Central Africa: Alison Des Forges - The Epitome of Courage

17 February 2009
guest column

Scholar and human rights activist Alison Des Forges, best known for her work on Central Africa and in particular her fearless advocacy of human rights in Rwanda, was killed in an air crash in Buffalo, New York, on February 12. David Newbury pays tribute in an AllAfrica guest column.

No outside observer of contemporary events in Central Africa combined the breadth of Alison's knowledge with such clear analysis, such a depth of historical understanding, and such heart: she was the epitome of courage, fighting her own medical challenges but never backing down.

She was absolutely outspoken on issues of human rights - but in a totally unideological fashion; she was proof that one can draw strong conclusions from a careful and full consideration of the data.

No one combined Alison's razor-sharp mind, with such a breadth of contemporary knowledge and depth of historical understanding in which to situate those data. And she was fearless in saying the things that no one else could say with the same authority and respect for the record. She shied away from all ideologies, arriving at strong conclusions on the basis of a careful but sure assessment of the record.

That empirical and analytical depth is part of what made her commentary so powerful; she didn't need a powerful voice to have a powerful voice. Among outside observers, there is no equivalent to Alison for Central Africa in the combination of skills, knowledge, courage and humanity that so defined her - as all those who knew her, even those who disagreed with her, can attest.

Some of the elements that made her so important include her grace, her courtesy and her sincerity in her engagement with others. She has been a mentor to many scholars and colleagues; but beyond that, she has been enormously generous with her time, her knowledge, and her resources to many Rwandans since the genocide. And in many ways she's helped us all - Central Africans and outsiders - through some exceedingly difficult times.

Sometimes little things matter hugely; this is one of those moments. We've all been graced to have known such an extraordinary person. We will miss her terribly; indeed we already do.

For us, she was also a cherished friend, a valued colleague, a gracious mentor, and an inspirational model. We struggle to comprehend the depth of our (collective and personal) loss.

David Newbury, Gwendolen Carter Professor of African Studies at Smith College, has written extensively on the historical dynamics of Central and East Africa. He and his wife Catharine Newbury, Professor of Government at Smith College, were long-time colleagues and friends with Alison Des Forges.

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