Refugee camp tourism is tasteless and must be condemned

New Dawn Associates (NDA) should be Public Enemy Number One. And if you don’t have a beef with them, by the end of this article I certainly hope you shall. NDA is a tourism company which, in its own words, provides activities that are “life-enriching for the participating visitors as well as their Rwandan hosts”. But, in my humble opinion, instead of creating “culturally engaging, intellectually challenging and very intimate high-value experiences that offer unique insights, educate and provoke” (as its brochure promises) NDA is engaging in practices that are honestly disgusting and morally questionable.

On Sunday, I visited the Union Trade Center Bourbon Café for breakfast. I didn’t think that I would leave the café with a bad taste in my mouth, but after reading a NDA brochure, which I found on the table, titled ‘Humure: a visit to a refugee community near Akagera National Park’ managed to do just. With a photo of a young girl carrying a pot of rwagwa (local beer) on her head on the cover, children in rags doing Intore dances next to grass-thatched hovels and, of course, an attractive white woman taking in the ‘ethnic atmosphere’, the brochure cleverly ticked all the boxes of a real ‘African experience’ (smiling piss-poor people, dancing, moonshine and adventure).

The brochure introduces the people of Humure thus:  “When they were thrown out of Tanzania from one day to another [sic] in late 2006, the Rwandan government offered several communities of Rwandan returnees to settle [sic] in inhospitable [emphasis mine] areas south of Akagera National Park.

Talking about NDA’s role, the brochure continues: “We are working with the villages of Humure and Ramiro in Ndego Sector to offer unique insights into the harsh [emphasis mine] lives of refugees whose only choice is to start anew in one of the driest parts of the country where very few things grow and regular invasions of game animals pose a threat to fields, houses and even lives [emphasis mine].

While NDA promises that the tourism empowers the people of Humure and Ramiro, socially and economically, I completely disagree. The NDA is hoodwinking both tourists and the community by pretending to act altruistically, for example, it says that according to its benefit sharing mechanism, the percentage of the profit sharing is seventy percent. The only issue is that the brochure doesn’t explain who receives the seventy percent and who receives the thirty. I am willing to bet almost everything I have that it isnt the good people of Ndego Sector.  With prices per person going as high as eighty dollars per person, there should be enough money going around but obviously there isnt. The returnees are not the only people being taken for a ride, so are the tourists. They naively think that they will improve peoples’ livelihoods, but the only people whose lives they are improving are the NDA’s owners.

I have nothing against community tourism. In fact, I think that it is a great way to help people earn some money. What I am against is treating people like victims and basket-cases. The attitudes that the people at NDA have are both predatory and inaccurate. In one breath they say that the area the returnees live can barely support agriculture, and then in the very same breath, talk about milk and honey production cooperatives.  And to insinuate that the returnees were offered inhospitable land, almost deliberately, by the Government is plain wrong. Sure, the area is quite arid, but so is almost the entire Eastern Province. Was the Government supposed to have offered the returnees choice real estate in Nyarutarama? Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and land is at a premium.

I understand that it’s tough for tour companies to get customers, but good taste should not be sacrificed at the altar of the mighty dollar. We mustn’t exploit our fellow Rwandans and their misery for money. These are human beings we are dealing with, we must diminish their humanity.

I certainly hope that Rica Rwigamba, the head of RDB-Tourism, looks into the activities of NDA. Plus, I bet that NDA isnt the only fishy tour company. Mrs. Rwigamba has a lot of work cut out for her.

