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Rwanda a different nation for professor, family

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DETROIT — Dan Clay has organized a combined business trip and family reunion in an unlikely place for most people but one with special meaning for them: They're gathering in Rwanda, the African nation his wife and three children last saw while being whisked away by a military escort.

The Michigan State University professor has regularly returned to the country besieged by war and genocide in 1994, but this is the first time his entire family has been back since that hasty, harrowing exit. Their visit coincides with the 20th anniversary of the slaughter of more than 500,000 people.

Returning often has allowed him to see the progress but he knows his family — some of whom are following in his internationally-focused footsteps — will see the stark differences, particularly the improvements for farmers.

"It was almost like starting over — now, you can hardly imagine," said Clay, an agriculture specialist who helped develop Rwanda's specialty coffee industry and promote sustainable and secure farming practices, told The Associated Press before leaving. He said the efforts are opening up farming networks to global markets that help people and their recovering country.

Clay, who left the East Lansing campus March 8 for Africa and returns before the official commemoration begins April 7, is attending a regional coffee conference this week in the capital city of Kigali that explores the role of research and extension in boosting coffee quality. Afterward, he will be joined by his family for about 10 days.

"We have such fond memories and think back on wonderful times there, even though it ended in very sad ways," he said. "Even though I've been back there so many times over the past 20 years, it's one of those anniversary dates that isn't something you can skim over or forget."

Clay said in an email Thursday that there's great anticipation in the nation for the commemoration known as "Kwibuka20," referring to the word for "remember" in Rwanda's Kinyarwanda language.

"It is about finding solace, honoring the victims, showing solidarity with the survivors and reaffirming the country's commitment to 'never again,'" he said. "While there is much happening at a public level, I think for many it is a time for quiet reflection. Maybe that is because it's hard to even think about it without feeling overwhelmed with emotion."

Clay had been in the country for two years directing a food security project, when he heard a deafening explosion on April 6, 1994. It was the sound of an exploding plane carrying the African nation's former president and the harbinger of the genocide of minority Tutsis and moderate members of the Hutu majority by Hutu extremists.

He said he'd been evacuated before and experienced gunfire during periods of unrest on a solo visit, but this was far more frightening and compounded by the stress of caring for his young family.

"You're afraid for your children and your spouse," he said. "And of course in 1994 ... it lasted a long time and it was terrifying. The gunfire, uncertainty, mortar fire, not knowing what was going to happen."

After a few days doing "whatever we could to keep sane and safe," Clay said, he, his wife and elementary school-aged children were evacuated by Rwandan military to neighboring Burundi, where U.S. Marines met them and they were flown out.

Many stayed away after the 100-day slaughter, but Clay resumed his work in the country within two years to rebuild his programs. He said everything, including agriculture, had "shut down."

Clay and his colleagues saw an opportunity for better java in the nation, which produced only mid-grade coffee. They saw that Rwandans could increase the value of — and profits from — their product by improving methods for harvesting and processing.

Working with the National University of Rwanda and Texas A&M University, Clay established the Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages, known as PEARL. Local producers expressed the need for coffee bean washing stations, so project members built them and trained people to taste-test the coffee.

"As we developed that sector, we worked with one community and got that going. Neighbors looked on and said, 'We can do that, too,'" he said. "Now, I think the number is close to 180 and each one serves anywhere between 300 and 1,000 or more families."

While continuing to support Rwanda's gourmet coffee that's now distributed globally, Clay said he also works with other fruit and vegetable growers and helps them develop cooperatives to boost their knowledge, buying power and access to markets. Exports promote economic and social stability because "significant revenues come back to farmers and the country overall," he said.

"You've got so many ... who never seriously compete in global markets," he said. "The only way they can do that is collectively."

Big changes also have come to Clay's family in the two decades since they were last together in Rwanda. One son is doing his doctoral dissertation in Rwanda on land laws and their impact on food security and the environment, and a daughter is spending six weeks in the country on an internship. All that left to get on board was his wife and older daughter, who "didn't want to miss out on the fun," he said.

"I think they're just going to be stunned by the level of development and growth, and the things that have been achieved," he said.

Follow Jeff Karoub at https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub