We must create and disseminate the tools of our own liberation

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Modern day Kigali is the jewel in Rwanda’s crown

It’s been more than two decades since the guns fell silent over this nation and I’m the first to acknowledge just how far we have come. But saying that we have come far isn’t good enough anymore; we need to go even further and faster and we are trying.

A few weeks or so back, one of the trending topics on the local Twittersphere was the speed in which the Convention Center area roundabouts were built. Everyone was amazed that they materialized over the course of a single weekend. I wasn’t. I had seen it all before. Anyone who has been following my writing over the last couple of years will know that I spent a year in the Chinese capital, Beijing. You think we built the roundabout fast? I saw whole building demolished and rebuilt in a couple of months. So, when I saw the new roundabouts, I wasn’t impressed by the speed of the construction because all the necessary tools were there to complete the task.

Will and drive brought liberation to this nation of ours and will and drive is what will bring development as well. However, lest we forget, will and drive wasn’t enough then and isn’t enough now; the right tools were, and are, needed in the right pair of hands.

Currently, the vast majority of our people live in rural areas. They farm the way their great-grandparents farmed and they live the way their parents lived. All of which is a recipe for disaster. As a country we cannot afford to let this happen. We cannot have a vibrant and innovate urban class while our rural brothers and sisters get further and further behind.

Right now, the Government of Rwanda is being rightly lauded for its policies of rural electrification, affordable healthcare and 12 Year Basic Education. That is well and good. But what I’ve realized working for Tigo Rwanda, is that there are two huge gaps that can, and should be, filled by the private sector in partnership with the government. These are the financial and digital gaps.

No one works as hard as rural folks. They wake up at the crack of dawn and work in the hot sun all day just so that their families don’t starve. That is no existence in my opinion. There is no ‘Agaciro’ in that kind of life.

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What we need to do as a community is figure out how to bring up the very least of us

The thing is, very often all that is needed to improve their lives are small technological innovations. For example, we at Tigo are working on and about to launch a pilot project with tea farmers at the Mulindi Tea Factory and the Sagashya Tea Factory (in Gicumbi and Rusizi District respectively) that aims to better the farmers lives through increased digital and financial inclusion.

Currently, when the approximately 10,000 tea farmers in the two districts are paid at the end of the month through their SACCO accounts, they face a huge problem. Because the vast majority of the SACCO account holders don’t live anywhere near their area SACCOs on payday they have to wake up extremely early and walk for hours to get there. When they do arrive they have to line up for hours on end just to access their money. Which isn’t always a given. The lucky ones are able to get their money that day but the unlucky ones have to go back home and go through the process all over again the next day.  The waste of time and energy isn’t the worst thing about this; the worst thing about this is that during this whole time, they aren’t able to work and earn the money that their families so desperately need. Remember, they do not have a monthly salary; they are paid when they work.

Tigo Rwanda saw this issue realized that there was an opportunity to make the tea farmers’ lives better. All it had to do was figure out a way to link the farmers SACCO accounts to their Tigo Cash mobile phone accounts and allow these farmers to withdraw and deposit their money though their local Tigo Cash agent.

What Tigo did was create a platform that allowed the farmers to deposit and withdraw money, through their simple mobile phones, into and out of their SACCO accounts. Then after creating the platform, creating a scheme that gave farmers phones on credit (because many couldn’t afford mobile phones in the first place). Tigo Rwanda was able to do in partnership with Access to Finance Rwanda (AFR) and the Woods Foundation. And while Tigo Rwanda will officially launch the project in the coming weeks, today these farmers do not have to live the way they used to before; they have joined the digital age. They see the infinite possibility of the tool that is called the mobile phone.

That, my friends, is what ‘liberation’ means to me today. It is about the liberation of our collective potential. It is about the awakening of the indomitable Rwandan spirit. What our jobs are, as a collective, is to figure out a way to provide the tools that will awaken this spirit; no matter whether it is a word of advice, a government scheme or even a simple mobile phone.

Defining who we are is the very foundation of the new Rwanda

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President Kagame meeting with Rwandan students in a past visit to China

On Thursday I will join about three hundred young Rwandans to debate a question that I feel is extremely pertinent, especially now that we are on the cusp of major constitutional and political change. The question is, ‘What do you stand for’?

