Look around and feel proud to be Rwandan

Today you shall not hear a single gripe from me. I will not react to Freedom House’s yearly report stating that Rwanda is not ‘free’. I will neither rubbish the court procedure in South Africa nor the sensationalist reporting that is accompanying the case; however, since I’ve mentioned it already let me give you my take on the initial proceedings and the headlines that are accompanying it. The headlines are alarming because Prosecution witnesses are taking the stand, they haven’t been cross-examined by the defense lawyers and defense witnesses haven’t taken to the stand yet. So, to all those observing the going-on in Johannesburg, don’t fret. Even the State Prosecutor Shaun Abrahams has called the case ‘jinxed’. And it’s only the second week.

What I want to do is to look back to where we came from, where we are now and where we are going. I listened to President Kagame speaking at the Amahoro National Stadium at the Liberation Day celebration. He said, and I’m merely paraphrasing here and there, that since 1994, we have been climbing and climbing a huge mountain and now we’d conquered the peak. We are now going down the mountain. While we shouldn’t think that everything is easy and automatic now, because we are still in danger of tripping over our own feet if we run helter-skelter downhill, the hardest part is over.

Sometimes I feel that in the ever-present desire to do better that beats in the hearts stops us really appreciating where we are right now. Personally, it’s impossible to spend an entire day without shaking my head and complaining about something wrong with the ‘Rwanda’. Either the service at a bank isnt up to my standards or the café I frequent doesn’t have internet connection. Or some overzealous traffic policemen are needlessly giving me a hard time. Or there is a power cut in the neighborhood and I can’t watch Dstv. I can go on for days and days. And I’m sure that all of you can do the same.

It often takes someone who isnt from here, or left Rwanda years ago, or in this case, a president’s speech, to make one step back and appreciate just how well we’ve done. Let’s look at my gripes; while I might complain that my bank is rubbish, it’s only because I expect great service now. In many nations, good customer service isnt a big deal but we’ve made it a priority. And although we have still a huge way to go, we ARE moving forward.

Or what about my complaints about the traffic police? Well, if you want to appreciate them and the tough job they do the best way they can, then travel around our darling continent. You will never look at the neon green-jacketed officers the same way again. So while they can improve, they are leagues ahead of their African counterparts. And what about the poor café manager who I besiege when my FREE wireless internet isnt up to par? I should remind myself of the time I went to Kampala, trawled around for free wireless internet for hours before I simply gave up and marched to the Kampala Serena hotel (paying a ridiculous amount of money).

I have started taking our progress for granted and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Take a deep breath and look around. Where once was the chaotic ‘taxi gare’, we now have a building, Kigali City Tower, that is at home in any western capital. In corners where ‘publi-phones internationale’ were situated are men and women selling internet modems. We have made huge progress and the foundations of a proper state are now present. We must allow ourselves to be proud of our achievements. It doesn’t mean that we should rest on our laurels, no. We must continue forward but not while taking everything we currently enjoy for granted.

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Be liberated, don’t care what people say about you

On Monday we are celebrating our 17th Liberation Day, the day that the yoke of genocidal government was finally removed from the necks of all well-meaning Rwandans. The reason I write ‘well-meaning Rwandans’ is that, even to this day, there hordes of my fellow countrymen and women, who are plotting a return to a pre-1994 Rwanda, one which was characterized by sectarianism and discrimination.

The theme of this year’s annual celebration is ‘Shaping our destiny’. I think that that sentiment is extremely timely. In a world where very often we, the small guys, are buffeted from side to side like a canoe in a category 4 hurricane by events that we absolutely have no power over such as for example, the price of a barrel of petrol or the whims and politics of a donor country, its essential that we take as much control as we possibly can.

Before we talk of shaping our destiny, we must understand and articulate what we want our destiny to be. I’ve read the literature and I’ve watched the videos, so I kind of know where Rwanda’s leadership sees the country in the coming years. But it’s not enough for just the leadership to understand and implement the vision. It must be shared with the end users-the ‘baturage’ in the deepest, darkest villages. Because if this doesn’t happen, then forget about the visions of Rwanda being a middle-income country in less than a decade.

The late, great Bob Marley once sang, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. ‘Redemption Song’, my favorite reggae song, is one long cry for self-determination and human dignity. When Mr. Marley talks about mental slavery, I believe he’s talking about the habits and cultures that keep us entrenched in the miserable state we are in. There are so many things that I find absolutely wonderful about this culture of mine. But I feel that there are so many things in this same culture that will keep us away from our intended goal as a nation and people.

An example of this dangerous societal mindset is our love of having children.  We are taught that children are blessings, gifts from God, proof of a healthy marriage and, truth be told, a free workforce. That is all true. However, we must understand that these tenets of our culture were formed in pre-colonial Rwanda when a horribly high rate child mortality was a given and average life expectancy was in the early 30’s. What all that early death meant was that population pressure on the limited territory of Rwanda wasn’t really an issue. If you travel to the National Museum in Butare you will see photos taken in 1950 showing swathes of unpopulated and pristine hills all over the country. Visits those hills now, they’re probably close to bursting with human activity.

I read somewhere that unless rural and URBAN women stop bearing an average of six children we might have a population of 40 million people in a few decades. That is crazy. Our gross domestic product of 7% a year simply cannot feed all these mouths. But even with these statistics, I’m still bothered by every older person I meet, asking me why I haven’t gotten married and had children. Societal pressure should move from pressuring me, to pressuring those getting married too young.

Recently, a Swedish friend of mine doing her doctoral thesis on rural Rwanda and the effects of development, asked my opinion on Mamdani’s book on Rwanda “When victims become killers’. I told her that I had heard of it but I hadn’t had the time to read it. And neither did I want to. I can barely understand the intricacies of being Rwandan and what made people turn on their neighbors in 1994. So, if I can’t really understand it all, and I’ve lived here since 1994, how can someone who’s barely been here do so? Honestly, I don’t really care what they have to say, I have better things to do with my time.