Fellow Rwandans, we need to give girls the cold, hard facts of life

I feel a trite uncomfortable banging on and on about the plight of young Rwandan girls but I really can’t help it. Is it ever okay for a man, me in this case, to poke holes in the prevailing myth that everything is okay where gender is concerned? Before I get attacked for pointing out that the ‘emperor has no clothes’ let me say that I believe that Rwanda is doing a lot of good things in empowering women. But just because we are doing good things it doesn’t mean that we should rest on our laurels.

But let’s first look at the laurels that we are being rightly lauded for. We have an astronomical number of women at the highest echelons; the Supreme Court president, the foreign minister, the Speaker of parliament, the health minister and various heads of institutions. Rwanda is one of the very few countries worldwide to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer-causing HPV and the Imbuto Foundation is at the forefront of the girls empowerment movement.

I’m often tempted to pat myself on the proverbial back and say that our women are a happy, equal lot with the kind of information needed to truly empower themselves. That is, until I get a slap in the face. I’d always believed that Rwanda had done enough in the field of imparting reproductive health information to young women but I shocked to find that the battle is hardly won. On Sunday, as I do once a month, I was at FAWE Girls School doing a bit of mentoring. The topic we discussed that day was ‘HIV and reproductive health’.

The discussion went well and the teenagers seemed to know quite a bit about HIV and how to prevent it and well as some aspects of reproductive health. It was when we got a little off script that things got interesting. One of the girls asked “is it okay to have sex with your boyfriend”? Instead of giving her a direct answer I asked what the other girls thought. Some of the things that they said absolutely horrified me. From beliefs such as that woman who had given birth or at least undergone an abortion was more sexually desirable to men to teenage girls couldn’t control their sexual urges, I felt myself drown in all the ignorance. When I found that none of the girls had even a rudimentary understanding of birth control pills, I silently cursed their teachers and parents as well. I wondered, if FAWE Girls School is one of the girls schools we have, and their students were so ignorant of things that a pre-teen in the US knew by heart, how bad was it in rural Rwanda?

Something is going very wrong in my opinion. Are we, as a society, failing our girls? Not just the government and school system, but parents as well? Be honest with yourself, how many of you with daughters, nieces or young sisters give them the facts of life, the ‘birds and the bees’? If you don’t, where do you think they get that knowledge, from their school’s biology teachers? Forget about that, that isnt happening. How many schools have a sex-ed class? I don’t know of even one. And because sex is simply taboo in our society, people are putting their heads in the sand and pretending that their children aren’t engaging in it. News flash: they are, all the time. I can understand why parents, and the larger society, are so uncomfortable with facing these facts. This society is a bit too religious for my taste, and this Christian influence is making ‘straight-talk’ difficult. But we must find a way of giving our girls the uncensored facts. While we might think this uncomfortable, better we are uncomfortable rather than dealing with the consequences of bad decisions made out of ignorance.

Youth development in sports is Rwanda’s only hope

It is with a huge sense of pride and ‘agaciro’ that I watched the Baby Wasps national under-17 football team put up a spirited fight in the group stages of the FIFA under-17 World Cup currently taking place in Mexico. As I write, I don’t know whether we have thrashed Canada and therefore possibly qualified for the next phase of the championship. Nevertheless, even if we crash  out of the tournament this weekend, I have nothing but good feelings towards this team. The success of the team is a clear manifestation of just what is possible when there is not just a desire to invest in young people but a real effort.

Football, and any sport really, is always a grassroot effort. It isnt an inverted pyramid, where the success of the national team (the Amavubi Stars in our case), somehow leads to the success of the game. Look at the legendary Amavubi Stars team, lead by Desire Mbonabucya which beat Ghana and Uganda and booked itself a ticket to the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. The team, including giants of our domestic games such as Gatete, Karekezi, Manamana, Nshimiyimana and Katauti, lost narrowly to Tunisia (the eventual champions), drew with Guinea and beat the DR Congo. While they still didn’t get to the second round, they returned home as all-conquering heroes. But ask yourself, what’s happened since then? Continuously bad results and changes of technical staff as the impatient football administrators and fans demanded the high standards that they’d gotten used to. However, everyone failed to realize that the team that qualified to the African Nations Cup was a freak of nature, our ‘Golden Generation’ to borrow a phrase that the English coined to describe their national team that included players of the caliber of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard. This golden generation of ours didn’t come about because of thoughtful planning or strategy. It was a fluke.