I doubt that I know what Rwanda, and being Rwandan means

“If you know your history, then you would know where you are coming from”. These are the immortal lyrics of reggae god, Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley, in his, and the Wailers, legendary song ‘Buffalo Soldier’.  Rwanda is running, helter-skelter, into a brave, new future. It will be a future of futuristic skyscrapers, lightening quick Internet connectivity, swanky neighborhoods, export-based industry and world class entertainment if Vision2020 is to be believed. And having seen Rwanda, and Kigali in particular, grow in leaps and bounds, I must admit that I believe that the dream is within our grasp. As we march towards this future, I can’t help but look backwards. Not because I am revisionist and wish for the bad old days, but because I feel like there is something missing in my personal jigsaw. And that missing piece is my past, my history. My personal history, and who I am, is linked to where I, and my nation, came from. I am a 1994 returnee, a child of refugees and beneficiary of post-1994 development. These three facts form the core of my personality.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more curious about country’s history. I found it extremely sad that I could talk for days about the 1789 French Revolution but I couldn’t discuss anything about Mwami Rwabugiri’s reign yet he ruled in the late 1800’s. I’m a huge history buff but I cannot discuss my own pre-1994 history with any authority.  I’ve tried to do some research, but if you cannot read French or Kinyarwanda, forget about learning anything. All you can get is various histories, tinged in political theory. For example, the ancient kings were either the epitome of ethnic privilege and oppression or the symbol of national pride, power and unity. What you cannot get is simply historic fact. For example, no matter where you reside on the French political spectrum, you have to acknowledge the Reign of Terror, lead by the Jacobins and the extravagance of the French monarchy.  But when one tries to figure out Rwandan history, ones left with myths and legends. I think it is high time Rwandan history leaves the hallowed halls of our national museums and universities, and allowed to enter everyday life. Maybe Rwandan history should become a subject in secondary and primary school. When I sat my senior six exams, more than a decade ago, I remember being asked to discuss the history of the Swahili people and thinking, “how in the world will this information be useful to me”? I’m of the opinion that our students should be tested in their knowledge of their own history. But of course, a curriculum that is agreed by educational experts and historians must be formulated first. And that is the hard part. But moving away from just history, what about our culture? On Monday, this publication ran an article about a group of Japanese volunteers showcasing their culture in the Southern Province. Among the things they showed the awed crowd was Kendo, a form of martial arts. Karate and Kung-fu are popular pastimes here, but did you know that there was Rwandan martial arts called ‘Gucyinga ingabo’? I didn’t. But as soon as I did, I wished that I had had the chance to learn it.  If would have been amazing if there was an ‘Itorero’ camp, run like a North American summer camp, geared towards teenagers in, say Nyanza,  teaching traditional dance, songs, culture when I was younger. I would have certainly loved to have had the opportunity to join it. Because right now, all I am is a member of the Facebook generation, constantly being buffeted by the winds of popular culture. I have almost nothing rooting me in the rolling hills of ‘Urwa Gasabo’. And I know I’m certainly not the only one, it’s a generational issue.  And unless we want to have a bunch of ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ citizens, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, something must be done.

Sweden has fallen for prey to an old fashioned hoodwink

Yesterday, instead of sending us a Valentine’s Day card, extolling our mutual friendship,  I learnt that the Swedish government sent us Evode Mudaheranwa, First Consular in Rwanda’s embassy in Stockholm. While we love having our citizens back, plus I’m sure he missed Kigali’s sunny weather, I must say I was disappointed in the Swedish government when I heard the reason why.  According to a Washington Post story, Mr. Mudaheranwa, was expelled from the icy Nordic nation because he was engaged in “refugee espionage” (this according to an unnamed source in the Swedish foreign ministry who talked to their correspondent).

The Washington Post story stated that officials from the Swedish foreign ministry declined to comment on the expulsion, but then continued to say that Sweden is home to a small community of Rwandans, “some of whom run blogs and online newspapers that are critical of Rwandan President Paul Kagame”. Well, I know something about this ‘small’ community because a lot of them are members of the journalistic fraternity. People like McDowell Kalisa, Nelson Gatsimbazi and Jean Bosco Gasasira are people I either know personally, or through my work. I will not enter the debate on whether they deserved ‘asylum’ or whether their publications or statements really matter to the average ‘muturage’, but I must wonder why Rwanda would need to spy on them. It simply doesn’t make sense to waste resources on them.

