Forget politics for a moment. Ignore the alarms sounded in the foreign media about Rwanda’s future. Shut your ears to the shrill noises of doom and warnings of dire consequences.
There are more pleasant sounds for your ears and beautiful sights to behold that show that Rwanda is firmly on the march to its vision.
In the last few days, and for quite some time now, there have been such remarkable developments in education as to indicate the direction the country is taking.
And it is only one direction: building a knowledge-based economy, the avowed goal of the government in its Vision 2020.
First, there was the graduation of the first batch of presidential scholars at Oklahoma Christian University last Friday. Ten Rwandan students graduated in engineering and science and vowed to return home and help realise their country’s dream. The graduating class at OCU is part of hundreds of presidential scholars in various universities in the United States, all of whom are pursuing studies in engineering, technology and science so necessary for the country’s ttransformation.
President Paul Kagame was a guest and keynote speaker at the OCU graduation ceremony (commencement as they call it in the US). Days before he had visited other Rwandan students in the state of Arkansas.
There are hundreds of other privately-sponsored Rwandan students in the United States studying similar subjects whose impact on Rwanda can only be transformational.
All these are in addition to thousands of other students in universities in South Africa, India, Kenya, Uganda and a host of other countries.
Here at home thousands of students compete for available places in the public universites and scholarship loans. A bigger number enrol in the private universities.
The rise in investment in education in Rwanda by government, individuals and organisations in the last sixteen years has been phenomenal and continues to grow.
One notices in this increasing investment a growing number of foreign partners either as individuals or organisations. Only last week reports from the United States showed the president at a school in Atlanta, Georgia whose owners are planning to build a school in Rwanda.
This would follow several other schools built by US-based groups. For instance, there is the Maranyundo School for Girls in Nyamata built by the Boston-based Maranyundo Initiative. There is another girls’ school in Gashora that will open next year, built by a Seattle-based group.
Rwanda-based organisations are also putting up schools, or plan to do so in the near future. Mary Hill Old Girls have built a school in Nyagatare that should be opening soon. Ntare School Old Boys are planning to build a school in Bugesera.
The mother of all these investments is the nine-year basic education programme that the government has started.
Schools to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students who would otherwise have ended their education at the end of primary school were built with contributions from the government and citizens.
Another indication of the strides being taken in education appeared in activities to mark this year’s labour day. The focus of festivities was vocational and technical education – the forgotten sector of Rwanda’s education.
The top guns in the Workforce Development Authority(WDA) came out to make a pitch for vocational and technical education and training(TVET). Mr Albert Nsengiyumva, the director-general of WDA and John Bideri, its chairman have been explaining what it is and why it is necessary and what plans they have.
They explained that TVET is about building skills for lower and middle level technicians to work in industry and the services sector and for self-employment, and that it is an important plank in the plans to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020.
And this is not wishful thinking. The WDA is planning to put up polytechnics in the four provinces of Rwanda and the city of Kigali where such skills will be acquired. Such skills will complement the high level training the students from OCU and other universities will bring back home.
All this indicates that the state is taking a more activist role in education and correcting past lack of more direct involvement. It also reflects the value Rwandans and their partners attach to education.
In the colonial and pre-1994 period, education had been left to the churches – from building schools to determining the curriculum and managing the teaching service.
The result was an education system that reflected the interests and philosophy of the churches. It was heavily traditional and classical, rooted in nineteenth century and early twentieth century concepts of education.
Thus languages and the humanities formed the core of the curriculum. Little was taught in the scientific and practical fields.
The education system was also exclusionist and wasteful in that it allowed only very few people to go through it successfully. And so there was a perverted sense of pride in having large numbers start school but only very few graduating.
Equally, the system enforced a sort of religious discipline and ethos that was heavy on obedience and conformity, but light on initiative and creativity.
This year’s Labour Day gave us something important to think about. We were spared the predictable routine of parades of reluctant workers, laments and demands of trade union leaders, self-portrayal of employers as benefactors whose generosity is not appreciated, and government’s pleas for more discipline and increased production.
Instead, we were presented with the means to meet workers’ demands, employers’ expectations and government’s vision.