I believe that before you can answer that question you need to be able to answer this one; ‘who are you’?

It was only in the latter parts of my life that I was able to actually able to confidently answer that question; as someone who was born a refugee, raised in the West and mostly educated in Africa, I had a huge problem reconciling with all the different facets of my personality.

What were the contradictions I wrestled with?

Firstly, what did it mean to be Rwandan; especially when my most formative experiences took place in other countries? Secondly, what did it mean to be a responsible and enlightened citizen; especially when my entire political viewpoint was based on a Western model?

The biggest conversation we are having right now in the country is about the constitutional amendment to change presidential term limits. This is a conversation that I believe is pitting two major forces against each other; one that I call the ‘Agaciro’ viewpoint and another that I call the ‘Classic’ viewpoint.

Let me define these two terms. The ‘Agaciro’ viewpoint is one that I feel, especially among the younger generation, has come to the fore over the last decade or so. To me this viewpoint can be defined as when one stubbornly refuses to believe that anyone is inherently superior to them, especially when it comes to the decisions that directly impact your life. And damn the consequences.

So when someone with the Agaciro mentality discusses the amendment with someone who doesn’t want to change the term limits, they come at it thus; “Four million Rwandans petitioned Parliament to amend the term limit clause of the Constitution, who are you to ignore their wishes. Who are you to assume to know better than them”?

The ‘Classic’ viewpoint is one that has been fed to all of us, like breast milk, from birth. It is a viewpoint that comes from learning that John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the Nile, that the Abrahamic god is the ‘real one’ and that there is something quite superior about all things foreign.

So when such a person discusses the constitutional amendment issue, they come at it in a very formulaic way; “rules are rules. We decided in 2003 that we would have two-term presidency, so why change it”?

For the longest time, I leaned towards the ‘classic’ school of thought. My entire education and training screamed, “rules are rules. No matter the context. No matter the reasons. Rules are rules”

Only after talking with others who hadn’t lived my experiences was I able to challenge my own stubborn point of view. I came to the realization that refusing to acknowledge the political astuteness of my fellow Rwandans was an attitude that was steeped in prejudice and a mindset that was both colonial and paternalistic.

I was saying that Rwandans did not know what they were doing or what they wanted. I had infantilized them.

So, who am I today? I’m comfortable enough to say, yes, the Rwandan people might know something that I, and my Western education, culture and mentality, don’t. I feel comfortable enough to say that yes, Rwandans have the right to choose who they want to become. I’m comfortable enough to unashamedly say, I’m a proud son of Rwanda and all that it means.

The question is, as a self-styled son of Rwanda, what exactly do I stand for? I stand for reasoned debate. I stand for respect for all. I stand for pride in oneself. I stand for ambition and the betterment of all. I stand for high standards for myself and those around me.

What don’t I stand for and what will I never accept? Thinking that anyone is better than me. Thinking that my destiny is not in my own hands; that I’m not the captain of my own ship. That I don’t have a voice and that my voice isn’t important. I will fight to the very end to assert what I believe in.

Banks have left us between a rock and a hard place

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Banks are going to be the death of us

Normally I would be the last person to get into a debate about money and banking with the governor of the central bank, and former finance minister, John Rwangombwa. I mean, he has the keys to the national treasury and I have the keys to….. nothing really.

However, the one thing that I do have a bit of experience in is asking for a bank loan. So, when in an interview that was published on Monday, Rwangombwa commented on the issue of the high commercial bank interest rates, I held my breath and waited for some good news.

Sadly, none was forthcoming.

Instead of bringing the hammer down and showing the greedy bankers who was boss, he put the onus on us, the bank clients, to change the situation. Think I’m lying? This is what he said.

“The borrowers at times lack enough information to engage the banking institutions when they go out to borrow. When someone enters the bank and gets a loan, at times they think they are lucky to get that loan, instead they should have information to be able to engage the bankers on the rates at which they access the loans. It will further be easier because the Credit Rating Bureau is doing credit rating of different borrowers that will arm borrowers to engage banks”.

