Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles Independence Day Speech, July 8, 2016

U.S. Independence Day
Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles – U.S. Independence Day

Permanent Secretary, Ambassador Janine Kambanda– thank you for joining us this evening to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America.  Thank you also to all the other members of the Rwandan government in attendance tonight:

  • Minister of Trade and Industry, Francois Kanimba
  • Minister of State in the Ministry of Health, Patrick Ndimubanzi

Thank you for taking time from your very busy schedules to be with us this evening.

I also want to thank Brigadier General Ferdinand Safari, Chief J5, and Brigadier General Chris Murari for joining us this evening.

Members of Parliament, Permanent Secretaries, other colleagues from the Government of Rwanda, leaders in civil society, business, education, health, media and technology and all the distinguished guests who are here this evening, thank you for coming.  And now, to use my favorite Rwandan phrase:  “All Protocol Observed.”

On behalf of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry – and on behalf of my fellow citizens and the people of the United States of America – we thank you for your partnership and your friendship, and for celebrating America’s Independence Day with us tonight.  Welcome to the Embassy of the United States.

In the United States, July 4th is an important date, symbolic of our Independence – as it is the day on which Americans announced that “we the people” would no longer be ruled by a colonial power, but would stand up for our own values and make our own decisions about our future.  July 4th also holds a very important significance to Rwandans, being the anniversary of your country’s liberation.  Our shared anniversary is embodied in our shared values:  that all human beings are created equal – regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or national origin – that through hard work and a sense of shared purpose we can bend the arch of history and of justice.

The strength of our partnership, and the vision we share with the Rwandan people to build a better future for all of our children in a shared world of responsibility and opportunity, springs from these values.

Together we have accomplished much of which we can be proud.  The United States is very proud to be Rwanda’s largest bilateral development partner – with over $175 million (or nearly 123 Billion RWF) – in programs just this year to ensure a good education, health, economic development, and opportunity for all Rwandans.  And we are working together on increasing regional energy integration, entrepreneurship, and economic growth.  For over a decade, we have successfully partnered with the Rwandan Defense Forces to support Rwanda’s significant commitment to global peacekeeping efforts.  On the health front, CDC and USAID are committed to helping Rwanda to strengthen its capacity to detect and respond to major public health threats.

This event is a gathering of Rwandan and international friends who share our commitment of building a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Rwanda.  We are all partners in this endeavor, each of us sharing in the responsibility to ensure that the horrors of the genocide never return to this country, and generations of young people here will grow up in a land of opportunity – a Rwanda that looks towards a brighter future.  Tonight is a celebration for us all.

And we would not have a celebration were it not for the American companies who through their generous support have made tonight’s event possible.

  • Sorwathe Tea
  • Culligan
  • Kate Spade & Company
  • Bboxx
  • Land O’Lakes Inc.
  • Western Union

Thank you for your support tonight, and even more importantly, thank you for the hard work you do every day in creating jobs, developing the economy, and bringing quality American goods, services, and equipment to Rwanda!   We are very proud of the role you are playing in developing Rwanda’s future.

I am also very fortunate to be serving in Rwanda, surrounded by so many talented and dedicated people at the U.S. Embassy, Kigali.  The Embassy community is large and diverse, representing the absolute best of America and Rwanda.  Here we work as one team, a symbol of the partnership we enjoy with all of Rwanda.  I am proud of my team, and our tireless efforts to build a better future for both of our countries.

Joining us tonight as well is the United States Air Forces in Europe Jazz Band.  We are truly honored that you have made the trip all the way from Germany to help us celebrate tonight.  This year, the theme of our celebration is American music, and nothing helps tell the story of the American experience better than a rock’n jazz band.  Thanks to you, this evening is a true celebration.

Music reveals the soul of a nation.  That is why, on this night as we celebrate our Independence Day we have chosen to highlight the diversity of music in the United States.

I hope that you have the opportunity to look at the banners on display representing a small fraction of the best of American music.  These banners reveal the soul of American music – our music is as diverse, creative, inventive, experimental, and energetic as our people.  The United States has developed countless musical forms – from musicals on Broadway to country in Nashville, from rock and roll to the urban beats of hip-hop, from the jazz and blues that came out of New Orleans and spread to Harlem and the world, to the infectious and danceable pop of more recent decades.   Our music manifests the soul of our nation and the way we worship and celebrate – from gospel in our churches, to marching bands in local parades, to the diverse rhythms of salsa and Latin beats in community halls – our music comes in different languages, different tempos, different melodies, and different beats – and each, like the diverse Americans who play them, re-invent them, and dance to them are absolutely, completely and joyously American.

