution at building the opportunities for people who might not otherwise thought of going into foreign affairs.”
Learning how to speak Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language, was a challenge Mr. Vrooman faced when he started his new position.
“It’s a big challenge for anybody over 50, which I am, to get your brain attuned to a new language with nothing familiar,” he said. “Learning the language is so critical to reaching people.”
Unlike many other African countries that have multiple languages, he said Rwanda only has one.
Thanks mainly to Americans, he said the country has greatly reduced the occurrence of AIDS and HIV in Rwanda.
As ambassador, he has regular meetings with officials from several other agencies, including the Center for Disease Control, Department of Defense and Peace Corps, to develop a set of common goals.
Mr. Vrooman earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and a master of science degree from the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
He is also the son of the late David Vrooman who was an economics professor at St. Lawrence University.