Now, I will not presume to know other people’s affairs; however, I know mine. I know my banking history. I’ve been a Bank of Kigali (BK) client for almost a decade. I’ve requested and received a few of loans (and paid them all back). I have been issued BK Visa credit card and I’ve never defaulted or missed a payment. My credit rating is extremely good.

So, in the world that the Governor lives in a person like me should be able to get a mortgage, business or personal loan at below the normal 18%. However, the truth of the matter is, that simply isn’t true.

What I CAN get is a faster loan approval process but forget about a cheaper loan. That simply isn’t happening. And Rwangombwa asking us to demand a lower rate is simply unfair because the cards are stacked against us.

It is simply a matter of supply and demand. There are more people (demand) asking for money than the banks are able to finance (supply). Therefore, bankers can do anything they want really, within some sort of reason, and we are powerless to stop them. Pretending otherwise is an exercise in futility.

Mr. Rwangombwa, please stop peddling false hope.

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Mr. Rwangombwa, Why you lying? Why you always lying?

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Ghana is jumping on the Pan-African wagon. Finally

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Accra, Ghana

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state and Pan-Africanist, is probably smiling down following his nation’s decision to remove visa restrictions on Rwandans entering the country. This following Rwanda’s decision a while ago to allow all African passport holders to get visas on arrival.

I believe that travel not only allows us to receive new experiences, it also gives us the chance to celebrate our shared humanity. As Africa develops, this sense of shared humanity will allow us to tap into each others strengths and capabilities thereby allowing us to see each other not as the ‘other’ to be feared and treated suspiciously but rather as friends and allies.

We, as Africans, cannot get where we want to go alone, no matter the amount of natural resources under our soils. We are much stronger as a collective. And easing visa restrictions is a small step in the right direction of closer African economic, social and political ties.

I wonder who is next? Angola? Mozambique? Nigeria?…………………………………………………………………………………..

 Things are getting much worse in Syria and I don’t think they’ll get better

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Turkish television showed images of what it reports is the Russian jet being shot 

Yesterday the Associated Press reported that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkish artillery while on a bombing mission in Syria. According to the Kremlin, the aircraft did not violate Turkish airspace. Something that I’m sure the Turks will vehemently disagree with.

Honestly though, it doesn’t matter who is at fault here. The issue is that there are too many powerful players, with different agendas, making moves in a region that is already as dry as a tinderbox. Students of history will tell you that geo-political conflict is usually just a few steps away and as an amateur historian I feel that what is happening in Syria and northern Iraq is a disaster waiting to happen. Especially with the French and Russians on the warpath.

I can only hope that cool heads reign. But I don’t really see that happening.

My advice to our young graduates, sell chapattis

Why shouldn't our young graduates earn a living making rolex, a popular Ugandan street food?

Why shouldn’t our young graduates earn a living making rolex, a popular Ugandan street food?

“Sell chapattis”. That is advice that no varsity graduate wants to hear soon after being awarded, say, a first class degree in political science. But perhaps they should.

Not because they don’t deserve swanky jobs in air-conditioned offices but rather because if they wait for such jobs they will join the thousands of young people whose days are spent reading the job announcements in local dailies, Invaho Nshya and The New Times, and submitting their CV’s to as many front desks as possible.

Rwanda’s national unemployment rate of 3.4% is statistically low. However, I can bet my right arm that it rises exponentially when only recent university graduates are concerned.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if it went up to between 20-40% for those who graduated between 2010 and 2014.

The talk now is guhanga imirimo (self-employment/ job creation). That is well and good. But, in my opinion, unless there is a dramatic shift in people’s perceptions of what ‘work’ and ‘employment’ is, the jobless figures will not decrease.

Last month, I had a chat with a 27-year-old Rwandan lady about education in the country. And as is wont to happen when having a three-hour long conversation about education, we soon started talking about life after university and the existing job market.

After graduating from a liberal arts college in the United States, the lady returned home and started looking around for a job. The problem was, nothing in the existing job market piqued her interest that much and she refused to take a job she wasn’t passionate about.

I found that ridiculous and I told her so.

