Rwandansmay decry the imperfections of service delivery today but they should never forget where they are coming from. Only about two decades ago, there was no service of any kind to talk about.
I remember going to the only shop that sold good shoes, bearing the odd Kinyarwanda name of what translated into something like “At-Mrs-Little-Lunatic’s”!
Quite a mouthful, and rather scary too, but I was not put off. On enquiring as to the price of a pair I fancied, I cringed to see the good lady size me up and spit out: “Hah! It’s beyond your means. I am closing, anyway, it’s time for my mid-day nap”.
Cut to the quick, I feigned politeness and, before she could bang the door in my face, entreated: “Please, can you give me three pairs in different colours?” Not that I needed them; but how else could you have punctured her arrogance? The insolence of it all!
I was still in exile and was only testing out my long-lost home so that I could go back, formalise my departure, and return. Unfortunately, once back I encountered worse in many sectors.
But if I quote Mrs-Little-Lunatic, it’s not to dwell on her as a topic. It’s to recall the pathetic state of the service industry and everything else of the time, generally.
The routed government had built a system of kingpins of all sizes around whom everything gravitated. Which is why many places bore the names of these kingpins. There were places called ‘At-Kabuga’s’, ‘At Rubangura’s’, ‘At Kimironko’ and on, after the buildings’ or business owners’ names.
That’s how the shop took the nickname of the lady-trader.
The business and trading community functioned in this way following the operational set-up of the government.
In government, at the top was the head honcho who was the country’s president, whose power was the tower guiding everything that happened. His top confidants drew their power from him and in turn distributed it down the chain of underlings to the smallest fish.
Everybody who was somebody was not so because of hard work but, rather, of how they paid homage to the top banana and their own immediate superior. And power meant affluence and influence.
Be it in the public or private sector, from top dogs power and wealth were doled down in doses of different sizes or in many ways extorted from hapless citizens. Everybody’s attention was thus focused on creating connections to that gravy sequence.
You were respected or disfavoured according to your apparent place in, or out of, that hierarchy.
The poor masses paid up or sang praises for attention, else they were condemned to oblivion. No ruler gave a damn for their bothersome little existence.
It was this status quo that both the rich who had always been here before 1994 and some nouveaux-riches fresh from exile settled in, hoping it’d puff them up into big demi-gods for eternity.
Little did they know that there was new leadership in town that was an altogether different kettle of fish.
Slowly but surely, the leadership was gnawing at, and disrupting, this whole ‘lick-my-boots-and-I scratch-your-back’ mockery of a system to single-mindedly centre all goods and services on the citizenry.
Remnants of this “man eateth where he worketh” and for whom “he worshipeth” mind-set may still be in existence. But methinks we are seeing the last of these avaricious self-declared power brokers.
From the ashes of that sorry system is rising a country of order and united purpose.
Today, buildings and businesses bear their own names. Individuals are just that: individuals.
Yet again, if I ruminate over the state of this country in 1994 and before, it’s not to celebrate its demise only. It’s also to bemoan the existence of this glorification of patronage in systems among some of our fellow African countries.
What kind of twisted logic leads some leaderships into rejecting the idea of uniting their people around the persistently purposeful goal of together achieving a common good? Why are they averse to opening up to other countries for the good of a united, stronger, wealthier Africa?
With a truly functional African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), Africa can go places.
If Western Europe can consume Russian gas, however antagonistic they claim to be, we as Africans are also capable of sharing all, however varied our interests. We can together process our primary products and build and link our different infrastructures. We can consume our own, before exporting the surplus for common gain.
To reach there, however, we need an efficient workhorse of a service-focused workforce for the faultless delivery of goods and services. Can we get there?
Where in Japan, for example, some days ago when a train departed twenty-three seconds too early, the authorities saw reason to apologise? And some years ago, when a train was five minutes late, the in-charge committed suicide?
Yes, for one, Rwandans can. I see them soon making first-class goods and perfect service delivery to a point of rolling out the red carpet at the mere sight of a potential customer.
Indeed, we must, to set example. Even if we are to get the moniker of ‘Little-Lunatic’ for it!
The views expressed in this article are of the author.