Visitors coming to Rwanda for the first time go away with an impression of the country different from what they came with. They find a country unrecognisable from what they have been told about, read or imagined.
On arrival, they are met with quiet efficiency. When they move into Kigali, they marvel at its cleanliness. Those who go gorilla-trekking are wowed by the majestic primates and laud the efforts to protect them and conservation in general.
Everyone, even the most sceptical, can see the progress the country has made in the last quarter century. No one can argue against the economic growth indicators and various world surveys and rankings reported by reputable world organisations and institutions.
They find a healthcare system that works and produces results. There has been a reduction in such common diseases as malaria. Rwandans live longer. Attention can now be given to non-communicable diseases. The evidence is not only visible it is well documented.
This is all part of the quiet revolution Rwanda has been undergoing. However, there are other, no less impressive, aspects of this revolution that we do not hear much about. Well, until now.
One of them is access to electricity. Recent statistics from the Rwanda Energy Group show that as of February 2019, 51% of Rwandan homes were connected to electricity, up from 10% only nine years ago in 2010. Of these, 37% are on the national grid and 14% on solar power or other privately generated power networks.
Even without these figures, you can see the changes, especially if you have lived in the country for a while. It is no longer the major urban centres that are lit, but wide areas across the country.
Fifty one percent may not appear big, but knowing where we have come from, it is actually huge. And yes, it is still mainly for lighting, powering the radio receiver or TV or charging mobile phones. But that change is great. It keeps people connected.
Of course, there are still holes of darkness at night, but they are getting smaller and fewer.
The spreading electric lighting has banished into oblivion the once indispensable kerosene (locally called peterori). I was in a village far from Kigali recently and people were wondering about what had happened to it. It could not be found in any of the shops. No one remembers when it was last sold in the area. Well, blame it on electricity.
There will, of course, be some who will miss the dark nights when stars in the sky are clearly visible, romantics and poets of nature among them. Starry nights can be a source of inspiration and may be good for other things besides. They shouldn’t worry. Stars are not above only.
If they stand on any of our hills and look below and across, they will find other stars to fire their imagination..
Another change is in the fuel for cooking. Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is increasingly being used for cooking in many households in the towns and villages in place of wood or charcoal.
It was once thought to be only for the well-to-do in the cities. Not anymore. The increase in use has largely been because it is now affordable following a reduction in prices.
What that does to the protection of our environment is immense.
There is still one issue, however. Not enough has been done to explain its safety. Fears linger that it is not safe, that it can explode. If these are dispelled, we should see even more people using gas.
As with electricity, there will be some who want to retain the sights and sounds of rustic life. They will miss the sight and smell of smoke rising from the hills into the dark night to merge with the clouds and stars above. They will long for the fires dotted on hillsides in the evening, their flames breaking the darkness and signalling human habitation.
All these will be missed. But tell that to the child who has to scour the countryside looking for increasingly scarce firewood, or the housewife who has to blow hard to light a fire, smoke stinging her eyes to tears and her nose to run. You will be dismissed as a lunatic.
It will not be long before kerosine, charcoal and firewood go the way of nyakatsi (grass-thatched houses), disappear from use and become a memory or historical curiosity. They will be abolished, not by edict, but by the quest for a better quality of life.
The quiet revolution goes on. When some notice how far we have gone, they are left wondering how and when that happened, but instead of doing likewise, they do everything possible to derail it. But it is difficult to throw such a revolution off track.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.