I couldn’t understand why someone would prefer to make no money instead of a little money. Was it because they too fancy to get their hands dirty? Was it because their parents simply coddled them and told them to wait for the ‘right’ opportunity?

The entire conversation left me bemused.

After taking a week or so thinking about the issue I’ve come to the conclusion that we, Rwandans, have a weird mentality when it comes to work, especially so-called menial labour. I find this attitude hilarious because menial labour is the basis of our economy. The way we downgrade it you’d think that we were a superpower.

Interestingly enough, such snootiness isn’t found in countries that really are superpowers.

Working as bartenders and restaurant staff is a rite of passage for most university graduates in the West (especially in the US and Canada). Mowing lawns and washing cars is a summer job for most high school children and delivering newspapers, as I did, is a job that many primary pupils do before or after school. Working with your hands is celebrated there.

Sweat isn’t something to be avoided at all costs; rather it is something that proves that you have honestly earned your bread.

I’m not saying that things here are as bad as they once were; in fact young people currently in university are at the forefront of the change. These days’ part-time students man the nicer cafés and restaurants in Kigali and other major towns in the country.

These students, who need to pay rent, food and other costs, are doing whatever they must. In fact, I know of one security guard at the College of Education- University of Rwanda (former KIE) who, after working all night, joins his colleagues in class in the morning. In a year, he’ll graduate with a degree from the Faculty of Humanities, Language and Education.

Small businesses, like this stand, keeps an economy ticking over. They shouldn't be underlooked

Small businesses, like this stand, keeps an economy ticking over. They shouldn’t be overlooked

Now, if only those who had graduated had such bloody-mindedness. If only they approached the job market with one thought in mind, “I must pay my bills, no matter what”.

I wish that instead of depositing their CV’s and then sitting at home all day, they bought some flour, cooking oil and started making chapattis to sell. Or better yet, joined the teaching profession in rural areas.

I’m not suggesting that selling boiled eggs is the solution to our employment issue, what I’m saying is that our attitude to certain jobs has to change. If you have to mop floors, mop them.

If you have to create apps, create them. If you have to return to the village and work on the farm, use your education to increase productivity. For at the end of the day, no matter where the banknotes come from, they are all legal tender.

Poverty rose in Rwanda by 6%? You racists, tell that to the birds

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It’s been a while since I railed against some foreign news organisation or another; and this has been on purpose. My thinking is, my reacting to something they broadcast will give them even more ‘airtime’. I’m from the ‘a dog may bark but the train keeps moving’ school of thought when it comes to these media organisations. However, every so often, I’m forced to take my head out of the sand and react to some nonsense they have published.

In today’s case, it is French broadcaster, France 24, that has caused my ire. On Monday, it published an article written by Nicolas Germain, titled ‘Rwanda accused of manipulating poverty statistics’.

This is the gist of the article; according to a nameless source who France 24 quoted, UK-based consultancy firm Oxford Policy Management (it is not affiliated with Oxford University), disputed the methodology that was used to come up with the latest Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey (EICV4) that was released recently by our very won National Institute of Statistics (NISR).

This after the firm did the research and handed over the data for the NISR for publication.

According to this nameless source, “there was a disagreement between OPM (Oxford Policy Management) and Rwanda over the methodology used”.

Bear with me now. So far, all we know is that some unknown person, whether in the OPM, the NISR or in the reporter’s mind (it wouldn’t be the first time for a journalist to invent a source), said that the two organisations disagreed on methodology used to source the data for the EICV4.

Thus far, all that is in dispute is what the EICV4 numbers mean and how they were arrived at. So far so good. That is a dispute for statisticians and mathematicians.

Where Nicolas Germain and France 24 go off the rails is when they attempt to use the dispute over EICV4 numbers to tar Rwanda’s development strides. That, my friends, is where they lose the plot.

In order to do so, they enlist the aid of renowned Rwanda hater and professor of African law and politics, Belgian Filip Reyntjens. Think I’m being unfair to him by calling him a hater, and therefore a man totally lacking in impartiality? Just do a little research and him and you’ll discover the role he played in pre-1994 Rwanda.

