Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Lessons from Rwanda
There are a lot of things here in Rwanda that really are quite amazing. For a country that was so very recently leveled to the ground, without infrastructure, without services, without hope, without peace, Rwanda has achieved a great deal. The economy is booming, at least here in Kigali. The infrastructure is back in place – not perfect, but there is running water, electricity (with random interruptions), sewers and garbage collection. The schools are functioning and more are being built, even as I write. Health care is available for about two dollars per year per person.
The courts continue to be very busy with genocide cases, but they too are functioning well, albeit slowly. The government is stable, with severe penalties for anything that smacks of corruption. It seems Rwanda has gone from being the scourge of Africa, a blight oin the eyes of the world, to a model country that is the envy of most other African nations.
How was this achieved? I am not an historian, but I have talked with many people and observed a great deal during my stay here. First of all, I would have to credit a deep faith as one of the primary factors in Rwanda’s recovery. Largely a Christian nation, the country’s despair has been replaced by hope, which many Rwandans see as the return of God to bless this country, having abandoned it for a long time. You cannot talk for long with a Rwandan before God is mentioned as a huge force in his or her life.
Second, it seems to me the government has taken some extraordinarily courageous steps in reconciling the past with the present. Gacacca courts are a primary example, where crimes by more minor players in the genocide are tried and sentenced. By minor, crimes are those of property as well as murder, but no more than some number of people, perhaps ten. The implication is that these criminals were mere pawns (and young pawns at that) in a much larger agenda of genocide. This community court process is due to end in November this year so there is a great deal of effort to complete the cases currently before the courts.
This is a particularly difficult process for those who were the victims in the genocide, because they have to accuse the perpetrators. The perpetrators have to admit their crimes to the accuser(s) and ask for pardon but very often their sentences are not severe. There simply is not enough room in the country’s prisons to jail everyone who participated in the genocide, even if they committed murder. What is expected is that the victims pardon the perpetrators of the crimes. This is the difficult part. But somehow it is working. Victims pardon the accused, at least in word. Their own private thoughts and feelings are set aside, at least in public. As one woman said to me, I have pardoned (him) because I have to.
I find this a very courageous journey towards reconciliation. If people are able to live together in harmony again, if their children are well-educated and not inculcated with divisive ideologies about ethnicity, if the economy continues to grow and everyone has opportunities to prosper, then people can look to the future rather than the past and there is real hope for long-term success.
In addition to this overarching system of reconciliation, there are other ways in which the Rwandan government has taken some remarkable steps. A small thing, but something that has grown much larger in recent years in the Western world as our sensibility about environmental issues has grown, here in Rwanda, plastic bags are forbidden. If you travel here and put your shoes in a plastic bag, that bag may be confiscated at the airport. People carry reusable bags of all kinds and paper bags are the norm in grocery stores and markets. Household garbage is stored in empty bags that once carried coal, or sorghum or grains. When garbage is collected, the bags are emptied into large trucks and the bags are returned to the owners. If Kigali was to start a household composting program, there would be very little garbage at all!
Another interesting feature that has been inserted into the lives of the Rwandan people is called umuganda, which translates as “community work.” During the morning of the last Saturday of every month, everyone is expected to participate in their community’s well-being, at least one person from each household. The buses stop running, the streets are closed and everyone remains in their own community. Roads are repaired, schools, churches and other public buildings are built, even young children participate in this process, carrying bricks and lumber and water.
To me, this half day per month of community work, while compulsory, is a reminder that we all have a responsibility to make our country better. That we are the state, as my friend Sandi never tired of saying. Can you imagine such a mandated day in your community?? Perhaps you are lucky and live somewhere where people actually do take that responsibility seriously and actively participate in their communities voluntarily. But I fear that all too many of us just expect someone else to take care of it, whatever “it” is.
So to me, with these few examples, I believe Rwanda has taken stock of the rest of the world, and learned something from the things we don’t do so well, and from the things we have done badly. And Rwanda has taken advantage of being able to build something from nothing, or something from a very broken something else, incorporating the best of the rest of the world, and inserting and inventing things that are entirely new. Go Rwanda! And God bless.