Tour du Rwanda and the spinning wheel of a country’s identity

In the world of communication there is something we call pre-testing. Here, the reception towards a given message is put to test using a sample audience with the aim of predicting how it will likely be received when eventually rolled out to the general audience. I have to point out though that this pre-testing is never guaranteed to be effective especially if the sample space has similar biases or because we never have control over other events that may happen to also effect the same message.

Perceptions are interesting things especially when you ask someone what comes to their mind when they see or hear a given message. On a greater scale, countries always craft a communication strategy that serves as an anchor for business and tourism prospects. That said, there is always that thing that immediately comes to your mind when a certain country is mentioned to a random person.

While on tour of Turkey’s Istanbul malls, I remember meeting a couple of happy fellows who asked us where we were from. We mentioned Rwanda and Uganda and both countries seemed not to register on their radar. Then when I mentioned that the two countries are near Kenya, one of the guys immediately shouted, “Obama” as well all laughed in unison. In other words these guys only knew about Kenya in East Africa and for them the name of the country led them to think of Obama.

I also remember being quite disappointed the time I was in Papua New Guinea and one of the delegates at the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific summit asked me where I was from and when I mentioned Uganda, he replied, “Idi Amin?” Yes it can be disturbed ignorance about African countries is packaged and distributed in some corners of the world. Matters are not helped by the institutionalised reduction of the African continent into a mere ‘country’ known for conflicts, war and diseases.

Rwanda is one country that has deliberately made a lot of effort to shake off these stereotypes and craft a new but also diverse identity. For a long time the Rwandan brand was simply viewed in the genocide frame. It was impossible to find a story about Rwanda that did not mention the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The same applied to the Google searches that would emerge at the top.

However, this image later got a makeover. Rwanda then evolved into more than just the country where people killed each other but also that country with an increasing population of the gentle giants that are mountain gorillas. They would show up in Google searches and many booked flights to Kigali to come and experience the amazing experience of being in the same space as these animals that can only be found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the Virunga massif shared by Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Later on the country’s identity took on other facets. For example on Thursday while sampling some of the night life in the city of Accra, Ghana. The MC at one of the popular night spots was told about some visiting revellers. He then asked one of them where they were from and the moment she said Rwanda, he followed it up by saying, “We hear that Kigali is the cleanest city in Africa.” In other words not everyone thinks about African spaces negatively or uniformly as though we are just one country.

Another phenomenon that is gradually etching its name into the revolving wheel of Rwandan identity is the annual Tour du Rwanda cycling race which kicks off today. The road race is now known not only for the cycling feats on display but also the stunning sceneries that line the winding roads that characterise Rwanda’s country sides. It is not just a race for the yellow jersey and cash prize but also a race for photographers to get the best shots that capture the country’s beauty and the riders’ skills.

The race attracts competitors from around the world and works as a launching pad for those in search of the lucrative professional carriers. It has grown in leaps and bounds up to the point of becoming Rwanda’s biggest annual sporting event. This has also seen the sponsors’ list growing. In other words it is that gift that keeps giving and Rwandan’s should be proud of this achievement. Indeed the wheels are turning in the right direction. May the best team and cyclist win.

Views, expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Times Publications.