Sunday, November 1, 2015

Road Trip Rwanda

    Calgary author Will Ferguson, three time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour, writes about "his journey into the New Heart of Africa" in a book called Road Trip Rwanda.

     If you are like me, you love to gather and absorb new information. The world changes. Borders shift. Countries get new names. Allegiances swap. Our understanding evolves. But unless we seek out information, and understand the bias of the publisher or producer, we will be subject to what the mainstream and popular media feeds us--or doesn't--and only see the world through their lens.
     That's why I like to read non-fiction.

     Will Ferguson visits Rwanda with Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a friend from Calgary, who left his home Rwanda just in time, twenty years ago, and now returns to bring soccer equipment to kids, and to see how his home country has changed.
     In 1994 Rwanda experienced a genocide in which nearly one million people were killed: a census taken six years after the genocide established the names of 951,018 victims.
     The killing was done person to person, with machetes and clubs, on the orders of a de facto government, urged on via state-sponsored radio. The church has been found complicit as well--where many people hoped to find shelter, they were betrayed and murdered.
     Today's Rwanda is a country that has grown out of those ashes. There are many memorials to learn about the genocide, and to pause and contemplate and wonder. Ferguson describes these places, and the effect they have to chill and sadden the spirit.
     When Rwanda was first observed by a European (in 1894, one hundred years before the genocide) Rwanda was "a complex, highly organized, semi-feudal society with a divine king in the centre and a network ... radiating out from [the] royal court." Known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills... every hill had its chiefs, every chief his delegate. Every farm, every home, every house was accounted for."
     Ferguson writes that the culture was cohesive and tightly controlled and "the people were known throughout the region for being law-abiding and compliant--traits that mark Rwanda, for better or worse, right through to today."
     Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental Africa--as dense as the Netherlands. The source of the Nile is here. It is a beautiful and complex country. And is also well known for the mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey made famous.
     Ready for a road trip yet? Just wait, it gets better.

     Today Rwanda is a very interesting country. All kids--boys and girls--are universally schooled to grade 9. More than 3 million Rwandan diaspora have repatriated since 1994, from all over the world, and Rwanda has one of the most international populations in Africa. The capital Kigali's streets are famously clean. "Older ladies in bent-back postures appear at first light, sweeping the sidewalks by hand, and the whisk, whisk, whisk of their straw brooms feels unnaturally loud in the fragrant hour."
     Actually widows and elderly women are allotted specific sections of major streets and paid a stipend to keep them clean--"and Lord help you if you absent-mindedly drop a candy wrapper on their stretch of pavement."
     Rwanda's new constitution sets a minimum of 30 percent women on the boards of all publicly listed companies. Half the the country's fourteen Supreme Court justices are women, and by law one-third of all national representatives in Rwanda must be women (Rwanda has the only parliament in the world where women outnumber men). Public employees must exercise every Friday at 2 pm. Rwanda is positioning itself as a higher end, lower-impact eco-friendly travel destination ("A Costa Rica rather than a Mexico.") Chinese workers are pouring into sub-Saharan African to build bridges and dams and massive infrastructure projects. Rwanda does business insisting that on large-scale projects the local workforces are hired and trained.
    "Enlightened self interest, the notion that what's in the public's best interest is also in the individual's, motivates much of what Rwanda does." Rwanda is creating full internet access for the entire nation. Rwanda is part of the East African Community (EAC), which aid to lower tariffs and increase cross-border trade with shared visas and potentially a shared currency. Rwanda has an open-door visa policy for all Africans, and calls on all African states to eliminate barriers to trade, study and travel--the idea is this will encourage the open exchange of goods, people, and ideas. Rwanda has signed onto the One Laptop per Child initiative.
     Imihigo, a custom which had chiefs and village leaders stood before their people to tell them their goals for the year so they could be held responsible for them, has been brought back. "Local administrators and regional heads are made accountable to their constituents in this way."
     Rwanda's focus with everything it does is to prevent another genocide from occurring. "If everyone is invested in the success of the country, if everyone has a stake in its process, this will  also help to temper political will and humanize decisions."
     Most interestingly, and importantly, Rwandans do not identify as one or another of the two groups which previously and post-colonially defined them. These days Rwandans are one people. "We are all Rwandans" is what is said now.
     Of course there are detractors. People who criticize. People who suggest president Paul Kagame is a dictator. Countries who claim nefarious political deals are happening under the table. Journalists tell of political interference and harassment. The re-patriated Rwandans who lived abroad can't believe how slow the service is. And author Ferguson himself says the chicken is terrible!
     As Rwanda emerges from its appalling and tragic genocide event, observe the methods and tactics implemented by political will--and the populace--to implement healing.
     Overall it is surprisingly enlightened.



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