Conference trips are a wonderful opportunity for reflection. They take you out of the daily grind, temporarily break you free of meetings, deadlines, deliverables, emails. Travel and transit give you time and space, moments where all you can do is sit still and allow yourself to be transported from one place to another. Looking down at the Earth’s surface from 40,000 feet, watching the drama and collision of landscape and humanity from a distance, rekindles your sense of perspective. And arriving in an unfamiliar place where differences in food, clothes, language and cultural norms, even if only subtle, all help to burst the bubble of ordinary life.
Conferences themselves are always energising. Meeting new people, absorbing new ideas, feeling new influences, glimpsing new opportunities and challenges. Before long the mind inevitably hits overload, which then interacts with an overabundance of coffee and alcohol and a deficit of sleep to create a heightened state of consciousness where anything seems possible. If you’re fortunate, a friendly conference veteran will recognise the look in your eyes and take you out for a walk or a run to help you reset and refresh, ready for more inputs.
The last two and a half years have been difficult. Securities I had taken for granted for more than a decade cracked and crumbled. Both at work and at home I hit a series of unfamiliar challenges which often felt insurmountable simply because I was at sea in uncharted waters with no compass or reference points for navigation. And everywhere I turn it seems like people I know are in a similar boat, fighting to weather their own storm, struggling to cope with extreme winds and irregular waves from multiple directions.
The Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA) conference in September 2022 was my first conference after the pandemic. Held in Kigali, Rwanda, it brought everything I could ask for in a conference and more. Over and above the usual conference experience, there was a marvellous sense of reunion, of seeing friends again for the first time in 3 or more years. And the spirit of the conference is so strong, everyone shares a common purpose and is ready to celebrate each others’ achievements. Mix in a generous portion of African hospitality, colour, music and fun, and you’re there.
Outside of the conference, two other experiences left their mark.
The first was an invitation to a fund-raising dinner at Maison Shalom, a charity supporting Burundian refugees. My ignorance of history and culture knows no bounds, and I knew next to nothing about the number of Burundian refugees currently in Rwanda. I got to visit the site of a new school being built for refugee children, and hear the story of strength and determination that forged the charity out of unimaginable sorrow. All of us in attendance had been invited by a Burundian colleague with a personal connection to the charity, and with characteristic humility and humour he shared his story with us and made us all feel connected.
The second was a visit to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I tried not to lose myself in the horror but learn as much as I could about the circumstances that led to the genocide. Afterwards I picked up a copy of “Shaking Hands with the Devil”, an account of the genocide written by the commander of the UN peacekeeping force deployed in Rwanda at the time. Both the memorial and the book confront you with the brutal reality of what as people we are capable of, but also of where our values as an international community truly are. I think this blew away the remaining cobwebs of idealism still lingering from my youth.
But the visit to the memorial also gave me a gift, and that gift was a word: ubumuntu. Ubumuntu is a Kinyarwandan word translating roughly as “kindness”, “generosity” or “greatness of heart”. It is the word chosen to name a programme of education to promote peace in Rwanda following the genocide. It is also the name chosen for a documentary about people who risked their lives to save others during the genocide. Ubumuntu is called “ubuntu” in some other African languages, and I knew this word already of course because it is the name of the operating system on my computer. I had a superficial sense of what ubuntu meant before, but as ubumuntu it now has a deeper meaning.
Returning home, I was of course delighted to see my family again, but also confronted with the reality that life’s challenges had only been put on pause, and had been patiently waiting for my return. But the experience of Kigali stays with me, and gives me resolve to perhaps step outside the safety of the familiar, to be a little bolder. And whatever comes next, whatever new waters I find myself in or venture into, I feel like there is a light there to guide me.