That is why I was extremely pleased when FIFA gave our local football administration, Ferwafa, a grant which they then used to build a football academy. Although some thought that the academy would become a white elephant I was never one of those skeptics. And the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The team that is in Mexico is composed of a disproportionate number of Ferwafa academy players.  This team must be coddled and kept together as they get older. But they mustn’t be the focus of all the attention. A production line of talent can be established if the youth structures remain the focus of everyone’s efforts. The youth structure isnt simply the academies here in Kigali. Kigali isnt where the talent is; the talent is all over the country. There might be a child somewhere in Nyaruguru who might have the ball skills of Lionel Messi but who will never get a chance to harness those skills because no one will spot his talent and develop it. Ask yourself, why Jamaica, an island of not more than 20 million people, is able to produce some of the fastest athletes in the world, both women and men and at a junior and senior level. Or why Ethiopia is able to produce a conveyor-belt of long and middle distance runner.  It isnt because the Jamaicans and Ethiopians have superior genes. I believe that is simply because they have scouts in every nook and cranny searching for the next big thing. Why are they wasting years of their lives doing this? Because if, and when, they unearth a gem it translates to cold, hard cash.

That is what we need to do here. While establishing a national scouting system, and then having the coaches and pitches to develop that talent, is time-consuming and expensive, this is where the smart money is. Look for the talent, develop that talent and then sit back and watch as that talent amazes you. While I’m talking football that applies to everything I know.

Rwanda? A failing state? The record speaks for itself

It’s been an interesting week for anyone interested in all things Rwanda. On Monday Victoire Ingabire’s criminal trial on charges of funding terrorism, attempting to cause state insecurity and genocide ideology was supposed to begin after being postponed for almost a month. However, I, along with the massed crowd of journalists, were disappointed to discovery that we’d have to wait till September 5th to observe the Rwandan ‘Trial of the Century’. Although the Prosecution was ready to try, the defence team and an impassioned Ingabire told the court that they needed more time to prepare their defence. Quite an anti-climax in my opinion.

But as soon as I put that controversial case to rest, temporarily at least, I was broadsided by a Fund for Peace report called ‘The Failed State Index 2011’. Going through the report, which to be honest, was barely a page long, I was shocked to find that Rwanda was deemed a state in, and I quote, “in danger”. I assume they meant a state ‘in danger’ of being deemed a failure. Our ranking, 36, is nothing but a slap in the face of us all. Especially when countries such as Bahrain, Libya and the West Bank (although not a country, it was lumped with Israel) were better ranked.

I’ve railed against reports time and time again and to be honest, I’m getting tired of spouting the same arguments that these reports are ‘unfair, lacking relevant facts, unhelpful, biased and based on methodology that is suspect’. But again, I must.

The Index based its ranking on these indicators; demographic pressure, refugees/internally displaced persons, group grievances, human flight, uneven development, economic decline, legitimacy of the state, public services, human rights, security apparatus, fractionalized elites and external intervention. As in any discussion, there must be a riposte for every argument made by the opposing side. The Fund for Peace has made its arguments, and although I’m loath to call myself any kind of spokesperson for the Rwandan government, I would like to reply to them using this humble forum, The New Times.

Let’s start with the ‘demographic pressure’ issue. While it’s a fact that Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in the world, to call it a symptom of ‘failed state’ status is misleading. Is the Fund for Peace equating population density with unstable government? If our high density (380 people per square kilometer) is an issue, then why isn’t it an issue in Holland (which has 4o2 people people per square kilometer and is still ranked 166)?Looking at the demographics, and not the people that make up the demographics is unfortunate. In Rwanda we believe that the greatest resource that the country has its people. Rwandans aren’t causes of instability but rather resources that will help the nation fulfill its destiny.

