Monday, 14 February 2011

Trip to Rwanda - impressions

I came in Rwanda on a project to write a story concerning the support to the education sector here. The hospitality and openness of my hosts was remarkable, and I had a chance to see a good part of the country, talk to witnesses of acts of incredible cruelty and courage, to children and peasants as well as to leaders.

You realize there is something special about Rwanda before you actually get there, when you hear an announcement as the plane starts the descent into Kigali: " Passengers with duty free items should be aware that the use and the introduction of plastic bags in the country is forbidden..." Once here, you find out that this is a CLEAN country. None of mountains of garbage which smother other African towns, not even a discarded paper or a plastic bottle in total contrast to the Rwanda of the early 90's. A very visible change but probably one of the least significant of the changes transforming this country. And it wasn't achieved by fining them but by appealing to their civic values.

It all starts from a fundamental goal the country set for itself after the 1994 genocide. THIS MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN !! And it set objectives that initially seemed unrealistic to your cynical westerner observer, long accustomed to African trumpeted political promises which are empty the moment they are made or become so through corruption and inability to sustain any coherent policy . Rwandans started by throwing down the drain the "ethnic" divide between Hutus and Tutsis, an artificial division created and maintained by the Belgian colonial authorities in the '30s: families with over ten cows were Tutsis, the rest here Hutus. Nowadays it is illegal to refer to someone as belonging to one ethnicity or another and any type of discrimination, whether ethnic, religious, gender, you name it, is illegal and it does get punished.

And the population was more than ready to embrace this new ideology, which overturns a vicious circle of segregations and persecutions. The example of the Nyanja High school is so eloquent. I heard it from an old teacher, there, a witness to the tragedy. Three years after the genocide, the evening of March 18, three armed "genocidaires" who still roamed the country in small bands, or came from neighboring Congo entered the classroom where the students, boarders, were doing their homework and asked them to separate themselves, Hutus from Tutsis. The children refused and said they were all Rwandans. Even threatened they refused , so the guys threw in two grenades and shot them and cut some up with the machetes. Seven died and 21 were seriously wounded, left for dead, a few managed to run away. I talked to a few of the students of that high school, members of the school's Reconciliation Club. Smart, nice kids, talking naturally about what they see their country needs. I couldn't detect false patriotism or opportunistic motives. And then they asked me if in MY COUNTRY we don't have ethnic conflict, or reconciliation issues. I couldn't say we have solved everything and they asked me what do I do about it. Well ...I do have a Roma neighbor, isn't it?

But the Rwandans are not satisfied with only reconciliation efforts. They want a new, developed country, and they want it FAST!! Actually, their national slogan is: "Rwanda - a Country in a Hurry!" Which in Africa is indeed uncommon, here only mzungu ( pejorative term for white foreigners) are in a hurry. They decided to introduce 9 grades universal education, starting from a really low enrollment rate. So they built in 5 (five) months over 3000 classrooms and 9000 latrines. They did it by asking the community to participate with the labor and what financial support they could, the rest of the finances came from the budget, and only went to donors for metal sheets for the roofs and some furniture... Enrollment was encouraged and promoted through PTA's who went door to door...their statistics in terms of enrollment are now up to the best standards...They are still building and improving schools and I saw quite a number of villagers were there working! Or today, a Sunday I went to visit a project, a construction site for a center that will host orphaned children during vacations, etc. They were working, and I find out that they work in a day and a night shift, 7/7. WHY?? We want to open as soon as possible!! ...

Sometimes one may think they are overdoing it! Could be…In 2020 they want to be well on their way to become a knowledge economy… And they have a “One Laptop per Child Program”!! I couldn't help smirking and saying in my mind: "Yeah! Sure, my foot!!" Until I saw the kids in a village school, one of the pilots in the rural area, typing and drawing or making cartoons etc., etc. They already have over 150, 000 laptops distributed, they have a budget to buy another 100,000 and then 50,000 a year until they finish. Of course, inexpensive machines, $ 200 a piece and after two years, in secondary school they pass them down, but still, the program is on track with the interconnectivity, adapting it to the local conditions: one server per school, Wi-Fi based LAN, generators and satellite or GSM Modems if they don't have yet wired networks, MUST work!! We have no time to lose!!! By the way, the whole country has been wired by now with optic fiber...

One of the reasons for their success is that the country is remarkably free of corruption. It does exist. In an embarrassed confession I am told that the previous minister in now in jail, convicted of corruption! Goodness Gracious me! I am embarrassed that we don't have any in prison!! Anyway, don't try to bribe a traffic policeman. I understand it's a sure way to get in trouble, and jails are not by western standards, actually I hear complaints they are overcrowded! Well, they have some priorities and prisons are not among the first....So, even if the implementation of projects doesn't always go smoothly, if they still have delays...At least you know these are honest mistakes and problems...

Of course, there are voices saying that: ...yes, but there is no REAL democracy...they don't have parliamentary opposition...the popularity of the president is too good to be true... It is another long story...But for me, as long as this government promotes pluralism and tolerance and transparency and the environment and free trade and development, and everyone is going about in security....You know what? Why would they need an opposition party?

I forgot to mention the roads, the water supply, the free trade zone etc., etc.

1 comment:

  1. It's very impressive that they have that determination. It probably stems from the deep trauma they had to overcome. I don't know. Plus there has been so much aid pumped in there, not that it matters so much. Most similar countries are stuck, especially in corrupt ways.
    As for a one party system continuously promoting transparency and tolerance and pluralism (what type? ethnic?), that's an experiment yet do be seen and tested for the years to come.
    I wish them all the best! It's an incredible story, especially the velocity with which they tried a bunch of the war criminals.