Rwanda, 18 years later

2012-08-18 14:39

Almost two decades on, the scars of genocide are barely apparent for these hard-working people

It’s Saturday morning and Kigali is at a standstill. Most buses and taxis are not to be seen. Only private vehicles are dotted along the main roads into the capital city of Rwanda. It is my first visit back to the country after 18 years.

I recall the eerie silence of this war-ravaged city strewn with the memories of hacked bodies. I remember, too, the darkness at night.

There is nothing eerie about the quiet on my first morning back though. “It’s Umuganda today,” say the hotel staff. “There will be taxis after 11am.”

Umuganda is a compulsory community service in which all Rwandese over the age of 18 and under the age of 65 are expected to participate. It stretches back to precolonial days, but the government led by Paul Kagame has designed it as a monthly activity to encourage people to work together. Everyone from the president to villagers clean up areas where they live.

When it was first reintroduced post-genocide, it was more of a symbolic practice to heal neighbourhoods torn apart by the horrific events of 1994.

Over time, it gained significance as communities learnt to solve local problems, including paving roads, clearing drainage systems and building schools. In the eight days of my visit, the only litter I saw was a plastic bottle with a few pieces of newspaper in a side street in Kigali.

All around are living testimonies to unspeakable cruelties. Yet through these dark shadows there is a courageous effort to rebuild.

Jeannette Mukandinda lost both her parents at the age of 22. Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers brought her and her sister from their rural village to Kigali, where they were placed in a house with 18 other orphans. In 2003 she moved into a house granted to genocide orphans. She and others soon realised they could form an association of 400 orphans.

“It was easier to lobby for ­support such as bursaries,” she said. They called the association Tubeho, meaning “Let’s live”.

After 10 years in the association, life is better for her. “Many of us have had opportunities to study. Some of us have jobs and the houses are now better equipped.”

They have chosen Gasana Ndoba, Rwanda’s first human rights commissioner, as their symbolic father. He has officiated at 26 weddings and tries his best to be there for his 400 children. “I don’t always have the time to attend every wedding,” Ndoba smiles.

“I have somebody who stands in for me.”

Rwanda faces huge challenges. Right now it finds itself in the middle of a political minefield. A UN panel of experts recently accused the country of supporting the M23 mutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has said the case was unsubstantiated.

“We have had three days of discussions with the group of experts,” she said. “We went through every single allegation. We have given our explanation. We have provided supporting documents to a number of false allegations.”

What I saw on my travels was impressive. The Kigali I saw 18 years ago had no supermarkets or ATMs. Today there are new malls and yellow bus shelters adorned with MTN logos.

Rwanda has a strong commitment to becoming a regional leader in information and communication technologies. It has improved road infrastructure and Rwanda now even has its own airline that services the countries around it.

It has set up a special economic zone in Kigali to attract investments. Since 1994, Rwanda has had one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.

But as much as 80% of the country’s 11 million live in rural areas. So the government buys cows in its “one cow, one family” programme, in which it gives cows to families so children can be assured of getting enough milk. Since the adoption of this policy in 2006, 120 989 families have benefited and child mortality has been halved.

Rwanda has a Public Procurement Authority that monitors all state procurement and has tightened public finance management. “We have done away with all the extra houses and vehicles for civil servants,” said acting ombudsman Augustin Nzindukiyimana.

In 2005, they passed a law which stipulated that only the top five high-ranking officials were ­entitled to state housing and state vehicles.

A leading psychiatrist, Dr Naason Munyandamutsa says political power in Rwanda is in essence in the hands of the army.

“The people have a special relationship with the army because they stopped the killings and ­restored order,” he said.

“It ranks alongside Sweden in a recent survey as far as this relationship is concerned. The government knows they have to have a transparent system, but there is not enough openness,” he said.

» Jaffer is writer in residence at the ­University of the Free State. Visit her ­website:

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