The issue of refugees/internally displaced people is almost null and void in my opinion. First of all, Rwanda doesn’t have internally displaced people. Secondly, its been on news for awhile now that the UN High Commission for Refugees is debating invoking the Cessation Clause at the end of this year, which will remove the word ‘Rwandan refugee’ from the international lexicon.

I cannot comment on each and every indicator but I shall comment on two more indicators; public services and economic decline. The fact of the matter is that public services such as roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, optic fibre networks have hugely increased over the last few years. Just one indicator. From 1964 to  1994, Rwanda produced 1,900 graduates. Today, the National University of Rwanda is home to 8,000 students. If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is. To call Rwanda’s economy one in ‘decline’ is foolhardy. You can’t argue with these statistics: Rwanda has averaged 7% growth over the last 8 years and Gross Domestic Product has increased from a mere US $290 to over US $600.

I challenge the Fund for Peace, and anyone who doesn’t take their ‘Index’ with a pinch of salt to dispute these figures.

Of riots, gorillas and football

I’m a huge sports fan; I watch everything from the UEFA Champions, to the Roland Garros tennis tournament and even the World’s Strongest Man contest. So, when I learnt that the final game of the Stanley Cup ice-hockey championship was being played on Wednesday I put it in my ‘must-watch’ list. While ice-hockey might be not be big here, the love of the sport was drummed into me as a kid as I laced my skates and pretended to be the legendary Wayne Gretzky. As Canada’s national sport, playing the game was a way an immigrant like me fit into the society I found myself in. So forgive me my strange ‘un-Rwandan’ taste. Anyway, I mournfully watched the Vancouver Canucks get thrashed by the Boston Bruins 4-nil, shut off the television and went to bed. To say that a lot of the Canadian fans didn’t quietly accept the outcome is an understatement.

A riot ensured; irate fans overturned and set fire to vehicles and even Vancouver Police squad cars weren’t respected, they too were set alight. At least 140 people were reported as injured during the incident, one critically; at least four people were stabbed and 85 people were arrested for breach of peace, eight for public intoxication and eight for breaking and entering, assault or theft. What was the bill after the night of collective insanity?  The early estimated losses due to vandalism, theft, and damage to property so far exceed a million dollars.

That incident made me wonder, would such a thing have happened in Kigali (and not just because the Police wield a mean cane)? I can’t see that happen. Simply, because we have bigger things to worry about and not simply the scores of an Amavubi Stars game.  The priorities we have in Rwanda are economic development, security, agricultural advancement and education. We don’t have the time and energy to go crazy about a sports result. And thank goodness for that, especially with the horrible football results our national football team is getting (losing 3-1 to minnows Burundi was a new low).

Yesterday, the annual Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony was held in the Northern Province. We owe the 600,000 plus tourists that come through our borders (and leave millions behind) to these furry mammals and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen them in the wild. And I bet that the vast majority of The New Times readership hasn’t either. We cannot expect visitors to help us reach the tourism receipts that we wish for; we need to pull our own weight. We have some of the most breathtaking parks but we refuse to visit them. Shame on us. I have made it my personal mission to climb the Virunga’s to see the great ape,  tocamp in the Akagera (ignoring the laughs of the hyenas) and take a walk high up in the canopy in Nyungwe. Enjoying and exploring our nation isn’t the monopoly of Europeans and Americans. Maybe the Rwanda Tourism Board should launch a ‘native’ tourism drive. I feel like it can do a better job in attracting Rwandans to the different sites; right now, I feel like all the concentration is still geared to attracting foreigners. This must change and the tourism board must be on the forefront of this.

Onto a totally different tangent. Today our U-17 national football team is playing at U-17 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, opening against mighty England. I’m not the god-fearing type but I will say a small prayer for our boys. I’m sure that the young boys will do us extremely proud. And even if they fail miserably I trust that no one’s car will be overturned.

