When did PR become such a bad thing for Rwanda anyway?


Posing with health insurance cards at a health centre in Kicukiro District.

Last week when I discussed the recent Economist article, ‘Look before you leap; The notion of leapfrogging poor infrastructure in Africa needs to come back down to earth’, I noticed that various commentators returned to a familiar trope; a narrative centered around the existence of nefarious Rwandan PR (Public Relations) ‘machine’.

The PR machine’ narrative is almost as annoying to me as the ‘western darling’ narrative that many subscribe to when commenting about this country. What is even more annoying is the fact that even those who should know better, like people actually living and working in Rwanda, get caught up in this falsehood as well.

To those that see Rwanda though PR machine-tinted glasses, our media savviness begins immediately on arrival. Visitors and returning citizens are met with friendly staff, orderly lines and electronic checks. Then they are ‘accosted’ with well paved roads.  Their eyes get ‘harassed’ by the brightness of working traffic lights and their noses are left unattacked by the smell of rotting garbage strewn on the street. “This is all a gimmick”, they say, “meant to mask the dire poverty”.

When Zipline launches the very first medical drone in the continent (if not in the world) in Muhanga, I saw it as an innovation that would help supplement the existing healthcare provision system by making emergency blood deliveries faster. Nothing more. Nothing less. What the cynics saw was a headline grabbing stunt that took focus away from more traditional modes of blood delivery such as vans and motorcycles.


A drone at the Muhanga droneport ready to take off. / Faustin Niyigena/ The New Times

When some cynics look at the number of women in Parliament (and other branches of government), they believe that the world-beating numbers are simply window dressing, meant to paint Rwanda as a nation leading the world on gender relations. While what I see is simply an attempt by the framers of our Constitution to bring an essential segment of the Rwandan population into the political process.

There are many examples of this continuous back and forth, with each side trying to argue its point. But I would like to change the goal posts a little; I would like to start with the premise that Rwanda IS media savvy. That it indeed works hard to present itself in a certain light. So what?

When I leave my house in the morning, I make sure that I present myself in the best way I can. I brush my teeth, make sure that my shoes are polished and my clothes are pressed. I COULD show myself in my unwashed, filthy glory but I understand that the way that I present myself affects the way that I am treated. This same theory goes for nations as well.

Just look at how the United States presents itself to the world. Its president is the ‘most powerful man on earth’, it’s a ‘beacon for democracy’ and it’s the leader of the ‘free world’. Now if that isnt PR I don’t know what is. The United States, like any other country in the world, faces real challenges. Both its citizens and leaders realize that. But when it presents itself to the rest of the world, a certain narrative and image is presented.

So, yes Rwanda is media savvy. Yes, we show our best side to the rest of the world. And yes, it has benefited us. In a world where, on the whole, poor African nations are ignored except when their citizens are either killing each other or starving to death, we should be proud that we garner some positive headlines. In fact, it is actually amazing that Rwanda garners even the little positive press that it does. Remember that our sad claim to ‘fame’ is the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This is a testimony to just how successful the PR efforts have been. We have nothing to be ashamed of; rather we should be extremely proud.

If Rwanda’s development was predicated on PR stunts and ‘white elephant’ projects, then we would be in big trouble but the fact of the matter is, while we are thinking big, we are also thinking very small.


The Kigali Convention Center by night

Ours is a country that can build a multi-million dollar hotel and conference center while at the same time putting in place councils for parents at the village level (umugoroba w’ababyeyi). We can unveil the first Airbus A330 in our region, while at the same time ensuring that the poorest among us is given a free Mutuelles de Sante card.

So, to those that call us media savvy, I say “why thank you. You are too kind”.


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