Rwandans are talking; may this continue

AI’ve been a writer in The New Times, on and off, for more than a decade now and I’ve had the opportunity to observe the evolution of public discourse through these newspaper’s pages. Rwandans are known to keep their opinions to themselves (or at least they used to).

Perhaps that is why the Government is often accused by human rights groups of not providing ‘political space’ and ‘freedom of speech’. They don’t see democracy being practiced in the manner they are used to. No one is abusive, speeches are very PG (Parental Guidance) and there are no noisy demonstrations à la Kenya or Uganda. It’s all very boring actually. Or is it?

I don’t think that Rwandans are genetically predisposed to being quiet. I believe that they kept their opinions to themselves simply because they didn’t have the forum to air their thoughts and grievances.

A few years back, the only radio station that had a national following was Radio Rwanda. If someone in Rusizi wanted to air a complaint or opinion on the national radio, they’d have a better chance of threading a camel through the eye of a needle, to paraphrase Jesus of  Nazareth.

Now, we have countless radio stations catering for every section of Rwanda’s populace and guess what shows are the most popular? Call-in shows. And these people calling in aren’t just calling-in to greet the DJ and their friends. They are talking about societal issues and letting their feelings known.

Like I said at the beginning, The New Times has allowed me the opportunity to see just how much things have changed.  On Saturday, I wrote a column titled ‘Goodbye Pope Benedict XVI, I won’t miss you though’. What pleased me the most was that the readers took me to task while airing their dissenting opinions. This back and forth, which at times descended into name-calling, was extremely healthy in my humble opinion. The readers had something to say and, come rain or high water; they would get it off their chests.

There is one topic that is getting heads heated up; the third term talk. I do not have a position yet vis-à-vis this topic but Rwandans certainly do. Reactions to Prof. Manasseh Nshuti’s commentary, “Change, stability and continuity: a political homework (Part I), came from all over the globe. From the UK, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Zambia, to right here in Kigali, Rwandans expressed differing views. Njenga in Kimironko wrote “Kagame for life”, while King, in Remera, wrote “Let us stick on (sic) constitution. President has done a lot and is continuing till end of his tenure. With him around am sure the replacement will be good. Long live Kagame”.

This conversation is one that has barely begun. More and more people will talk about it and make their feelings known either through the mass media or through social media. At the end of the day, no one will say that the people didn’t speak. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?


Lets make 2013 the year of a million voices!

Happy New Year all! Lets have an awesome 2013

Happy New Year all! Lets have an awesome 2013

I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of us are still in holiday mood. I certainly need a few more days of rest and relaxation, especially because I wrote this piece of New Years Day. Throw in the fact that I barely slept on New Years Eve (because Mamba Club in Kimihurura, threw an all-night and all-morning party, which interrupted my sleep) and the last thing I wanted to do is go back to work. But alas I must and before I get to the ‘meat’ of my first column of 2013, allow me the opportunity to say to each and everyone of you, “have a great new year, you and your loved ones”.

Last year I swore to myself that I would do everything in my power to take control of my financial future and stop dillydallying. As a young Rwandan, I came to the realization that for too long, I’d lived paycheck to paycheck, enjoying the moment, partying it up and failing to become conscious of the fact that this was irresponsible. So, bearing this in mind, I went to talk to my banker where I learnt that there were financial products that could help me, and other young people, make our dreams come true.

With the support of the financial institution I’ve decided to ‘diversify my portfolio’. But, as I’ve just learnt, one almost always needs authorization and a cachet (stamp) from local leaders. What I’ve learnt is that some of these leaders are corrupt as hell. One head of a Umudugudu had the guts to demand thirty thousand francs to stamp and sign two contracts that needed signing. When I asked why he needed the money, he said that it was ‘inzoga z’abayobozi’ (beer for the leaders).

I hesitated to hand over the money (especially because he’d already signed the documents anyway) and asked the residents of the area whether handing over this ‘beer money’ was normal procedure and I found out that it was. When I asked whether it was legal, they looked at me in confusion. “This is the way we’ve done things for years”, I was told, “and if you want to go about your business without getting issues, or if you want to get good service, you better just pay”.

I don’t know whether the demand was lawful, and I hope that someone in the Local Government Ministry takes a few minutes out of their day and helps me out. Am I facing the specter of corruption, or am I just ignorant?

Someone out there might ask, “Why are you putting your personal issues in the national newspaper”. To them I say, “Because I’m fortunate enough to have such a platform to air my grievances and queries”. And while the vast majority of Rwandans aren’t able to write a column, they DO have ways to get their views out there.

With the advent of social media, everyone has a chance to get their points of view across. Two incidents, both involving the Kigali City Council and Kigali nightspots, got the Rwandan Twittersphere abuzz last year. The first was the news that Papyrus nightclub would close; the second was that K-Club would be forced to do the same. Twitter exploded, with the hashtag #SavePapyrus, used to direct our ire. It is my belief that the groundswell of horror, especially among Rwanda’s youth, forced the powers that be to change their minds and allow the popular place to remain open.

That was the first time I saw ordinary peoples, using social media, making their voices heard. And it was a beautiful thing.

A few weeks ago, while having a conversation with an older relative, I was asked what we needed to do to “respond to all the negative news”. It is my belief that the only way to respond to this negativity is to make sure that our voices are heard as well. The people saying all sorts of things use the very same medium that we can as well. So, instead of wringing our hands in helplessness, perhaps what we need is for more people to use Twitter, Facebook and open blogs. We are almost 11 million strong, we do have voices and we mustn’t let them be drowned. Not in 2013.