What I wouldn’t have given to have a Rwanda Day in 1988

Rwandans from around North America flocked to Chicago, Illinois on Friday in their thousands to attend ‘Rwanda Day’. And of course among the thousands of Rwandans walking towards the Hyatt Hotel was a small bunch of party poopers and rabble rousers, standing on the sidelines and yelling all sorts of things on megaphones. While these people, led by arch self-promoters Paul Rusesabagina and Theogene Rudasingwa, tried to make the event a less than joyous occasion, they failed miserably. More than three thousand Rwandans, men, women, young and old got the chance to dance to the latest music from Kitoko and Massamba Intore, talk investment with John Gara CEO RDB, meet the President and a lot of his cabinet and interact with each other in a two-day celebration. The Rwanda Day theme of “Agaciro, Our Heritage, Our Future’ was one that each speaker referred to. Friends of mine living in the US who attended the celebration excitedly told me about the party mood and sense of belonging that the Day gave them.

But as I’ve learnt to expect, criticism abounded on the various Rwandan forums on the Web. “Why did they spend all that money organizing it in Chicago? It would have been better if it was held in Butare! Rwanda is too poor to spend money on such ‘frivolity’ while children in the villages don’t have enough to eat”. Why does Kagame always talk about agaciro (self-worth)”?

Well, I would like to offer some ripostes to these remarks. Lets talk about all the ‘money’ that was spent. Certainly flights and hotels rooms for all the people travelling to the US must have cost an arm and a leg. However, let’s look at just two of the members of the Rwandan delegation. Sina Gerald, proprietor of Urwibutso (maker of the famous Akabanga chili sauce) and Jack Kayonga, head of the Rwandan Development Bank.  Mr. Sina Gerald is one of the most prominent Rwandan businessmen and his company directly and indirectly employs thousands of his countrymen. He took the opportunity during Rwanda Day to further market his products and increase his penetration in the North American market. What does this mean? With a bigger market globally, Mr. Sina Gerald will increase production, enriching the farmers who supply him and bringing much needed forex into the country. So, while his ticket and board must have cost a pretty penny, it was money well spent.

What about Mr. Kayonga? One of the biggest sources of foreign currency after tourism and agriculture is remittances. Rwanda has a huge diaspora; I bet you can find at least one Rwandan living in every country in the world, save perhaps North Korea and Papua New Guinea.   These Rwandans have jobs and earn money and while they might see their immediate futures in their present surroundings, they almost always want to eventually come home. Or even if they don’t plan to, they always have some family back home who receive a few dollars from them every once and again. This money coming has the possibility of enriching our economy and our banks are on the forefront of all this. Addressing the Rwanda Day attendees, Kayonga assured them that Rwandan banks finally had the capacities to give the disapora the sophisticated banking services and products that they demanded. Once again, this ticket was worth it.

But I don’t think that we should think about Rwanda Day in just monetary terms. As someone raised in the Diaspora myself, I know just how alone one can feel living in North America. One of the most beautiful aspects of our culture, and sometimes the most annoying, is the sense of community and community involvement in your day to day life. Amid all the snow and self-centeredness of North America and Europe, you end up forgetting what it means to be a part of the Rwandan community. When I was a child living in Canada I didn’t know what being a Rwandan meant. The government of Juvenal Habyarimana wanted me to forget where I came from and renounce my heritage. Because of the will and drive of my elders I got my country back. Now, this government goes out of its way to actually reach out to Rwandans far and wide, to remind them that they have a home. And that is something to be celebrated, not mocked.