The musicians of America have played a crucial role not only in our celebrations but in reminding our nation of our common purpose, and the responsibility each one of us shares as citizens of the United States – a responsibility to help improve the lives of all of our fellow citizens.  President Obama recently said that “our music has always been an honest reflection of who we really are – a reflection of our successes and our shortcomings; of our diversity, our imagination, our restlessness; of our stubborn insistence on blending the old with the new, tradition with experimentation.”

What makes each of these diverse types of music distinctly American is simple — each song is a result of our own experience, in our own land, influenced by wave after wave of new immigrants from all over the world.  Each new wave has added its own story, and somewhere along the way helps to create a unique American identity.

Music also has a special way of forcing us, as a society, to talk about difficult issues we don’t want to face.  Music asks us bluntly – what are the problems within our community we need to solve?

This was the case of a famous song “Strange Fruit” sung by jazz legend Billie Holliday.  It spoke to the inhumanity of racism, and the violence and prejudice to which the African American community was subjected when she recorded it in 1939.  The song – her bestselling recording ever – spoke out against lynching – the hanging of innocent people because of the color of their skin.  The song reminded all Americans of the unfinished business of creating a more equal union and the work that needed to done to drive out prejudice and racism – a fight that  while far advanced from those days still continues to this day … as has been sadly demonstrated in the headlines this week.

A distinctly American music – jazz – is rooted in the freedom struggles of slaves.   For over two hundred years, people – mostly slaves and former slaves – gathered in New Orleans’ aptly named Congo square, to buy and sell goods and to make music.  Even today, jazz music is marked by the ‘call and response’ of slaves singing back and forth while working the fields.  This struggle for freedom was also found in the music that accompanied and guided those fleeing the south during the civil war through the Underground Railroad, where gospel songs sung in churches and as people worked in the fields were coded to contain instructions and maps that showed the way to freedom.

That is the American story and the story of our music.  We do not always get it right, but we always use the tools we have to invent new ways to fix wrongs, and work to make improvements.   Be it the protest of music of the Vietnam War era led by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and others – or the way hip hop has provided urban youth with a new means to express their frustrations and pursue their dreams…our music tells the story how throughout our history, individuals have stood up; and continue to stand tall against injustice, racism, and inequality.

America’s democracy is messy – as many of you know from watching our current election campaign – we tend to “let it all hang out” for the public and the world to see.  But that same messiness is also our country’s great strength, for it means transparency and the ability of any reporter and any citizen to demand answers to tough questions, to sing about things they think are wrong, and to call out when politicians are not acting in the citizens’ best interest.  The messiness is in fact critical to the success of our democracy, our ability to correct mistakes, and to constantly reinvent ourselves and our country.

Throughout our history, we have strived to live up to the words of our Constitution, to create “a more perfect union” – extending rights to everyone in our society – from abolishing slavery, to extending voting rights for all men regardless of race, to granting voting rights for women, to the more recent extension of the right to marriage for all including the LGBTI community – we continue to strive to be a more perfect union.

In the United States, we are not yet finished building our country.  There are still wrongs we must right.  Often, when other means seem to fail us, we find our voice in our music.  We find strength in our experience and inspiration in our music to fight injustice and seek to bring peace and prosperity around the world.

Thank you all again for joining with us tonight in this celebration.  I hope that as you enjoy the evening, you will take a moment to pause, listen to the joy, the celebration, the wonder, and the call to action in some of the music here, and think about what we can do in partnership to build a better future for both our countries.

Thank you.

And now I would like to propose a toast.  Please raise your glass with me in celebration of the 240th anniversary of American Independence.  We celebrate in the company of our Rwandan friends and partners, with whom we strive to build a prosperous, free and peaceful future for both our countries.  Let us remember the lesson we have learned from our musical heritage – that no matter what language we speak, what color our skin, our gender, the form of our politics, or the way we choose to express our love or our faith – we are all humans – all sharing this planet and our futures together.  Let us strive to live in harmony and to make a beautiful future – and beautiful music – together.  Cheers.

I am now honored to invite my friend and colleague, Ambassador Janine Kambanda, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Relations, to the podium to say a few words.