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.