Luther Alumni Magazine

From refugee to human rights leader

Cynthia Kamikazi '05 is chief for partnerships and resource mobilization within the Gender, Women, and Civil Society Department at the African Development Bank.
Cynthia Kamikazi '05 is chief for partnerships and resource mobilization within the Gender, Women, and Civil Society Department at the African Development Bank.

At 12 years old, Cynthia “Kami” Kamikazi ’05 asked, “How could this happen?” From the late 1950s through the mid-1990s, Tutsis and moderate Hutus were targeted and killed by extremist Hutus. As a result, Kami moved between Burundi and Rwanda during her early years, growing up primarily as a refugee in Burundi. In 1994, the decades-long sporadic killings that led to her displaced childhood culminated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, killing more than 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in less than 100 days.

Kami and her family returned to Rwanda in July of 1994. As they drove across the border, Kami recalls, “There were cadavers everywhere, and dogs eating them. However much my parents tried to shield us from this, there was no way of escaping the scene. The whole country smelled of death.” Nearly all of Kami's extended family who had remained in Rwanda had been killed or were missing.

The devastation caused Kami to ask how the international community, particularly the United Nations, allowed it to happen. “In that moment, at 12 years old, I thought, I must make sure to be in the UN's senior management and stop this from ever happening again,” she says.

Reaching the UN was a promise she made good on. She gained admittance to Luther despite speaking little English (it’s her fifth language) and graduated in three and a half years having studied psychology, business, and  French. She moved to the UK to earn a master’s degree in the theory and practice of human rights from the University of Essex, and soon after, she achieved her dream. She first became a human rights project coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation at the UN. From that position, she was recruited to become an advisor on human rights and development issues for the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. She describes the work she did during this time as very political, and slow to see results. “I did not see much impact,” she says. “We were defending human rights issues and passing resolutions, but beyond this, I could not see much result achieved on the ground.”

In 2010, Kami began working with Gavi, a Geneva-based global alliance for vaccine and immunization, influencing policymakers in the developing world to invest in vaccines. It was gratifying for her to see the real-world impact of her work through declining mortality rates, but, she says, “I still that I had not reached what I was called to do. I also felt far from the people I wanted to help.”

Enter the African Development Bank (AfDB), a finance institution that provides investments and grants for development projects in Africa. AfDB mainly invests in infrastructure (clean water, sanitation, energy supply, and more), agriculture, human development (health, education), jobs for youths, women's development, and good governance.

Kami now serves as chief for partnerships and resource mobilization within the Gender, Women, and Civil Society Department at AfDB. Kami and her team work toward ensuring women’s economic development by providing required support to African regional member countries, including pushing for equal rights for women and men as well as inclusive financial services for women (e.g., access to business financing, financial literacy, mentorship, and networks).

Kami joined AfDB because it is one of the leading institutions making a difference in Africa, investing in the continent and empowering Africans to realize a better future. “Sustainably addressing development challenges in Africa is key to preventing grave human tragedies like Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. This is what continues to drive me every day to make a difference, to do everything I can to make sure that no young child anywhere in the world ever has to experience the death and destruction I saw growing up.”