It is 1998 once again

Graduation period is usually a period of excitement around town. But if it wasn’t for the gowns about town last week few would have known that 8,000 students graduated from the University of Rwanda (UR) last week.

Graduation is usually a period of excitement around town. But if it wasn’t for the gowns about town, few would have known that 8,000 students graduated from the University of Rwanda (UR) last week.

Sure, there was some excitement; but it was nowhere near the usual and it certainly did not supplant what is being reported as anxiety around the impending cabinet, which our media is saying is cause for anxiety and sleepless nights to our political elite.

However, there’s something else that ought to be causing us, as a society, sleepless nights and drive us to a national conversation.

In the aftermath of genocide in 1998 a multiplicity of challenges faced this country: all sectors (public and private) had been destroyed; the new government was building from scratch.

This is difficult for the young to grasp. Imagine “nothing” and “something.” There is absolutely no hyperbole to say that Rwanda was the former not the latter. Central African Republic is “something.”

Indeed, imagine the worst post conflict society in modern era, it is “something.” In other words, Rwanda was in a worse situation than the worst you can possibly think of.

It goes without saying, therefore, that it faced a plethora of challenges. Space does not allow for me to list them here. But to say that there was “nothing” should suffice. In any case, a wise idea emerged in 1998. In short, it said “let’s sit down and talk about the problems that we face and together we find solutions for them.”

We are where we are today thanks to this seed. Its fruits, along with those who nurtured it, are what have become known around the world as “The Rwandan Miracle.” This idea has shaped the past 20 years. It became the national vision or the grand direction, if you will. Crucially, it’s called a miracle because of two things. One, the magnitude of the challenges society faced amidst decimation. Second, the fact that the vast majority of these challenges have been addressed in a manner that leaves a lasting impression.

But some problems have emerged since. Some have mutated from the same success and others due to some shortcomings that may not have been envisaged at the time, as is to be expected with anything that comes into contact with human beings.

There is a difference, however. Today we are not building anew. Where there was no single functioning institution, today a vast majority are doing just fine. For this reason, however, we have come to operate from the standpoint that those that are underperforming only need a simple jumpstarting, a kick in the pants, so to speak.

It turns out this is not the case. Consider the problem of unemployment. On graduation day, I was listening to radio and the figures that were quoted from the Ministry of Labour said that 18 percent of the university graduates don’t find employment and that the national unemployment rate stands at 13 percent. These are contentious figures because most people think they don’t square with the reality on the ground; it is a debate largely about how unemployment is defined, really.

Speak of defining things. It is worth considering whether Rwandans are satisfied with what is defined as education: what it is, what it should be, and what it ought to mean for the individual and society. And whether the zero-sum duality between education that serves the labour market and an education for its own sake, as a source of enlightenment and for escaping ignorance, is necessary.

Consider the challenge of capacity. It is of value to think about what aspects of capacity building are geared towards inculcating a culture of excellence and professionalism in our workforce over that of mediocrity and intrigue. And so, capacity building that is silent on existing subcultures ignores their role in driving or thwarting ingenuity in efforts geared towards socioeconomic transformation, with evidence for this abound in places like the United States (the “can do” spirit), Japan (Kaizen), and Korea (Saemaul), for instance.

My point is this: some sectors have proven that they are overwhelmed and have demonstrated this by lacking a sense of clarity seen in the rest of the sectors. And their performance suggests that they have bitten more than they can chew. They are crying out for help and we ought to heed their call. Worse still, when it is an all-encompassing sector with effects on millions of lives – education, labour, agriculture, etc. – then all chips are on the table.

Clearly, they shouldn’t be left with the burden of thinking around a problem to which they have admitted an inability to overcome.

Moreover, if we fail to heed their call, then the onus shifts from them and reflects a general inability to grasp the magnitude of the challenge. Meanwhile, they would be within their right to play around with “solutions” through trial and error until that time when help does come or when somehow they stumble upon a solution.

Or, we do something now. We have overcome that national comatose. But some parts of the body are ailing. Some are essential to life and are preventing us from leaping – into middle class status. Which is why we must return to the doctor: “Let’s sit down and talk about the problems that we face and together we find solutions for them.”

Otherwise, real sleepless nights await us.


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