From Tampa To Rwanda With Love: School Rises From Ruins

Upon graduating from one of the most prestigious colleges in the nation, a more typical young person might travel abroad, see the sights, have some fun. Or, if she's a bright rising star from Tampa determined to follow her heart, she could move to Rwanda and open a school for young women who survived the horrors of that nation's genocide.

Meet Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, 26, the cofounder of Akilah Institute, a school that opened earlier this year in Rwanda after three years in the making.

To understand how far she's come and where she's going, consider that Davis fits right in to the surroundings during an interview with 83 Degrees at the Hyde Park Starbucks. Raised in Tampa, the articulate Vanderbilt University alumni is graced with classic beauty, a lovely, ready smile and an articulate vocabulary. Born into privilege, Davis was in town this summer to visit and to work for her cause.

The young Davis,  following a lengthy family tradition of service (her great-grandfather, Cody Fowler, was a highly respected lawyer; her uncle, Jim Davis, served in Congress), is wrapped up in the accreditation process for the school, organization of a sustainable farming operation for students and fund-raising that often involves interviews with members of the media.

Though she continues to enjoy many ties to the Greater Tampa Bay community, she lives, works, plays and dreams as a part of the Rwandan culture.

It began when as a freshman at Vanderbilt, she read a story in The Economist about Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, who masterminded the Rwandan genocide. Horrified, she read about neighbors who picked up machetes and murdered fellow townspeople.

"I put the article on my bulletin board, because it reminded me of the human capacity for evil. I haven't been able to wrap my mind around the devastation," she said. "Women raped, small children thrown against the wall." She learned more about the massacre, and the struggles survivors faced years later.

Davis couldn't get over it. "How could something like this happen, and I had never even heard of it?" Her own questions haunted her.

The future she might have had vanished at that moment, and was replaced by a passion for humanitarianism. What made her decide to devote her life to helping genocide survivors? "How could I not do something?" she replies. Davis says she far prefers to talk about the students she's helping and why -- it's not about her.

The only way to learn that she received the Woman of Peace award from the Women's Peacepower Foundation in 2009, for example, is to find the information on the Akilah website.

During a fundraiser at a Tampa woman's home this summer, Davis showed computerized images of Rwanda, genocide depictions, and spieled off statistics and tales of horror.

Raising Awareness = Raising Funds

"I tell you stories not for the shock value, but to paint the portrait," she told the women, who perched on upholstered furniture in the beautifully decorated home of Malanie Knight. As they clutched glasses of wine, Davis told them about the young women who somehow maintain upbeat attitudes despite the horrific events in the past.

She must tell the stories, even though they are not pretty. The school needs donations to operate, and those donations can give these young women new lives.

The young women now at Akilah struggled to stay alive during the 1994 genocide, when more than 1 million people were slaughtered. Those who did not die were left to scrape lives together in the wake of the deaths, which left a country saturated with orphans, dismembered people, broken hearts, shattered minds and bleak futures.

"Some 70 percent of the country was female when the genocide ended," she said. "And those women are widows, mothers, caretakers. About 80 percent of them work in agriculture."

Davis established Akilah Institute for Women as a nonprofit in 2007, and the doors opened to the first class of 50 women ages 18 to 25 in February. With full scholarships, the women finished their first semester of classes on leadership and ethics, health and nutrition, English and hospitality.

The vision of the two-year college is to provide the women with the tools they need to rebuild their lives. The word Akilah comes from the Swahili and Arabic words for "wisdom." Davis has a very crisp and well considered plan. The government in Rwanda has donated an old school for future expansion, and the skills the girls learn are marketable -- hospitality has taken off and the courses will enable them to make a comparatively good living.

In September and October, two of the students, Anita Umutoni and Giselle Bahati, will be in the U.S. to tour with Davis and tell their stories. It is hoped that hearing what the school has done for their lives will open hearts -- and wallets -- for scholarships.

A full, $3,000 scholarship covers tuition, lunch (often their only meal), transportation, extracurricular activites and textbooks. Completion of the curriculum will launch them into promising careers that help them earn at least 10 times more than their current incomes. Most of that income is spent on family support.

The U.S. tour includes a stop in Tampa on Sept. 30, when a fundraiser will be held at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. with a VIP cocktail party ($125 per ticket) in Morsani Hall followed by a Metropolitan Safari from 7 to 10 p.m. ($75 per ticket.) Entertainment will be provided by Drum Cafe Florida.

Davis envisions support from donors will help hundreds of young women to attend Akilah in years to come. "I have genocide dreams," she says. "I wake up and my body is tense, and my heart is racing, and for just one minute, I get a tiny little glimpse of what these women have been through."

Supporting Their Daughter's Vision

Elizabeth Davis' Vanderbilt-educated parents, attorney Cody Davis and his wife, Beth, have adjusted to their daughter's career path. Beth Davis, who works as a full-time Akilah volunteer, says they have normal parental concerns, but they applaud what she is doing.

 "I have always encouraged my girls to think and learn globally," she says. "So when Elizabeth wanted to do an international travel trip the summer of her junior year, I told her that she could go, as long as it was a volunteer trip.

"That trip made such an impact on her, and the ways she wanted to engage the world around her. She had always expressed an interest in Africa, but it was that article she read about Rwanda that determined her course of action. I don't remember being particularly nervous about her going. I remember being excited for her. Her father was another story altogether.  He was worried, and not exactly thrilled by the idea. But he knew her passion for the issues and so pulled behind her to make it all happen.''

Supporting their daughter's dream has taken "letting go" to a whole new level, she says. "Yes, there have been scary moments -- she's so far away and beyond our help if she needs us. But we wanted our girls to spread their wings and explore the larger world beyond Tampa, beyond the U.S." 

Elizabeth Davis said she wants to see the school operate at a full capacity of 800 students within six years. She has a meticulous plan, wonderful volunteers and consultants who help with guidance and a very clear dream.

"It is so amazing to see how the girls have changed at the school," she says. "These girls have raised themselves; their whole life has been about survival. They just blossom."

For Davis, Rwanda is now home. "I am committed to this for the rest of my life," she says.

Mary Toothman is a Central Florida-based journalist who lives in Tampa Palms with a boxer and two rescue Chihuahuas. She can often be found at Starbucks or the nearby Jazzercise center, and goes nowhere without her iPhone. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Mary Toothman.

Mary Toothman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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