Am I a student loan defaulter? According to REB, yes

This was me just before the national exam. I was stressed, hungry and exhausted but it was worth it

This was me just before the national exam. I was stressed, hungry and exhausted but it was worth it

I can still remember the conversation I had with my father in 2001, just before I sat for my national A-level leaving exam. “Son”, he said, “you better pass your exams”. The “or else” was unsaid but we both knew that he didnt have to say it. In those days, you either passed the national exams and went to a government university, repeated the year or, if your parents were wealthy, went to study in South Africa, Europe or North America. Since I knew that the last two options were out for me, I spent sleepless nights making sure that the first option was open to me. And through my hard work I did just that; I was admitted into the faculty of law at the National University of Rwanda on a full government scholarship with a monthly living stipend of 25,000 francs that paid my rent, food, school materials and transport costs.

I had done my part and now the government was doing its own. I called it a ‘educational social contract’ of sorts. Taxpayer dollars (parents’ money) would be used to educate their children if they (the children) worked hard and merited the said education. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would be called a ‘loan defaulter’ by the Rwanda Education Board (REB), simply because I thought that unsigned social contract meant something.

In an article published on Monday in The New Times newspaper titled ‘REB moves to curb student loan default’, the REB announced its plan to work with the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB). The CRB, as the writer put it succinctly, collects borrower’s credit history from participating financial institutions which is then used as a point of reference for lenders to decide whether one qualifies for a loan. It helps to check non-performing loans in commercial banks”. As the writer further put it, a bad loan affects the credibility of the borrower. This implies that beneficiaries of education loans will find it difficult to acquire a loan once they are blacklisted on list of people with non-performing loans.

I was torn when I read this article. On one hand I believe that you are supposed to pay your debts. On the other hand, I find it rather incomprehensible that someone should pay for a service which was ‘free’ at the time they used it. Contractually I find that strange. I mean, when I took a bank loan a few years back, I signed a document showing just how much I owed, how much I would eventually owe with interest added and how long it would take me to pay back my loan. I signed the paper and so did the bank. In other words, it was a legally enforceable contract entered into by two parties in which both sides knew their responsibilities. There were no surprises or sudden changes. I wish I could say the same about the REB.

First of all, when I went to university, there was no REB. There were no signed contracts. There was no talk of debt repayment. In fact, there was no talk of any debt at all. Tertiary education was a right to any student who merited it. And there was certainly no talk of seven percent interest rate. Legally, I think that the REB is on very, very shaky ground.

First of all, laws cannot be retroactive in nature. It just doesn’t happen. The 2008 Rwandan Student Bursary/Loan

After a few years, I graduated. Good times!!!

After a few years, I graduated. Good times!!!

Policy should only be applied 2008-onwards. It honestly doesn’t make sense to me to make students who studied since 1980 to 2008 to pay by ‘force’. And don’t take the threat to forward your name to the CRB lightly. If you are labelled a debt defaulter, you will suffer high interest rates whenever you want a loan, whether a car, land or home loan. Or even refused one. That is patently unfair.

I’m not saying that the REB is wrong to try to recoup some monies. But calling the money that we received ‘loans’ would be a misrepresentation of not only the facts on the ground, but a misrepresentation of the spirit of academic scholarships. So, threatening to call me a ‘loan defaulter’ is unfair, unwarranted, and in my humble estimation, illegal.

So, we come to an impasse. I don’t want to pay back the ‘loan’ but I understand that there is a financial shortfall in the REB coffers. So, here is my suggestion. Instead of threatening hell and high-water, REB should do what the people behind the One Dollar Campaign and the Agaciro Fund did. REB should tap into patriotic sentiments of all Rwandans, communicate their needs and goals and sell it to the general public. Offer us a simple way of giving money back when we can and tell us why we should. Remind us about the social contract we have as alumni of Rwandan universities to give back. Trying to call us defaulters of loans we never signed or agreed to and ‘naming and shaming’ us is simply unfair. REB can and must do better.

Is Miss Rwanda inarticulate? I blame her parents

Will any of these kids read, nay see, a book when they go back home? I doubt it

Will any of these kids read, nay see, a book when they go back home? I doubt it

A hysterical video of a hapless Miss Rwanda contestant answering a question in meandering French is doing the rounds online. In the video, the visibly shellshocked Southern Province native tries to answer a question but only ends up confusing the entire audience and the judges as well. This video has been used by both the general public, and some New Times columnists, to rail against our education system. According to the commentators, our education system was to blame for her butchery of the French language and inarticulateness.

That was the same thing that a friend of mine, who works in the banking sector, said when complaining about a job candidate that he interviewed for a position. “The fellow graduated with a First Class degree in banking, he passed the written exam with flying colors, but when I asked him the simple question, what is a bond, he stared at me like a deer caught in the headlights”, he told me. “And then, can you imagine, he told me that his head had froze”, my friend said, incredulously. “Who says that”?

Remembering that incident sent him into a legendary rant about the inadequacies of our education system. According to him, students graduating from our universities were half-baked (nay, quarter-baked, if that is possible), unable to think outside the box, unable to interview, with little to no ability to communicate effectively and, worse of all, able to “hustle”, unlike Ugandans and Kenyans. He warned that, unless something changed, either our economy would stall because of our inept labour force, or other East Africans would come and take all the jobs, leaving natives bitter and unemployed.

