“TWENTY YEARS ago, Rwanda had no future, only a past”, President Paul Kagame told the nation yesterday in Kigali at the twentieth commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi.
Today, it has a future that beckons, that holds so much promise. It is only up to Rwandans to seize the moment and reap the benefits of that future. The president delivered this call when he urged his compatriots to remember the future to which they are committed.
Two decades ago, Rwanda was expected to be a failed state. Even the people with the best intentions were resigned to what was considered inevitable. The less friendly or outright hostile prayed and wished that would happen. It would confirm their prejudices that this was the destiny of Africans.
That, as everyone who has been to Rwanda these past twenty years will testify, did not happen.
Today Rwanda does not only exist as a nation, it is also a vibrant and growing economy.
From a near-failed state, Rwanda is now the enviable model for many.
A decimated, broken and scared population, filled with so much despair, has become a teeming, confident and assertive people, not afraid to define their own interests and to defend them when necessary.
Rwandans are happier, more united and prosperous than at any time in the recent history of their country.
Rwanda today could not be more different from what it once was - a country that few knew or cared about, one that was isolated by timid and obsequious leaders. It is now an active player on the international scene whose counsel is valued.
By any measure, Rwanda has made an incredible turn around in the space of a short time.
Every social and development indicator has improved. Life expectancy has doubled. Per capita income has more than tripled. GDP growth has been consistently high. Basic education is universal. So is access to health care due to a universal health insurance scheme.
The country scores high marks in several areas. It is the best investment destination, most reformed country in doing business, among the most competitive and least corrupt – and many more deserved accolades.
Yet this remarkable transformation – from the near-certain demise of a nation to its spectacular renewal – attracts the most extreme reactions.
Admirers cannot stop being impressed and pointing it out as an example of what a determined people can do.
Detractors grudgingly agree that Rwanda’s revival is unprecedented but add sour grapes in mouth, that it has been achieved through repression. And in any case all the growth is a result of massive foreign aid that has been poured into the country.
This second reaction is interesting in several respects. It indicates a refusal to come to terms with a people determined to defy predictions of doom and move ahead on its own steam.
It is also a way of denying Rwandans credit for what they have achieved. In this sense it is a restatement of one of the prejudices against Africans - that they are incapable of such a feat without external support.
Rwandans, of course, know better and do not need praise or blame to know what is good for them. They know that the country’s renewal is due to their resilience, sacrifice and choices they have made. Indeed President Kagame reminded them of this fact yesterday at the commemoration.
Activities to mark this year’s commemoration of the genocide seem to serve several purposes.
One, it is a solemn occasion to keep alive the memory of the victims of genocide.
Another is to restate Rwandans refusal to be broken, or to succumb to helplessness. It is a reaffirmation of their will to live on terms they define themselves.
The third is to remind the world about the evil of genocide and warn of its ever present danger.
And the mood (it is actually a mixture of several moods) during this period reflects this meaning. The remembrance of the victims of genocide is marked by a sombre, sad but serene and dignified mood.
Then there is an air of defiance, of the refusal to be pigeon-holed and having one’s life defined by others. It is an almost stubborn way of saying – sorry, but we will do our own thing, our own way, in a manner that which suits us.
Some people who do not understand the Rwandan character well, or think what they say should be followed no matter what, have pointed to these two as examples of their arrogance and intransigence.
One can also detect a mood that is almost celebratory because Rwandans have overcome daunting challenges to come this far.
The simultaneous but contrasting moods capture the essence of the recent history of Rwanda. Twenty years ago, the people were down, but not out. They then picked themselves up and are now up and running.
They continue to defy predictions and the expectations of others, and remain focussed on a future they fashion for themselves.
This is the unique story of Rwanda that this year’s commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi brings out.