Searching for the Rwandan miracle

The author enjoying a 'moto' ride in Kigali
The author enjoying a 'moto' ride in Kigali

KIGALI, Rwanda: The name of the country is the current buzzword in Africa. Like Botswana used to be at some point, lauded with praises for high growth rates and rapid modernisation.

Rwanda is being hyped as the new Jewel of Africa, the oasis of progress. In the headlines every day, Rwanda has done something spectacular, visionary, a satellite in space, a homegrown smartphone factory, all the while climbing up the ranks of the Doing Business and Competitiveness reports.

The country’s name is now synonymous with visionary leadership and progression. Politicians in Africa now use Rwanda as an example of the Africa ‘we’ want. South African finance Minister, Tito Mboweni regularly praises Kigali’s unsurpassed cleanliness and order, comparing it unfavorably to the chaos and shambles in Johannesburg’s downtown.

My interest in seeing the country for myself was always high and recently, my desires were fulfilled sooner than I expected.

Prior to departure, I researched the country to find the best eateries, Rwandans’ lifestyles and tourist destinations. I was touched to find out about the severity of the genocide that happened in the country. I had always heard about the mass killings of people in Rwanda but never got to learn in detail what happened and how bad it was.

Emotionally attached, I decided that the Genocide Monument would be amongst my ports of call when I got to Kigali. My own bucket list also included exploring the capital, starting with learning about their culture, food, tradition, and lifestyles even though the time was limited.

I landed in Kigali at around 11pm on a Monday although the airport was quite busy as I learnt later that there were many conferences happening in the same week. Some of tourists were told to unwrap their bags, as plastics are not allowed into the country. Rwanda has a zero-tolerance policy on plastics and a friend had forewarned me.

I hate arriving at new places at night. The only thing I could see was the city’s lights from which I could tell Kigali is built on the mountains.  I also noticed on our way to the hotel that unlike Southern Africa, Rwanda is a left-hand drive country. It was fascinating to see the ‘moto’ motorbikes and bicycles mixed up in the traffic jam transporting people and goods. 

After breakfast the next day, we decided to explore Kigali together with fellow Batswana as well as colleagues from Malawi and Eswatini. We took a cab to the city centre where we had a lunch of fried bananas, boiled bananas and rice. In this country, as in others in East Africa, the staple foods include bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, cassava and beans.

While the genocide ended 25 years ago and Rwanda has dramatically transformed since then, its after effects are still clear in the country. We were thoroughly searched and patted down by security before entering the restaurant and outside, one could also spot armed policemen standing guard or patrolling. The security woman searching me explained the protocol is for safety reasons and any one found with dangerous objects is jailed. Even though the country is doing well in maintaining peace, there is still fear within the community. The heavy presence of police does make one feel safer, however.

We jumped on the ‘moto’ to explore the city. Weaving in and out of traffic on the rickety motorcycles was scary but I tried to maintain my cool. The experience brought back memories of when I was in my teens and had an accident riding a motorcycle. The phobia returned as we took nearly an hour from the city centre to some rural locations. Just like Old Naledi in Gaborone, the ghetto sections of Kigali, one finds people trying to make a living by selling fat cakes, bananas, clothing on the street, next to busy barbershops and other informal businesses.

One thing I realised about the people in Rwanda is that they are hardworking and make a living out of anything. Everywhere, men use their bicycles as transport vehicles and charge to carry large loads. This is one of the cities that never sleep.  A walk around midnight will find people still busy making a living like it’s midday.

I was anxious to tick off the Genocide Monument from my bucket list. I noted that every time I inquired about the monument, people became emotional. Upon arrival at the main monument, the manager, Bonheur Pacifique, briefed us about what had happened. According to Pacifique, the Rwandan genocide, also known as the genocide against the Tutsi, was a mass slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda during the Rwandan Civil War, which started in 1990. It was directed by members of the Hutu majority government during a 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994.

By the early 1990s, Rwanda, a small country with an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, had one of the highest population densities in Africa. About 85% of its population was Hutu; the rest were Tutsi, along with a small number of Twa, a Pygmy group who were the original inhabitants of Rwanda.

This is partly why Rwanda is trending. The country has managed to scale unbelievable economic heights and strengthened despite the terrible effects of the genocide.  Rwanda now boasts of low corruption. Its tourism sector is growing and now the country’s leading foreign exchange earner. Music and dance are part of the Rwandan culture particularly drums and the ‘intore’ dance.

A country, which was once, the poster child of African misgovernance and murderous backwardness, is now the image of what each country on the continent should aspire to pursue.

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