On April 11, I shared this post on Facebook based on an Al-Jazeera article about the peacekeeping efforts of General Anyidoho and his troops during Rwanda’s genocide. When the international community turned away, the peacekeeping contingent of about 450 young Ghanaians stayed behind with their leader. Why?
“We didn’t have an alternative. We couldn’t abandon these people.”
Rawlings scolded Anyidoho, asking him what he should have told the country if all their troops were killed in Rwanda. Then he asked Anyidoho what kept him and his men going during the genocide.
“I told him that, sir, there are certain things that happen in life that were unexplainable,” Anyidoho recalls. “We were in a situation we had to act according to the dictates of our conscious… That we wouldn’t die, we didn’t lose too many soldiers operating under those circumstances, it could only be an act of God.”
That article got me thinking about courage – what is it, what does it mean to us, how do we perceive or experience it. A month later I found myself in Kigali, Rwanda – the same African nation that inspired it all and one that truly embodies “courage”. This two-part feature highlights conversations on Rwanda’s efforts in areas like environment, urban planning, business, social development, leadership and governance, corruption, and national identity. Special thanks to the amazing folks who shared their candid impressions about their beautiful country.
Rwanda. I had zero expectations when I found out it would be the first East African country I would visit. Zero expectations, but one very clear thought during the plane ride: the Rwandan genocide. Forget that I knew three young, inspiring Rwandans or that Rwanda had been listed right next to Ghana as a fastest growing economy in the world. Forget the fact that it had been 20 years since the genocide ended. The persistent association that kept coming up was the unfortunate incident which resulted in the death of about one million people.
I wondered how I was supposed to interact: could I bring up the genocide in discussions? Would it be in poor taste to ask questions if it came up? What about the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi”? Even this video on daily life in Rwanda couldn’t undo that thought. Later I would ask myself, how come we don’t know about Rwanda and all that’s happening there (hence the necessity of this post)?
Every city, country leaves an impression on you, and in my case, each claims a phrase for itself. Kigali claimed “land of rolling hills”. It was only days later during President Kaberuka’s opening address at the African Development Bank’s Annual Meetings that I would find out that Rwanda is actually called “Land of a Thousand Hills”. I couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate name for the beautiful, green, extremely clean country.
Rwanda’s Respect for the Environment
Yes, you read right. Clean. That’s the second thing I noticed about Kigali. In my entire time in Kigali I didn’t see a single mound of rubbish or discarded polythene bags that tend to be characteristic of many African cities. Oh wait, the only rubbish mound I did see was at a market – and it had been put there intentionally by all the vendors for pickup by the rubbish truck. I mean. How do Rwandans keep their country clean? Here are two insights I got from Sahya:
Nation-Wide (Monthly) Community Service:
“We have community work every last Saturday of the month, from 8am to 11am. Everyone participates except the very young or old and if you have a business you must close it during that time. If you are in town when the hour arrives you will be stopped and asked to join the nearest group working. If you miss it, you are fined.”
A Ban on Plastic Bags:
“I hadn’t seen a plastic bag for years, so whenever I travel elsewhere and see them, I feel weird; I want to pick them all up and put them in the rubbish bin.”
Say what? The ban (since 2008) and nationally mandated community service that are actually enforced – hmm, I wonder how that would play out in Ghana or [insert other African country]. No wonder Sahya’s so proud of her country’s cleanliness! When all’s said and done, Rwanda proves that we can have clean cities on the continent (and not just when a Western dignitary is visiting).
I kept gushing to my friend Innocent about how lucky they are to have so many parks (I counted at least 5 in Central Kigali alone!) and yet, he couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. It was really simple to him:
“Our goal is that by 2015 all of Rwanda should be green. If you have a tree in your house, you can’t cut it without asking for permission. It’s not your tree, it’s for the nation.”
Smart Urban Planning
Besides working to ensure that the eco-system is protected, Kigali is well-planned. While cities like Accra and Dakar sprawl out horizontally, Kigali is sprawling vertically and capturing aerial real estate with a shift towards high-rise buildings. Innocent pointed out the French cultural center and a popular shopping mall which are both being rebuilt upwards so as to avoid congestion. But that’s not all. Buildings in a swampy area are being demolished and relocated elsewhere so as to prevent possible flood-related disasters. Talk about anticipation! His comments were confirmed days later by Akaliza, founder of multimedia company Shaking Suns and a mentor at K-Lab, Kigali’s tech hub:
“I can’t just start a business any where – there are zones: administrative, business, residential.”
I’m sure some of you are wondering about traffic in Kigali. Let me put it this way: when compared to the traffic in Accra, Abidjan or even Dakar, Kigali’s “traffic” is child’s play. You would think that a place with a thousand hills would face great challenges in laying out roads, but I cannot say that I “sat in traffic” while I was in Kigali.
Considering it took about 15 to 20 minutes to get anywhere and while that might partly because Kigali is a relatively small capital, you do have to give them serious props considering an estimated 3000 people were in town for the AfDB Meetings. Alors, urban planning – another area many African countries and cities can learn a lot from when it comes to Rwanda/Kigali.
Enabling Business & Local Entrepreneurship
Did I mention that K-Lab is government financed? Oops, my bad. It is. When Akaliza told me this, I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open – and for good reason. While the Rwandan government has dedicated some funds to ensure the upkeep of Kigali’s technology hub, its Accra counterparts Hub Accra and iSpace seem to be largely on their own where government support is concerned.From what Akaliza said, it seems the World Bank’s Doing Business Report for Rwanda is exactly what happens:
“You can get a visa upon arrival and it only takes a few minutes to register your business. Plus, foreigners can own land,” she said.
After learning about the Rwanda Development Board, I could see why. The organization is not only involved with encouraging foreign investors to come into the East African nation, but apparently undertakes strong “recruitment” of Diasporan Rwandese, even sponsoring some to return home for a week or two as a way of encouraging a permanent move back.
Now tell me, which ministry in your country is responsible for Diaspora relations and how much do you know about them? The next logical question for me was this: how easy is it for a non-Rwandese African national to get a job in Rwanda? Apparently pretty easy. And yes, I actually considered it. Moving right along.
After living in Tunis for nine months (already!), I was in dire need of a real movie theater experience. Finding out about Kigali’s 5D cinema experience at Century Cinemas was cool, but what was really mind blowing was the fact that Kigali City Tower is home to one of many 24/7 shopping malls – well hey, move over NYC! The best part? The reason behind it:
“The 24/7 malls popped up because of competition from the East African Community (EAC). If you don’t do it, the Kenyans will come in and do it, and you will miss out.” – Innocent
Purely a business and regional integration motivated decision! While Rwanda is historically a former Belgian colony, it’s unique position in the region – it straddles both Central and East Africa – has resulted in a switch in its approach to development and business. Where it once looked West (towards DRC), it now looks East (towards Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). Consequently, the country has adopted a bilingual English-French policy in order to ensure that it can do business with all its neighbors. Beyond that, Rwanda has one national language, Kinyarwanda, which I must admit must make things a whole lot easier!
As any African national could probably tell you, ultimately progressive development comes down to good leadership, governance, and a strong national vision and desire to move forward. While Rwanda might not have all its ducks in order, it certainly seems to be making some traction.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.