Conventional wisdoms about post-genocide Rwanda portray it as blanketed by fear, with people terrified of expressing themselves; as possessing a timid civil society keen to avoid controversial issues; and ruled by government that brooks no criticism, Etc. Google ‘Rwanda’ and you’re likely to find that a great deal of what comes up parrots these claims. Pick any number of Rwandans off the street and ask them about their country.
Some will tell you exactly these same things, while others will dwell on how far they and their country have come since the genocide. If you do not know the country at all or if you know it only superficially because you have not spent much time there and whatever little time you had was spent in Kigali, chances are you will retain mostly the stereotypical image. However, all you need to do to know about how complex things are, is to spend time watching goings-on, attending public meetings, and listening to different categories of people. It helps if you get out of Kigali and off the beaten track to see how the peasants live and listen to the issues that pre-occupy them. Here, as elsewhere, perception and reality can be worlds apart. Sometimes, though, you do not have to do so much to get a flavour of the complexity.
Last Tuesday I attended a public debate in Kigali. It came as an unexpected bonus after I had spent two days listening to local and foreign researchers and analysts dissect different aspects of the country’s post-genocide evolution. The earlier meeting had been the annual research conference of the semi-government Think Tank, the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR). The second one was less high-flown but worth every one of the seven hours I spent sitting at the back, watching, and listening.
It had been organised by the country’s ‘Civil Society Platform’, the umbrella body bringing together non-governmental organisations of all sorts. In the room were the governors of the country’s four provinces and some of their officials, technocrats from the ministries of local government and health, civil society activists, some with one foot in academia or political party activism, and a sprinkling of researchers and consultants. Donor agencies or “development partners”, as they like to be called these days, sent mostly their local staff, which was just as well. Rwandans tend to conduct such meetings and their coffee-break banter in the local lingo — Kinyarwanda — leaving the odd Mzungu and other non-Kinyarwanda speakers looking disorientated from time to time. Of course, simultaneous interpreters are almost always there, shedding light on what the Banyarwanda are saying to themselves. It is, however, not the same thing as hearing it from the horses’ own mouths. All the nuances, idioms and so on, are “lost in translation”.
Anyway, this diverse grouping had come together to listen to and debate the findings of research which had been commissioned to look into the impact of performance contracts, otherwise known as imihigo, and the community-based health insurance scheme (mutuelle de santé), on the lives of ordinary people (abaturage). In their simplest terms, imihigo are signed between higher and lower-level officials, with the latter undertaking to execute a number of specified, poverty-reducing tasks successfully within a specified period of time. In accountability-obsessed Rwanda, Imihigo build and destroy careers. Meanwhile community-based health insurance entails the opening or widening of access to health services by all categories of Rwandans for relatively small sums of money. For the indigent who cannot pay, the government, its development partners and all kinds of local groups pick up the tab.
In Rwanda, such public meetings are too important to be left to only those in physical attendance. Ways have been devised to bring the ordinary citizen, usually the subject of debate, into the discussion. First, they are broadcast live on radio, television, and the worldwide web. Rwandans have a very long love affair with radios. Even the planners and instigators of the genocide had the radio at the centre of their murderous project. Peasants tune in and follow the discussions. Those with phones can, and do call in or send SMS messages and contradict or support whatever anyone may be claiming or to introduce issues they feel are being left out. Not the sort of things you would expect in a country covered in a “blanket of fear”.
Imihigo and mutuelle de santé are only two of numerous mechanisms the government has devised for dragging its citizens, sometimes literally screaming, into modernity. Their implementation is entirely in keeping with President Kagame’s view that, while other countries walk as they try to eradicate poverty, disease and ignorance, Rwanda must run. And running it is, a fact captured in the dramatic falls in infant and maternal mortality, fertility rates, child malnutrition, people living in grass-thatched huts, and rapid rises in access to clean water, contraceptive use, and number of women birthing under the care of skilled health personnel.
The meeting offered technocrats and some local leaders a chance to boast about their achievements while others had to defend themselves against sharp criticism by civil society activists and disgruntled citizens. It was clear there were issues, not with the policies themselves, but with their implementation, and on this both sides agreed. It was a debate worth witnessing. It blew several myths about Rwanda right out of the water.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Related story: Blowing myths about Rwanda right out of the water