When you mention Rwanda, most people immediately recall the horrific genocide that occurred in 1994 where the Hutu majority brutally massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of just three months. When you mention that you are traveling there, people think you are crazy. How can the home of the worst genocide in African history and one of the worst in modern times be an okay place to visit? After all, this wasn’t simply some dark time in “history,” it was less than 20 years ago.
Like so many places that I have traveled to, common perception varies significantly from reality.
Rwanda has done an incredible job of overcoming its horrific past and quickly pointing the country towards the future with a spirit of optimism, unity and peace. They government has taken steps to remove tribal identities and unify its people as Rwandans, not Hutus or Tutsis.
The capital city, Kigali, was a stark contrast from the rest of Africa. The streets were impeccably clean, everything was organized, safety was a non-issue, buildings were modern and even the boda boda motorcycle taxis carried spare helmets for passengers. In African cities, street merchants aggressively push useless products to tourists, like rakes and rat poison, or the same “local” miniature statues and masks you find everywhere else (made in China, of course). In Kigali, street merchants primarily sold USB sticks, Oxford English dictionaries and Economist magazines. And when I told one guy that I didn’t want his Economist magazine because I receive it on my iPhone, he didn’t follow me for 5 minutes attempting to negotiate or convince me to buy it anyways, he simply laughed and yelled out “Ahh, technology! It’s changing our world!” and gave me a fist pound. These are all small insights into the minds of Rwanda’s citizens and signs that the country is heading in the right direction.
No African country has done more to eliminate corruption, remove red tape and make it easy to do business. The economy has more than doubled in the last 10 years and even though people are still poor, average incomes are rising. The government recently moved boldly to switch the country’s entire education system from French to English to make the country more economically competitive around the globe – as well as to turn its back on its formal colonial influence – which aligns with President Kagame’s ambitious plan to make Rwanda “the Singapore of Africa.” The country opened the doors of its own stock exchange in 2011 and now lists four companies. Kagame has also made meaningful social progress in health care, education, women’s rights (nearly half of the members of parliament are female), rule of law, agriculture and internet technology.
However, the country is facing serious near-term criticism and challenges. Kagame is increasingly accused of aggressively preventing political opposition and he has won every election with more than 90% of the vote. He has also been accused of human rights violations by continuously invading and plundering natural resources from Congo. In June 2012, The UN Security Council released a report accusing Rwanda of supporting rebel groups in the Congo by providing weapons, recruits and even its own soldiers. While Western countries have historically been hesitant to criticize Rwanda, likely due to their strong strategic partnership in the region and guilt from not doing more to stop the genocide, they have begun to respond by suspending and delaying small disbursements of foreign aid – which still makes up a large portion of Rwanda’s budget.
Rwanda is in a challenging position and many question the legitimacy of its democracy. However, it is a relief to see foreign aid dollars actually used to improve the lives of citizens and it is tough to dispute the significant progress the country has made to create peace, improved standards of living and a position for itself in the global economy. Rwanda gives one many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the country and its ability to emerge from its dark past towards a bright future is beyond remarkable.
Watch a great interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, conducted by Fareed Zakaria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHPn1TfjmGQ