Maybe people more knowledgeable than I in international diplomatic practices can correct me, but I don’t think that meeting your nationals can be termed ‘espionage’. While it might seem strange for non- Rwandans for diplomats to regularly meet and socialize with their national, anyone who knows Rwandan diplomatic practice realizes this is how they conduct their work. This isnt something that should be treated with suspicion, it should rather be emulated instead by everyone else.

Throw in the fact that these fellows aren’t exactly nuclear scientists’ gone rogue, and I come to the conclusion that this incident is akin to the Jonathan Musonera/ Rene Mugenzi- Met Police incident in London last year.

Back then, a totally unknown fellow (who I learnt through the ensuring media furor was a member of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), headed by Gahima, Karegeya, Rudasingwa and Nyamwasa) was warned by the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) that it had information that his life was in danger because of Rwandan ‘assassin teams’. Never mind that no one was arrested or the fact that this ‘politician’ was someone very few people had heard of. I found it interesting just how quickly the story was killed in the British political arena and although it was pushed quite hard by some sections of the British press, it died a natural death there as well. At the end, Scotland Yard ended up with an egg on its face, in my humble opinion, and the RNC got a bit of airtime. Oh, and Mr. Musonera and Mr. Mugenzi got their Andy Warhol ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.

I’ve always believed that the whole ‘London incident’ was a Machiavellian ploy by the RNC fellows to put the Government of Rwanda on the defensive. But what they failed to understand was that Rwanda-UK ties wouldn’t be severed through lies and intrigue. They were stronger and deeper than that.  I feel the same way about the Swedish tiff.

At the end of the day, very few people really care about what our nationals are doing in Sweden. Whether they oppose or support the Government, life continues here in Rwanda. Every day, people are climbing out of poverty and illiteracy; that is what we really care about. How we shall raise per capita income from an average of $500 to $1,000 as quickly as possible. This is NOT a case of espionage my dear Swedish friends; it’s a storm in a teacup, brewed in the kitchens of disgruntled politicians. Just you wait and see.

Will the ‘Big Boys’ ever let Rwanda develop?

The biggest headline this year will not be ‘Leon Mugesera lands in Kigali’! ‘Victoire Ingabire set free’, ‘RPA innocent of Habyarimana killing’ or ‘Rwandan athlete wins gold in London Summer Olympics’! We already have the biggest, and most important, headline so far; it was in this newspaper yesterday. ‘Poverty down by 12%-survey’.

The survey in yesterday’s paper is mentioned is the third Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey; this document is a joint effort by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the National Institute of Statistics Rwanda. According to it, poverty has dropped by 11.8 percent since 2006, a reduction rate six times faster than what the country achieved between 2000 and 2006. In real terms, it means that about a million Rwandans can no longer be termed as ‘poor’, according to the United Nations anyway.

The survey, which represents the international benchmarks for measuring poverty, will be launched by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) at a ceremony to be attended by President Paul Kagame and development partners.

While the Mugesera return was a big victory for Rwanda’s standing in the eyes of the international community, the Trevidic report a slap in the face to revisionists everywhere and a Rwandan victory on the London track will be great news indeed, in the larger scheme of things they aren’t a big deal. To the villager in the Eastern Province, a gold medal won’t count for much if he is overwhelmed with hunger pangs.  But yesterdays headline changes all that.

People get hungry because they are poor. But when poverty gets pushed back so much, there is huge change in each and every person’s life. Not only will a villager’s life become less harsh, their improvement makes my life easier. Poverty is a weight that bogs us all down, so when this weight is lifted, even a little bit, one can’t help but sing “alleluia”.

I’m not really surprised about the improvement, I mean look around and see all the development, I must admit that I’m pleased to finally have some statistics at my fingertips.

Early yesterday, I saw a tweet on Twitter that boggled my mind. According to International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook 2011, Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is set to increase from $584.92 from 2011 to $621.36 this year, making it second only to Kenya in this region in terms of GDP. We are seriously on the move and nothing can hold us back. Or so one thinks.

