On the plane to Kigali for the first time in March ’12, I realise that my knowledge of Rwandan culture, the country of a thousand hills, is limited to the famous mountain gorillas and the tragic history of genocide in 1994.
I have little idea what the people will be like. Wary of the fact that everyone older than 18 years old must have a significant story, I approach the city and its people with cautious optimism – but everywhere I go gracious, smiling and incredibly polite people meet me.
Paul Kagame is the leader of modern Rwanda. He rose to prominence as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose military victory over the incumbent government in July 1994 effectively ended the Rwandan genocide after 100 days of civil war. By then 1 million Tutsi lives were already claimed and the rest of the world, including the UN, watched as passive by-sitters.
Today the country focuses on building economic and intellectual power to ensure that history will never repeat itself. Remembering the past is still very much part of the daily life here. The mass graves, now beautiful memorial sites, are scattered across the whole country and all Rwandans get two weeks off work every year to be with their family to mourn and reflect.
In the West, we might think we know something about the genocide from watching the Hollywoodmovie “Hotel Rwanda”. The Rwandan view is somewhat different; “This film gives a very romanticised picture of what really happened, to the extent that the movie has been banned across the nation” is what I am told by a man selling dvds.
People still deal with the aftermaths of the brutal history. The post-genocide re-integration means that victims and murderers now live as neighbours, and even work together. I am baffled by their ability to put the hatred and sadness to one side and focus on simply getting the work done – and they really do work hard! Rwanda has been called Africa’s “biggest success story” and Rwanda is, despite its history, at the forefront of developing new models for foreign aid designed to help recipients become self-reliant.
Rwanda is probably one of the most inspiring acts of rebirth in modern history.
Kigali is bustling with life and commerce and proudly boosts infrastructure similar to a European or American city. It is among the safest and cleanest places I have ever been too (and I have seen quite a few).
How come Kigali is so different to many other African capitals?
I would say the answer partly lies in strong and effective leadership. The president Paul Kagame has a very ambitious vision for his country. For example, to keep Rwanda clean, plastic bags and street selling are prohibited and all 10 million inhabitants gather together for one day every month to clean up the streets! Littering means six months in prison, and the stories I hear about the life of Rwandan prisoners does not sound too appealing…
By 2020 Rwanda aim to generate sufficient income from agriculture and other businesses to no longer be reliant on any foreign aid. There is zero-tolerance on corruption and as a tourist you are not allowed to give any money or gifts to street children, as this encourages undesirable behaviours such a reliance on others and lack of responsibility.
This is perfectly in line with the leadership mindsets I teach, so when I come back to Rwanda for the third time in October, I have high expectations on the achievements of my alumni students since attending our leadership programme six months earlier.
With great anticipation I travel north through the lush and green landscape over the rolling hills on an excellent road. High up on the Rwandan mountains you can see people farming their small fields, which are steeper than ski slopes. The people up here are self-sufficient and some even live their entire lives without ever touching money.
Upon arrival in Rulindo, one of the poorest districts of Rwanda, I find out that my accommodation for the night is a monastery on a hilltop above the clouds. Magical! The next morning I am greeted by a 200 strong alumni group, keen to show me the fruits of their new entrepreneurial activities.
The pigs and chickens and silkworms are all ready for inspection, and as I sit down to mentor the groups some powerful stories of creativity and pro-activity emerge. I am so impressed by their genial ways of creating something out of nothing, just starting with what they have in their hands.
Not letting the lack of money hinder progress
In Base, a group of young men provide security services for the market place parking lot. Their vision is to expand the parking lot to also welcome large trucks, which deliver supplies to the village shops. The expansion requires a large capital investment, which they don’t have and access to micro-finance is limited. By applying the leadership principles of “taking small steps to get from where you are to where you want to be”, they are now exploring a new idea to build public toilets and produce biogas to generate the income required to finance the parking lot expansion.
A group of ladies have started a basket-weaving business. Unfortunately the market is quite competitive, so their traditional baskets are not selling so well. From the leadership training they have understood the importance of innovation, and that leaders are people who never, never give up. The women are now obtaining the skills to make other products, like carpets and curtains, to expand their business offerings. Adding an additional strong to their bow, they have also established a savings scheme where they hold each other accountable for the monthly contributions. In six months they anticipate to have acquired twelve pigs for breeding. To relax from their hard work, they enjoy a weekly game of football.