While I found his gripes telling, I disagreed with his hypothesis that our system was the culprit. I’ve studied in both Rwanda and Uganda, and in my experience, the systems are similar. The way the teach are the same and so are the curriculum. I did history, geography, economics and literature in A-Level. We were taught to cram; for example, for the question, discuss the causes of the Russian revolution, we were taught that there were exactly ten ‘points’. Our jobs was the remember these ten points if we wanted to get an ‘A’.

What I found different in the two systems was what happened after class ended. While in Uganda, you could join the debate club, the literature club, and discuss revolutionary politics for hours on end, in Rwanda students either played games, napped or, if they were really studious, crammed some more.

In my opinion, that was the major difference between the two systems. While they teach the same things, the students doing the cramming are fundamentally different in the way the relate to information. And I believe that the superior skills others showed was simply manifestation of where they came from as students. While most of the students I went to school with in Uganda were products of middle-class households, with parents educated enough to ply their children with newspapers and books from the home library, those I went to school with in Rwanda came from a background that was radically different. These students were often the first members of their family to pursue an academic career and so while they were often extremely book smart, matters became more challenging when it came to issues of general knowledge and language skills. They simply hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down with newspapers, magazines and novels the way others had.

I wish I could say that matters are better today for young students but that would be a lie. How many homes have you visited that have reading material scattered around? I’m not even talking about book shelves, but a copy of a newspaper? Its still a rare occurrence in my opinion. Parents still think that its the teachers responsibility to teach their children while theirs is simply to pay the, too high, school fees. In my opinion, this is a wrong way of doing things. Instead of breaking the bank to send your children to blue ribald schools, spend the money providing them a home-life that makes learning a regular part of daily life?

When I look back, I honestly cannot remember a lot of what I learnt from school because I was a hopeless student. Perhaps its because I was barely in class (I was a notorious truant). But the reading skills I learnt at home, simply because there was reading material wherever I turned, are what made me a successful student. I could spend less time cramming because I mentally process the words I read easily. It all started at home.

So, instead of blaming our poor schools which, in my opinion is simply passing the buck, what we should be doing is encouraging a reading culture as soon as a child can understand speech. Read bedtime stories to infants, buy them books, let them see YOU reading, discuss their reading materials with them and give them the most precious gift I believe a parent can give a child; the love of knowledge.

An open letter to a Rwandan diaspora politician

RDI Rwanda Rwiza leadership

RDI Rwanda Rwiza leadership

Over the last few weeks and months, there has been quite a bit of activity in regards to the goings-on in the diaspora’s community, politically speaking. Parties that I have never heard of such as RDI-Rwanda, Rwiza, others that I have heard of (PS-Imberakuri) and others that give me the shakes (FDLR) have coalesced into a coalition of sorts; certain veteran politicians have had secret meetings (or not, depending on who is talking) with a regional leader and, just to prove that pigs do fly, FDLR has announced that it has renounced its violent fight, opting instead for political dialogue.

I will not get into the nuts and bolts of these coalitions, meetings and announcements. That is for people like my esteemed fellow columnists, Joseph Rwatagare and Pan Butamire, who understand those political goings-on better than I. Rather, I want to speak like a common Rwandan who simply wants to live in a peaceful country that allows me to fulfill my goals in life.

Politics, in my humble opinion, must be anchored on statecraft. It shouldn’t just be a concept that is ‘up in the air’; it shouldn’t be about press releases, poorly constructed insults, interviews with journalists and never ending declarations. While well-aimed insults are part and parcel of politics (smear campaigning), they in themselves are not politics. While pointing out the flaws of a system are part of politics, they are NOT politics. While interviews, communiques and declarations are part of a good communication policy, they are NOT politics. At the end of the day, there has to be an element of statecraft. So, what is statecraft?

I’m not a political scientist, so I will not give a scientific answer but rather a laymans’ definition. I think that statecraft is about understanding the local situation and then finding the answers to the local problems.

So, in Rwanda, what are the local problems? I will not attempt to talk about issues that I don’t have knowledge about but I will comment on some that I do.

When I go to visit my folks in Umutara, I notice two main challenges that they face. One is an issue of land usage systems and the other is wealth creation and consolidation. As cattle keepers, they are hostages to the vagaries of weather; whenever it is hot and dry, the cattle starve, milk production is minuscule and money is scarce. When it rains, hallelujah and praise the Lord, everything is hunky-dory. This goes back and forth, on and on. On the issue of wealth consolidation, I always ask the folks over there, “why is it they are still poor, even when they own land and livestock”? “Why do they still need subsidies from their urban-based next of kin”?

If you are going to be politicians, then you better be able to craft some answers to these questions. You want to get Umutara votes, then suggest solutions to these two issues.

I live and work in Kigali and I face a myriad of issues. While I earn a pretty good salary relatively speaking, I still find it hard to afford proper housing. The rents too high and buying a house of my own seems like a pipe dream. I feel like I pay too much income tax and I wish utilities were cheaper. So, Mister and Mrs. Diaspora politician, how will you improve my situation?

