John Dodge: Olympia-based group has been a world teacher for the past 30 years

jdodge@theolympian.comJanuary 19, 2014 

It’s a little-known fact that for the past 30 years, South Sound citizens with an abiding interest in global affairs have had a place to go each month to learn about politics, cultures and economies across the world.

The Olympia World Affairs Council, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, provides the monthly forum, inviting expert speakers on international issues and events to share their insights with a curious public.

The Olympia-based group is one of nearly 100 councils around the country that function independently but under the umbrella of the World Affairs Council of America, which has been dedicated since 1918 to the mission of engaging and educating the American public on global issues.

The founding members saw the council as a way to combat an isolationist foreign policy embraced by many Americans at the end of World War I. The world stage of the early 20th century stands in sharp contrast to that of the early 21st century, when technology and a global economy link us all like never before.

The free public meetings of the Olympia World Affairs Council take place at 7:30 p.m. the third Thursday of the month, September through May, at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia.

About 75 council members and nonmembers gathered last week to hear Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela share some of her experiences from a trip last June to Rwanda, with a 21-member delegation organized by the Seattle-based Center for Women and Democracy.

Valenzuela painted a picture of a hilly, landlocked country in southeast Africa still healing from 100 days of government-backed genocide in 1994 that claimed the lives of up to 1 million people, mostly minority Tutsis killed by the majority Hutus.

Reminders of the horrific, not-too-distant past are everywhere. They include bullet holes in the side of the parliament building in the national capital city of Kigali, a grim symbol of the fierce battle waged between the national army and Gen. Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, which brought an end to the worst of the genocide.

Today, women make up 64 percent of the members of parliament, which is the highest percent of women in any governing body in the world, noted Beth Doglio, one of four Olympia women who were part of the June delegation. This African nation of 12 million has seen the wisdom of empowering women.

At the same time, it would be a stretch to call Rwanda a true democracy. Free speech and a free press are not allowed. There is no viable opposition to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and the 2013 parliament elections tightened Kagame’s rule as president. The country’s constitution as written would not allow Kagame to seek a third term, but the new parliament is expected to change that.

“A lot of political questions remain,” Valenzuela said. “Is the president Rwanda’s savior or someone who will never leave office?

In a trip with many highlights, Valenzuela’s encounter with a family of gorillas in the mountainous country of Volcanoes National Park stood out. The former archaeology student at the University of California at Berkeley paid $500 for the four-hour guided park trek. But she says it was money well spent: The funds raised by the Rwanda National Park Service are used to preserve and protect gorilla habitat and their imperiled numbers — a highly endangered 800.

One final note from Rwanda that caught the fancy of the environmentally conscious commissioner: Rwanda has a national ban on plastic bags.

For more information on the Olympia World Affairs Council, go to The group always is looking for new members.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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