Officers, a smile wouldn’t hurt anybody

Friday night, or should I say Saturday morning, I was tiredly driving home after a night out drinking and dancing with friends when I came upon a traffic police roadblock slightly beyond KBC. If you’ve been drinking too much a traffic police checkpoint is the scariest sight in the world and with good reason. Rwanda has some of the toughest drink-driving laws I’ve ever encountered; spending a day or two in prison and then paying a huge fine is a punishment you’ll expect to receive. I knew that, and I’d been drinking quite moderately. So, when I saw the roadblock, I didn’t have the jitters.
When I was stopped I cheerfully greeted the police officer and waited instruction. “Give me your papers”, he demanded. “Which ones, I asked insurance, vehicle registration or permit”? “Your permit”. I gave it to him smiling but obviously I had done something to rub him the wrong way. Maybe it was the car radio that I refused to totally switch off. “Are you drunk”, he asked. “No”. “Yes you are”. “Prove it”. He ordered me to get out of my car and follow him towards a group of his colleagues. One of them, who looked like he’d had a bit too much to drink in my unprofessional opinion, didn’t like my entire demeanor, especially when I insisted in speaking to them in English. Of course you can say I was provoking them by not speaking in Kinyarwanda but anyone who has heard me speak it can attest to the fact that I’m better off not attempting it. Funny enough, the rude officer, who kept insisting that “this is not London”, was the one not wearing a uniform.
The group of officers, maybe four or five, kept attempting to get me to admit that I was drunk while I kept insisting that they employ a breathalyzer. Seeing that I was sticking to my guns (and citing our law on official languages) Mr. Un-uniformed Officer asked, “are you a lawyer”? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him I was a mere writer, so I said yes. They pulled me aside and unleashed the dreaded breathalyzer. I cheerfully took a deep breath and blew hard into the contraction. It beeped and then a few seconds later showed its reading. The officer who was administering the test asked me to blow into it once more. I did so. But something was wrong; they didn’t look too happy. My blood alcohol level was still very low. They gave me back my driving permit and bade me adieu. But they didn’t look too happy. Actually, to be honest, they looked like I had robbed them of good fun.
I can’t assume to know what they teach in traffic police training school about service, but I’m pretty sure that officers aren’t taught to think that a law abiding citizen is the bad guy. In fact, I’m of the opinion that I should have had a lot better treatment because I wasn’t a menace to fellow drivers. But in all honesty, all I felt was open hostility.
Rwanda is touting itself as the service and ICT hub of Central Africa but I must ask, how will this be possible when something as simple as common courtesy is lacking? When good, law-abiding behavior is not rewarded by a smile and a wave goodbye? Are we supposed to stay in our homes on weekends because we might be the victims of bullies? We are celebrating ‘Traffic Week” and all the talk is about road safety and what not. While it’s is pertinent that the National Police asks us to be responsible, I feel that they must also treat us, with respect and courtesy. A smile wouldn’t kill you dear officers.

An open letter to John Bull

My early morning ritual is so British I could be used as a model for the ‘English way of life’. I wake up to the sonorous tones of the Queens English on the BBC, sip some tea while watching the BBC World Service news and then top it all of my reading the Guardian, Telegraph and the Independent newspapers, albeit in electronic form. Yesterday, while going through this daily ritual I learnt that the British International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, was getting quite a battering in the right leaning and tabloid press because of the government’s plan to increase British overseas development aid by four billion pounds per year, from the 8.4 billion pounds they gave in 2010.

Many of the opponents of the aid increase were incensed at the increase in aid, especially while other government departments, such as defence and transport, faced budgetary cuts. “Why, commentators asked, should we send money to Africa and Asia while the care for OUR elderly is disgraceful and the British armed forces have no aircraft carriers”?

The Development Secretary made the argument that Britons would gleam a lot of moral authority from helping struggling overseas nations.  Britain would become “a development superpower”.  I’m not normally interested in the intricacies of the British budget but as a citizen of a country that receives about 83 million pounds of direct budgetary support, I feel that I must get my voice heard as well in this conversation.

Let’s deal with the most basic facts; the entire British aid budget is a measly 0.56% of GDP. It’s a shame that some British commentators go around pretending that, if no aid money was sent to help people around the world, all of Britain’s problems would be solved. They know that this money would register barely a drop in the British deficit. To politicize aid increases is behavior unbecoming of an English gentleman.