The main problem that I see you having is that, while I know what the present government is doing to remedy these

Faustin Twagiramungu, President of RDI Rwanda Rwiza and Paul Rusesabagina

Faustin Twagiramungu, President of RDI Rwanda Rwiza and Paul Rusesabagina

problems (whether they are successful or not), I simply do not know what you will do if given the levers of power. So, instead of talking, ad nauseam, about historical grievances and ‘beefs’, I think it would serve you guys better in the long run if you gave us answers that the problems that besiege us now. Today.

What is your DETAILED policy on agriculture? What is your DETAILED policy on education? What is your DETAILED policy on health? All in all, what are your DETAILED policies? Stop giving us hazy stories of injustice, corruption and assassinations. Truth be told, no one cares. Those are not the issues that they face; give us the answers to our bread and butter issues.

Until you can do that, no one will take you guys seriously. Not the people and certainly not the government. And if we don’t, then what is the point of all the politicking you do? Pull up your socks. If you need to gather a coalition to do so, by all means. Just remember, if your goal is to lead Rwandans, show us that you can actually do so.

Yours sincerely,

A concerned citizen

Heroes Day in Rwanda: An ode to the giants that got me home

On Saturday, I woke up in sunny, green Kigali. As someone who was born in exile, stateless and forbidden from ever entering Rwanda (it said so right in my UNHCR-United Nations High Commission for Refugees travel document) the fact that I can even wake up here is a miracle. When my grandparents fled this country in 1959 with four young children (including my own father) in tow because of anti-Tutsi violence unleashed by their Hutu neighbors, drunk on the sectarian poison that they’d imbibed from opportunistic politicians attempting a power grab from the monarchy, they did not for one second think that they would be stateless until 1994.

They thought that it would be a few months in Uganda and then as things settled down and the politicians settled their

Kyaka II refugee camp was home for many years for hundreds of Rwandan refugee families

Kyaka II refugee camp was home for many years for hundreds of Rwandan refugee families

differences, they would be allowed home. That would be the furthest thing from the truth. In decades of exile, they would lose the vast majority of their livestock, live in huts unfit for human beings, almost starve because the UNHCR stopped giving them rations, be moved into an area filled with dangerous wild game, see their children educated under trees, be forced to work for slave wages and feel powerless to determine their own future. They saw friends and family bullied and sometimes killed by Ugandan security agents and suffered through two civil wars.

But despite all of this, my grandparents were able to send their children to school through their own sweat and tears and the goodwill of certain non-governmental organizations and church groups. These children (including my own father) excelled in high school and received scholarships to university. After they graduated and started working, they went back to the camps and pulled their siblings out of that misery by giving them a chance to educate themselves as well.

I was born in a proper hospital in 1980 with doctors, nurses, running water and electricity. This was something that many of my peers were unable to have. My father had a good job and my mom was going to school. We were the lucky ones. The vast majority of Rwandan refugees were still languishing in the camps with no hope for the future.

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994

An RPA solidier about to fire a 82mm motar infront of Chez Lando in Remera in 1994


Amidst all this misery came another anti-refugee pogrom. This time the target was the small group of Rwandan intelligentsia that had started to agitate for better treatment of the refugees by the Ugandan security apparatus and government. My father, given 24 hours to leave Uganda and never come back, fled to Kenya and then Canada, the place I then called home for almost a decade.

In 1986, things took a turn for the better as National Resistance Movement rebels, led by now Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, ousted Milton Obote’s government. The rebels fighting ranks were filled with young Rwandan men and boys who saw in Museveni, a solution to the constant mistreatment of their kinfolk. These young men, who triumphantly marched into the Ugandan capital of Kampala, became the cornerstone of the future Rwandan rebellion and government. They included names like Rwigema and Kagame. Yes, that Kagame.

Canada was a haven for me and my family. Canadians are known for their kindness and hospitality. I played hockey, went trick or treating and did all those things that Canadian kids did. But even in this Eden of sorts, racism reared its ugly head. No matter how Canadian I got, it would never be enough.

Its been 20 years since then. Rwanda went through an invasion led by the children of the 1959 refugee crisis, a civil war, a genocide that killed a million innocents, a military defeat of both the Hutu government and its genocidal ideology. Rwanda has seen millions return home since then. I among them.

On Saturday, Rwanda celebrated Heroes Day. On this day, we remember the men and women who fought and died to make this country better. Some of them died in battle like Major General Fred Rwigema, the man who led the 1990 invasion, while others such as the Nyange School students died because they refused to separated into two groups, Hutu and Tutsi, by marauding Hutu militia, choosing instead to die together. We celebrate Agathe Uwingiliymana, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister, who was killed in the most horrendous way, by government troops because she would not support the agenda to kill Tutsi’s during the days preceding the start of the Genocide.

Today, I wake up in sunny Kigali, a fully integrated member of Rwandan society because of these heroes. I shudder to think what my fate, and the fate of the rest of us, would have been without the sacrifices that those men and women made. How many would have survived another couple of decades in those camps?