Anyway, if we are to believe France 24 and Reyntjens, the source contacted the academic with OPM’s initial methodology and together they reevaluated the EICV4. Unsurprisingly, the two found that instead of poverty falling, it had gone up by a whole SIX PERCENT in 2013-2014!

Now, I admit that I’m no expert in the numbers game, but I have to call ‘bullshit’. Is Reyntjens and his ‘source’ trying to tell me that despite the increased child enrolment in school, increased agricultural productivity, the increased social programmes to help the very poor and the better use of the few resources we have, we’ve gone backwards? How is the possible economically?

I’m not the only one who disputes Reyntjens’ wonky math. When asked to comment on the academics ‘findings’, a spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) said, “we believe the revision of the methodology used to estimate poverty levels for the EICV4 poverty survey was justified”.

The DFID assessment is something that Reyntjens, unsurprisingly, disputes as well (despite that they are actually working on the ground, and he hasn’t stepped on our soil for years). But as anyone whose has either dealt with the man or his academic work will tell you, when it comes to Rwanda, Reyntjens doesn’t think straight or allow his prejudice to be put on the back-burner, not even for a little while.

If the editors at France 24 had been fair, they would not have given the article the time of day. But as I’ve come to expect from them, all standards of fairness and impartiality were thrown out the window when it came to a poor African country. I hate to say it, but the story and how it was reported was tinged with racist overtones.

I’m not jumping to conclusions. What was this story REALLY about?

A white organisation, the OPM, does a survey in an African country. It compiles its data and hands over the results to its black African commissioning partner, the NISR. The African organisation takes a look at the document it receives and thinks to itself, “hold on a minute. This doesn’t seem right”.

It gets its experts and reevaluates the data and comes up with a result. A result not only trusted by the citizenry (because they actually live the results) but by major development partners.

In reaction to such brazen uppity-ness, a white media organisation working hand in hand with a white academic moves to tarnish the work on the black African organisation. And after this organization, the entire government.

It is disgusting and it is obvious. But I’ve gotten used to it so its unsurprising.

So, you want to be a social media celebrity huh??

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I am extremely thankful for many things. I’m thankful for my job, my family, my loved ones and my country. And last but certainly not least, I’m thankful for being a member of the last generation on Earth to reach adulthood without my teenage scraps, loves and mistakes being broadcast through any sort of social network, whether Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat.

I can remember the first time I heard about social media. It was in 2005 and the social network that was all in the rage was called ‘Hi5’. It was something quite akin to Facebook actually. You could share pictures, reach out and ‘friend request’ someone and comment on people’s pictures.

For many of us it was our first taste of what the World Wide Web could do in terms of creating a virtual persona to go hand in hand with your everyday ‘normal’ persona. And boy did we love it.

Then came Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which totally obliterated Hi5. By the time we started getting Twitter profiles and tweeting away, there was almost no separation from the virtual and the real. And sadly, the ugliness of real life started filtering into this virtual world we’d created.

A few days ago I was notified of an Instagram profile that was the very definition of that ugliness. I will not reveal its name here, but what I can say is that it engaged in name-calling, libel and harassment. It gleefully called a few married men and women “whores”, leaked private conversations between couples and engaged in misogyny. It was foul; and the only reason that it could happen was because it’s curators and creators hid behind the cloak of anonymity that the Internet gave them.

Of course hundreds of people reported the profile to the Instagram moderators, saying that the profile was engaged in bullying. It was taken down in a jiffy, but guess what happened next? The people behind the profile tweaked its name, and then opened another account. And continued like nothing had happened.

When I was asked to opine about the Instragram profile, all I could say was that I wasn’t surprised.

For you see, I’m not a huge believer in the inherent goodness of human beings. To be honest, I believe that the only reason that we, humans, don’t act out even more than we do is because we fear public censure. We worry that if we show the ugliness in our hearts we’ll be shunned by the community around us. So, in order to remain within the group, we follow the group’s moral code.

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However, this code is tossed outside the window when anonymity is guaranteed. And thankfully for some, and sadly for the rest of us, social media (which is a community without a morale code) allows for that kind of faceless name-calling.

And the worst thing is, there is absolutely nothing you and I can do about it. That is, unless you control just how much of your life is available online.

