TAMPA — Elizabeth Davis turned from appalled to activist, after reading a magazine article seven years ago about the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
"One million killed in 100 days. Two million displaced, and I knew nothing about it," said Davis. "And I thought I was a worldly person."
A freshman at Vanderbilt University at the time, she ripped out the picture of the mastermind behind the mass murders that occurred years earlier, in 1994. She knew then she would one day live and work in Rwanda.
Davis researched the small African nation and amassed a library on genocide. She found a Rwandan professor to teach her to speak Kinyarwanda and connected with Rwandans living in Nashville. She interned one summer with Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., and wrote her senior thesis on the Hutu-led government responsible for the Tutsi massacre.
The desire to help survivors of the ethnic slaughter plucked the blonde Tri-Delta sorority sister from her privileged South Tampa upbringing: yacht club swim team, summer camp in North Carolina, cheerleader at Berkeley Preparatory School. Fowler Avenue is named after her great-great grandmother Maud Fowler. Her great-grandfather, Cody Fowler, founded the Fowler White law firm in 1943 (Fowler White Boggs).
Now at 24, she's the executive director of the Akilah Institute for Women, a school that she founded in Rwanda to provide hospitality career training. Landlocked Rwanda is the size of Maryland and, with nearly 10 million residents, Africa's most densely populated country.
Davis first flew to Africa in 2006 with an international youth delegation, three days after graduating with a degree in international development and political science. The delegation left after a month; Davis stayed.
"These kids can pick a lot of lifestyles," Cody Davis said of the eldest of his four daughters. "This is where she's happy."
She moved into a church guest house and organized sports at an orphanage to help children who lost parents to AIDS, malaria and genocide. Today, officially there are no Hutu or Tutsi, only Rwandans.
Rice, beans and bananas were the daily fare. Starbucks was a mirage; air conditioning virtually unknown. Hot showers? A distant memory.
"People kept telling me I was fat,'' she said. It took awhile to realize what a compliment that was.
"Fat implied well-fed and that was beautiful."
Last week, Davis returned to Tampa to talk about Rwanda's greatest need — an educated work force — and to enlist help opening Project Akilah to teach women trades helpful in the tourism industry.
"Teaching girls market-relevant skills is the wisest investment so they could take care of their families," said Davis. Tourism is the nation's fastest growing industry, especially to national parks, home to mountain gorillas and where primatologist Dian Fossey wrote Gorillas in the Mist.
Nearly 300 supporters turned up that rainy night to see a video of an abandoned 85-acre campus offered to Davis by the mayor of Bugesera. That's where 50 to 70 women will begin classes in spring 2010, with enrollment projected to 500 students within six years.
"She has a passion, a purpose and a plan,'' said her uncle, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, introducing her at the Lime restaurant in Hyde Park on May 21. The owners donated $5,000 to build the school a kitchen.
"She never gives up," said Beth Davis, who is her daughter's unpaid secretary and has visited her in Rwanda.
Project Akilah needs $1 million for renovations, salaries, scholarships and operating costs for the first year.
That night, 300 people donated more than $30,000.
Berkeley Prep classmate Amanda Pittarelli, who has a degree in hospitality management from Cornell University, left a job in Sudan to help with operations. She will enlist a Rwandan advisory board to tailor the curriculum to an African context.
Davis visited the minister of education to ask about accreditation requirements.
"He told me there were none,'' she said. "This will be the first training program of its kind in the country."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.