It annoys me to no end that we aren’t really in control of our own destinies. We might fight poverty with all our might, but all it needs to bring the house down on our heads is international stupidity. A great case in point is the unnecessary saber rattling that Israel and the United States are engaged in presently in regards to Iran.

Yesterday, the United States increased sanctions on Iran after Barack Obama signed an executive order on Sunday  implementing parts of a new sanctions regime passed by the US Congress late last year, allowing US institutions to freeze all property and interests of the Iranian government. This decision comes in the wake of Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil and natural gas shipping lane from the Gulf.  Throw in the fact that Israel has also suggested it may attack Iran’s nuclear sites soon, after insisting that the government in Tehran is close to being able to build a nuclear weapon, and we have a major problem.

I won’t go into the debate on whether Tehran will or will not build a bomb (I don’t think it will, but if it does I can understand why. Iranians don’t live in the nicest global neighborhood). What I want to highlight is just how vulnerable we are to other people’s whims and fancies. I can only pray that cool heads prevail because if they don’t, the global monetary crisis that ravaged our economy will seem like a minor hiccup.

I pray the Supreme Court reduces Uwimana and Mukakibibi’s jail sentence

I want to wish everyone a happy Heroes Day. This is a day we celebrate the very best of Rwanda. We remember the lives, and deaths, of people like Maj. Gen Fred Gisa Rwigema, Mwami Mutara Rudahigwa Charles Leon Pierre, Rwagasana Michel, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Niyitegeka Felicite and the students of the Nyange Girls School.

While we all cannot be the kind of heroes who sacrifice their lives for their fellow countrymen, we can all do our bit to make this country a better place for our children and our children’s children. My bit is joining fellow alumni of the Academy of Leadership, Competitiveness and Prosperity (commonly known as ALCP) in mentoring teenagers in various secondary schools in Kigali, helping them become better members of the Rwandan community.

I want to send my appreciation to our modern day heroes; the policemen and women who stand in the blazing sun all day directing traffic, the soldiers who patrol our streets at ungodly hours, the teachers who are underpaid but still do their best and the nurses who care for our sick. Yes, their merely doing what they are supposed to, but I can say with all honesty that I wouldn’t last a day doing what they do. So, once again, I wish all our heroes, famous or not, a great Heroes Day.

A huge case is being heard right now in the Supreme Court building here in Kigali. Agnes Nkusi Uwimana and Saidath Mukakibibi, editor and reporter respectively of the ‘Umurabyo’ newspaper, are appealing their convictions by the High Court for threatening state security by publishing material aimed at inciting public disorder and creating ethnic divisions.   Ms. Uwimana was given a jail term of 17 years while her employee, Mukakibibi, got a ‘shorter’ seven years in the slammer.

Maybe I am biased, for you see these two women are members of the media fraternity that I call myself a part of, but I cannot for the life of me understand why the High Court handed down such a harsh sentence. I will be the first to admit that these two individuals represent a lot of the weaknesses in Rwanda’s media. They passed opinion as fact, libeled the person of the President and rode roughshod over simple journalistic ethics and best practices. However, the question that should be asked is if whether the offence merited the punishment.

Men and women, found guilty of participating in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, have been jailed for less time. So have armed robbers, hoodlums, rapists and corrupt officials, who’ve stolen millions of francs from the national treasury. The only way that the sentences can be justified is if these two women, one of whom suffers from HIV, threatened the security of the entire Rwandan community through their writing. Obviously, they didn’t.  Whatever they wrote in Umurabyo, despite its vitriolic language, didn’t affect anyone. People read the nonsense and then continued with their lives.

At the end of the day, Rwandans know what is good for them and what isnt. The Rwanda of Hassan Ngenze, of the imfamous Kangura newspaper, is no more. We have moved on as a people.  We aren’t the same people who thought that gun-toting vampires would come in the middle of the night and suck the blood of our children. I’m not ignoring the power of the written word. However, judges and prosecutors should know that we have the maturity to know what should be taken as fact, and what is nothing but pure silliness.