Which, I know, is something that we’re slowly being told is ‘uncool’. Artist Andy Warhol was prophetic when he said in 1988, “in the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes”. He understood humanity’s love for attention and celebrity. Today, with a few choice tweets and a raunchy picture or two, everyone can become a social media celebrity.

The problem with celebrity is that while some people will love you with a passion, there will be others who dislike you with the very same fervor. It’s all different sides of the very same coin to be honest.

The only way to beat the trolls and those who would bully others behind anonymous accounts is to simply leave social media alright or to choose what to show to the world in a smarter way. I wish that it wasn’t so. I wish that we lived in a world where everyone was positive. Sadly we don’t.

So, you can either fully engage with the virtual world and become a celebrity of sorts (and take the insults and negativity) or you can say goodbye to social media and live without being insulted by the faceless masses. It’s one or the other. We cannot have our cake and eat it too.

Ask God for an economic miracle? No thanks

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Zambia’s economy has been hit by the falling commodity prices a lot harder than many other countries, with their national currency, the Kwacha, falling 45 percent against the US dollar in just months.

The price of copper, Zambia’s main export, has fallen to levels unseen since 2008 (in the midst of the global financial crisis) and China, the main consumer of Zambian copper, is currently suffering a economic slowdown of sorts. Throw in the power shortages and soaring food prices and it would seem that the southern African nation is teetering on the brink of calamity.

So, what does President Edgar Lungu do? He calls for a national day of prayer to end the crisis, banning all domestic football matches and closing bars until 6pm in the process.

When I first heard the news, I laughed thinking that it was one of those crazy Internet hoaxes that will spread online like wildfire. Imagine my surprise when not only was the idea mooted by the president himself, it would actually take place. And so it did this very Sunday.

Addressing the more than 5,000 Zambians that gathered to pray, President Lungu said, “Our God has heard our cries; he has forgiven us our sins and we are sure he will heal our country. We face serious socio-economic challenges”.

Curiously while addressing his citizens, and almost like an afterthought it would seem, President Lungu added, “there are many out there who have brilliant ideas. Let them come forward”.

I honestly don’t even know where to start.

I understand that religion is a big thing in this continent of ours, and I can respect that. However, I have an issue when this religiosity becomes an excuse for inaction and personal initiative. What Zambia is going through economically isn’t a punishment from God, rather it is simply a facet of the international system; there are boon years and there are lean years.

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When China was gobbling up all the commodities that it could because it was growing in double-digit figures, Zambians were, figuratively, dancing in the streets because copper prices went up and up. The high prices didn’t come from heaven; they came from Beijing.

As with most commodities, copper prices go up and down, down and then down and up depending on the vagaries of the international commodity traders. It’s the curse of countries like ours that sell our minerals (or coffee and tea in Rwanda’s case) without really transforming them into finished products. Our fates are in the hands of others.

There are a couple of things that we can do to mitigate these external shocks. Firstly, we can save some of the money we make (or invest it wisely) during the good years and use it to tide us through the lean ones. Or, we can invest in transforming our economies, by making ourselves less reliant on export of unprocessed commodities and more reliant on other sectors such as tourism and services.

The one thing that we cannot do is rely on prayers to make things miraculously better. If they actually able to stave off economic downturns, don’t you think we’d already know?

President Lungu, in my opinion, is doing the thing that politicians love to do, which is to pass responsibility. President Harry Truman is famous for putting a sign on his desk that said ‘the buck stops here’. If only more politicians lived by those words we’d have less blame-gaming and more action.

This is not an attack on the Zambian people or their president. Rather what I’m asking is that we take more responsibility for our stations in life and understand that we do have the ability to change our situations for the better. When I look at my country today I don’t see a situation that was handed to us by a Higher Being; what I see are the fruits of hard work, persistence and innovation.

This is not an attack on the religious and prayerful (although certain practices such as ‘seeding’ seem to enrich church leaders and not their flock). I understand that belief in a Higher Being brings comfort to those buffeted by trials and tribulations. What I don’t want to see, whether here in Rwanda or in Zambia, is people waiting for manna from heaven when their fate in their very own hands.