Photograph courtesy Natalia Ledford
Birthplace: Lincoln, Nebraska
Current City: Lincoln, Nebraska
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
From ages four to ten I wanted to be a veterinarian. From 10 to 12 I wanted to be a professional football player thanks to two pretty successful Husker football seasons. Then I gave up on that and decided that it would be pretty cool to be a fighter pilot instead. By age 14 I accepted the fact that I probably wasn't cut out for the military. Then I joined my high school newspaper staff and I have wanted to be a journalist ever since.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I became fascinated with Africa when I was a freshman in high school, and traveled there for the first time in 2009 just after my freshman year of college. I went to Rwanda with a study abroad group from my university to study the 1994 genocide and its aftermath because I wanted to see how a society rebuilds itself after such a devastating point in history. It was there that I met a lot of incredible people who were my age and had survived the genocide as young children in 1994. They inspired me to go back a year later and make a documentary about their stories, from surviving the genocide itself, to surviving the years that followed as orphans, and eventually evolving into Rwanda's newest generation of leaders.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to storytelling?
I dedicate my life to telling the stories of people who have overcome incredible odds in their own lives because their stories have the power to change the world for the better. In my upcoming documentary, my co-director and I interviewed people who essentially lost everything during a genocide that was horrible beyond anything I can comprehend. Yet, each and every one of them has still managed to rise above this tragic history and conduct their lives today with dignity and optimism for the future. And, I feel that if they could harness the right attitude to achieve everything they have in life, anybody in this world can follow the same path.
What's a normal day like for you?
When I am home in Lincoln, I usually go to my morning classes at the University of Nebraska, then head to the TV station in the afternoon to edit. When I am done with work I go home, do my homework, stay on top of emails, occasionally remember to exercise, and then find my sweatpants and lounge.
Do you have a hero?
I have several heroes, particularly those we interviewed for our documentary. Two men particularly stand out: Damas Gisimba and Carl Wilkens. It's not easy to explain what makes them heroes in just a few words, but essentially, these men had the opportunity to get out of the way when the killing started in Rwanda, but they didn't. Instead they stayed and risked their own lives to save people, including an orphanage full of children who had no one else to turn to. Now, because of their courage, 400-plus people are alive and happy today who would have otherwise died—one of which is my good friend. Two more heroes of mine are my Rwandan host parents, Claire and Noel. Claire was only 23 after the genocide and took on the responsibility of raising nine children who had lost their parents to the violence all on her own. She then married Noel in 1995 and adopted one more child after that point. Then they had five kids of their own. That kind of strength and selflessness is beyond my comprehension.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field was getting to interview the people who had risked their lives to do the right thing during and after the genocide in Rwanda. It's rare to be able to meet heroes like that and I will never forget the lessons they taught me. The most challenging experience in the field was earning peoples' trust as a journalist, whether I was requesting permission from the government to film at a specific site, or explaining to someone as an individual what our project was about. Language barriers didn't make it any easier, but luckily my co-director, Emmanuel, was a great translator. And in any case, despite the challenge, it was still a great experience to undergo that process of establishing a solid foundation of trust with the people who were brave enough to go on camera and talk about such a difficult subject.
What are your other passions?
I love to travel and learn about other cultures in general. Right now I am spending a lot of time researching other countries in Africa for future projects. I am also learning Spanish and would like to go live in a Spanish-speaking country for a while at some point.
What do you do in your free time?
During the weekends I usually go out with my friends. On weeknights if I have free time, I generally sit and watch more TV than I am proud of.
If you could have people do one thing to stop genocide, what would it be?
The children who lost their parents to the genocide in Rwanda are mostly young adults today. They don't need to be "saved." In fact, my documentary is mainly about how they saved themselves during the genocide and in the years after. But, in terms of support, nothing is more important than assuring that this community of young adults gets a university education, which is an extreme challenge to pay for in a developing country where most people are dependent on their parents until they are out on their own. For this reason I want to encourage support for organizations that provide scholarships to those who lost their parents to the genocide. Contributing to these scholarship funds, such as Generation Rwanda is a way to ensure a bright future for a very deserving person.
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In Their Words
I dedicate my life to telling the stories of people who have overcome incredible odds in their own lives because their stories have the power to change the world for the better.
Listen to Natalia Ledford
Hear an interview with Ledford on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Natalia Ledford
National Geographic Young Explorer Natalia Ledford is trying to understand how Rwandan orphans are able to forgive those who killed their families during the genocide that occurred in that country. Ledford and co-director Emmanuel Habimana, a Rwandan orphan himself, are working on completing a film about this.
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