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The Road to Rwanda

Erica Barks-Ruggles ’89 takes on diplomatic challenges in sub-Saharan Africa

The perpetually troubled sub-Saharan country of Burundi was in political chaos yet again this spring. By mid-May, more than 25,000 refugees had surged over the border, into Rwanda. 

In the thick of it was U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda Erica Barks-Ruggles ’89. The new, large refugee camp she visited was then receiving a daily influx of 3,000 Burundians. “Most were severely malnourished,” she says. “They’d been walking for days, and all they had were the clothes on their backs and what they could carry on their heads.”

Working closely with the Rwandan government, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and five American NGOs, the U.S. Department of State and USAID helped ensure their safety and provided proper shelter, food, clothing, sanitation, and medical care, Barks-Ruggles explains.

“The U.S. in the first few weeks contributed $10.7 million to help on the Rwandan side of the border,” she says. “I say thank you to the American taxpayers who enable us to do these things so people can be safe, healthy, and live a dignified existence until their country is stable, and they are able to return.”

Visiting a refugee camp is not unusual for Barks-Ruggles, who began her three-year tour of duty as President Obama’s personal representative to Rwanda in January. On another day, Barks-Ruggles, who leads a staff of 95 Americans and 200 Rwandans, might attend four meetings and a dinner.

Her ambassadorship is the culmination of 23 years as a career foreign-service officer. Past posts include South Africa, India, and Norway.

Living in a nation where 11 million people are packed into a space the size of Maryland can be a bit disconcerting for a woman from rural Minnesota who was an honors major in marine biology, English literature minor, and varsity swimmer at Swarthmore. “Now I’m never not in sight of people,” she says.

Joining Barks-Ruggles in the embassy in Kigali is her “diplodog”—a Labrador retriever she adopted from a Virginia animal rescue—and her husband Taylor Ruggles, a foreign-service officer working to increase clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

The couple first encountered Africa in 1991, when they backpacked across the continent. “Africa is a place where people are so enormously generous, even though they have so little,” she says. “We realized then that we were entitled Americans—we had won the lottery—and asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to give back? We’re going to do something that matters more than just earning money.’ ”

While the challenges in Rwanda remain daunting, including malaria, malnutrition, and HIV/AIDS, the country has worked to rebuild following the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 to 1 million people. Part of the ambassador’s role is to bring in American business partners to spur development. 

One recent partner is the American water-treatment company Culligan, which “signed a multimillion-dollar deal to provide clean water to the people of Kigali at a good price,” she says. It’s a “big win” not only for the Rwandans employed by Culligan but American engineers who receive contracts and orders from Rwanda, creating jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Barks-Ruggles, who is only the second American woman ambassador to Rwanda, proudly remarks that the country has “the highest representation of women in its parliament in the world.”

Being a woman leader in a traditionally patriarchal country has turned out to be a surprising advantage for her. “Women will open up to me in a way that they won’t with men,” Barks-Ruggles notes. “This expands my ability to do diplomacy and meet a greater number of people.”