But let’s look as this ‘aid’ they are talking about; is it really a ‘gift’ to us, the poor people of the world?  Well, let’s start with the history of British wealth. Would London have had so much largesse to give if it didn’t ruthlessly exploit the poorer people of the world? Would they have enjoyed such an empire, ‘where the sun never set’, without the slave labour of Africans, without the mines of India, without the naval presence in Hong Kong?  To pretend that the British government doesn’t have the moral duty to give back and try to undo the damage they did is silly.

But even if we ignore the moral duty the UK government has, it’s simply good business to increase budgetary support. In this globalised world it simply makes sense to increase the wealth of poor. China plays it right. It realizes that the poor people aren’t the basket-cases the West makes them out to be. These people are both customers and suppliers; they buy Chinese goods in their droves and their agricultural products are sold in the markets of Beijing. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not a servant-master one.

Rwanda is a good example of why aid should be increased.  This money is spent to improve health facilities, to improve schools, to improve agricultural practices and good governance. The impact of all this? A more prosperous people. And guess what happens when there is more money in people’s pockets? They stop trying to run off to the colder climes of Europe and North America searching for greener pastures (and taxing the oh-so precious welfare state that Westerners have built for themselves) PLUS they actually have the money to buy the superior goods that the Brits and others produce. At the end of the day everyone moves forward.

Girls, will you blaze your own paths?

There is a popular Beyonce Knowles you’ll hear whenever, and if you ever, go to a local discotheque; ‘Who runs the world (Girls)’. So, in the vein of other great feminist hits such as Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and Janet Jackson’s early smash ‘Control’, the American songstress  is flying the flag for girl power.  While I’m sure that the song will get momentous amounts of airplay on our domestic airwaves I think that the lyrics of the song, which includes lines like ‘my persuasion can build a nation’ haven’t really begun to enter the psyche of the average Rwandan girl child. And it’s not fault of theirs.  Let me explain.

I do a bit of pro-bono mentoring once a month at FAWE Girls School, an activity that I absolutely love doing. I truly believe that the girls in this school are the next generation of Rwandan leader and I take my responsibility of sharing a little of my life experience with them very seriously. These ladies have great dreams; they want to be lawyers, engineers, surgeons and businesswomen of note and I believe that they will. Simply because they have the tools to do so: a great school that has produced a wondrous alumnus of high-flyers and a work ethic that brings to light my own laziness in high school. The mentoring sessions that I, and other fellow mentors, follow is one that was planned by both the Imbuto Foundation and the mentors themselves to give the young students the tools needed to get ahead in the world. Last week’s session was guided by the wish to teach the students ‘intergenerational communication’ skills. In other words, how to talk and truly communicate with older people.

The session went on swimmingly until the question and answer session. One of girls, who’d been quiet for the entire session, threw a grenade in the midst of the hitherto easy going session.  “I want to dress the way I choose, in jeans and a tee-shirt, but my mother wants me to dress more feminine; what am I supposed to do”? A fellow mentor, a well-accomplished young woman I respect, shocked me. “Listen to your mother, she advised, she loves you and wants the best for you. Wearing what she approves will show her that you respect and love her”. To say that I was dumbstruck is an understatement. And while I’m sure that we mentors weren’t supposed to clash outsight, I couldn’t take her statement without rebuttal.

I told the girls, in very clear words, that nobody loved them more than they loved themselves. That no one, not their parents, not their teachers, not their society had the right to dictate to them what they were supposed to do with their lives. “As long as you don’t break any laws or grievously hurt yourself or your family with the decisions you make, you have full rein and control of your destiny”.

Living in Rwanda since 1994, I’ve watched this society change in many astounding ways.  The development that this country has undergone has changed the way Rwandans deal with so many things. However, I think that our society can do a lot better in terms of giving girls the freedom to do what they choose. Why should it be okay for a boy (or man) to dress the way he chooses, to choose the career path they want, to live life the way they choose? And what makes it even more unfortunate is the fact that it isn’t necessarily us, the men, who make life difficult. When it is a woman that tells an impressionable young girl that her wishes mean nothing, I get worried about the strides that Rwanda is making in terms of gender relations and roles.