A view from a foreigner: Rwanda is one of the most hard-working nations

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Most countries ban the entry of drugs and alcohol on to their territory. As we prepare for landing in Kigali, the captain issues an unusual warning: Rwanda does not allow plastic bags. As I turn in bewilderment and some amusement to my Ugandan neighbour, he grins at my reaction. Jumping up to get rid of the duty-free plastic bag in his hand baggage, he explains that Kigali is arguably Africa’s cleanest city. And the government wants to keep it that way.

The message is repeated at the very grand World Export Development Forum (WEDF) that I am attending in Kigali. As I moderate a panel on “Tourism and Development”, Abdou Jobe, Gambia’s Minister for Tourism, tells the audience, he is very impressed by the clean streets of Kigali. “A model for all of us,” he says with a smile as the hall bursts into applause.

Cleanliness and environmental protection are only one small part of Rwanda’s new post-genocide narrative. As the country rebuilds after the horrors of the 1994 genocide, the government — and the people — are in a hurry, sharing a common desire to move forward as quickly as possible.

The past is not forgotten — Rwanda commemorated 20 years of the genocide this year — but it is a spur to the future. My tourist guide takes me to the genocide memorial. But he is equally keen to show me the shiny shopping malls, banks and new high-rises coming up in central Kigali.

It’s difficult not to be impressed. Having visited the country and neighbouring Burundi before the genocide, I remember Kigali as a sleepy town, overrun by aid workers. The “land of the thousand hills”, with its coffee and tea plantations, was strikingly beautiful but also very poor. Landlocked Rwanda needed roads, bridges and airports. But development was slow and plodding. And then there was the genocide. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down over the airport at Kigali, triggering massive civil unrest between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi people. It is usually estimated that more than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were murdered in the following three months.

I remember the feeling of despair as reports came in of the killing and maiming, of neighbours turning against each other, of some priests joining in the mass murders — and of the international community’s failure to stop the devastation. The United Nations has now apologised for its failure to act.

The mea culpa is welcome, a Rwandan colleague tells me. But what the country needs now is to expand its trading potential, export more, attract investments, welcome more tourists, embrace information technology, improve connectivity.

The list is long and ambitious. At the WEDF conference, President Paul Kagame insists that Rwandans are not going to give up until they have it all. It’s about hard work, ambition, jobs and growth, he says. Africa’s story — and the Rwandan story — is about high growth rates, providing jobs for the continent’s huge population of young people, making use of the talent and skills of women. The quicker the world realises the truth about the opportunities offered by a rising Africa, the better.

Certainly, the Chinese, Indians and the Turks are listening. Negative perceptions of Africa as a continent mired in poverty and disease may still be difficult to shed in the West, but the WEDF conference is buzzing with Indian business leaders and Chinese entrepreneurs eager to invest in what many in Kigali insist is “the continent of the future”.

There are other things that strike me. Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, used to be a French-speaking country but has switched with enthusiasm to English. Rwanda is the only country in the world with more women than men in parliament, a statistic that has attracted a good deal of international attention. The country boasts that 97 per cent of its children attend primary school — the highest rate in Africa. And Rwanda has another asset in the 1,000-strong population of mountain gorillas, some of the last surviving on the planet, which live in its rainforests and attract thousands of avid tourists.

Much of the transformation has been engineered by Kagame, a Tutsi who grew up as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda, and led the Rwandan Patriotic Front in its resistance against the Hutu militias rampaging through the country. After the genocide ended in July 1994, he became vice-president. He became president in 2000 after his predecessor resigned and then won elections in 2003 and 2010.

There is no doubting Kagame’s domestic popularity and reputation as an economic reformer. But critics complain of the president’s authoritarian style of government, allegedly patchy human rights record, and media controls. There are accusations that the Rwandan army is involved in and responsible for prolonging the conflict across the border in Congo. Recent hints that he may run for a third term as president in 2017 — a move which would require changing the constitution which allow for only two seven-year terms — have raised concerns.

But Kagame is having none of it. “I think at some point we need to leave countries and people to decide their own affairs,” he told students and faculty staff after a recent speech in the US. At the WEDF, I hear that Kagame engages in the same “tough love” approach towards his people as Lee Kuan Yew, the hard-driving former prime minister of Singapore.

Certainly, modern Rwanda is not yet Singapore but it is a far cry from the sleepy nation I remember from over twenty years ago. The genocide-devastated country is now one of Africa’s most determined and hard-working nations. As I leave the country, the man at the immigration desk asks me to come back soon. “And the next time, don’t just attend a conference, travel around and see this country,” he urges. I tell him that I intend to.

By Shada Islam, Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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