Grad student has supporters in Rwanda, Lambeau Field

top-story-rwandaHow did new UW-Green Bay graduate student Marc Minani (center) find himself hanging out with new best friends Randall Cobb, Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Mason Crosby within a week of his arrival in Green Bay?

And what got the Green Bay Packers stars to trade green-and-gold uniforms for all-black wait-staff outfits one evening earlier this fall?

Credit good fortune and good people.

Minani, 22, a native of Rwanda, arrived in Wisconsin just in time for the start of UW-Green Bay fall semester classes on Sept. 2.

His travels from east-central Africa to east-central Wisconsin had required a marathon, 26-hour day of air travel from Kigali International Airport with stops in Nigeria, Ghana, New York City and Minneapolis.

His long journey actually began, however, five years earlier with a chance interaction with an American businessman.

J.R. Schoenfeld of Green Bay was traveling with an international humanitarian group delivering food to impoverished areas of Rwanda. The local man hired to be his driver, Jean Minani, was Marc’s older brother.

Schoenfeld returned home impressed by Rwanda and its people. The words of a missionary priest who longed to have a bakery in his village — “The kids love bread, and they only get it about once a year” — inspired him to found the Seven Loaves Project. The non-profit favors sustainable solutions over short-term feeding programs and provides ovens, resources and training to struggling communities.

Schoenfeld hired his former driver, Jean, to be the Seven Loaves point person in Rwanda. Along the way, he also got to know younger brother Marc, a personable, polite but driven young man who had earned a government-sponsored academic scholarship to the National University of Rwanda.

Marc’s goal was to add to his bachelor’s in agricultural economics and agribusiness with advanced education abroad. His dream, he says, is to return an expert in best practices for maximizing crop productivity in his hilly homeland while preserving the land for future generations.

“I want to pick a thesis topic that will fit the needs of my country,” Minani says.

Schoenfeld, seeing a fit with Seven Loaves, agreed to sponsor and raise money for his studies. When Minani surfed the internet and discovered the university in his friend’s hometown had top-flight programs in environmental studies, his college search was over.

Today, Minani is pursuing his UW-Green Bay master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy. He works closely with Profs. John Stoll and Kevin Fermanich. He lives in Roy Downham Hall on campus and loves Green Bay, the community he’ll call home the next two years.

“The people are very friendly… professors, students, everybody… and everything is so green here” Minani says.

Language is no barrier. Although he spoke French every day as a youth and during his preparatory studies in Rwanda, the primary language of instruction at the university was English. As for the weather, he knows he’s going to need warmer clothes than those he brought from equatorial Rwanda, where it’s rarely below 60°F.

Of course, any challenges in America will likely trifle in comparison to the human devastation that racked Rwanda in 1994. It is estimated nearly half the country’s residents were either forced to flee (two million) or slaughtered (nearly one million) as a result of government-incited ethnic violence.

Minani was 3 years old. Along with his brother he has three sisters who survived. The genocide and its aftermath are not easily spoken of, but it’s clear that remembrance and reconciliation are top of mind, as they are to all Rwandans. He speaks hopefully of healing, and a “new Rwanda.”

The current government, he says, has made a good start. “People look at themselves not as a Hutu or a Tutsi, but first as Rwandan citizens. People are intermarrying.”

If some of those hopes rest on a younger, better-educated generation including the slender shoulders of Minani, he’s eager to do his part. He’s also made some influential friends in Packers Country.

story-rogers-marc-2Schoenfeld, the owner-chef of the highly rated Chives Restaurant in Suamico, formerly ran the food service at Lambeau Field. Between his restaurants, private parties, catering and now the Seven Loaves Project, he’s developed friendships with prominent Green Bay Packers including Coach Mike McCarthy and NFL MVP quarterback Rodgers.

Schoenfeld organized a tuition benefit for Minani at Chives on Sept. 8, which for the players happened to be an open Monday night after a Thursday game. Delighted restaurant customers paid and tipped generously. To help Marc, Rodgers — No. 12 himself — volunteered as host. McCarthy was bartender. Nelson, Cobb, Crosby, A.J. Hawk and spouses served as waiters.

Yet, the star was Minani, the center of attention with players and diners wishing him well.

“It was overwhelming, all the people asking me how I liked Green Bay, telling me they supported me,” Minani says.

Until a few years ago, Minani — a fan of international soccer, like most in Africa — didn’t know American football existed. It was only when older brother Jean made a training trip to spend time with Schoenfeld and learn the Seven Loaves model that he heard it described.

Jean had returned from the United States with a keepsake, an odd, oblong leather ball signed by some of J.R.’s friends in a sports league called the NFL.

story-rogers-marcOn one of his first nights in Green Bay in late August, Marc caught part of a Packers exhibition game on TV. He heard announcers talking about No. 12 as perhaps America’s most famous player and his teammates as very talented individuals, as well.

It wasn’t until the night about 10 days later at Chives, however, that he saw for himself just how “big” Packer players were in his new community.

“The people coming for dinner entered the door and they just…. they…”

At this point in telling the story Minani mimics the absolute hero worship of wide eyes, astonishment, awe and absolute joy of practically every customer in being greeted by the Packers.

“At that point, I got the idea that, ‘Oh, these guys are very, very popular and very, very famous.’

“And the players… they all wished me good luck in school and my work. They are very nice guys. I would say, ‘cool.’”

Photos copyright: Brad Thalmann, Harle Photography