Patriotism in Rwanda has long been marked by militarism. Showing support for the state and armed forces is still considered by some as requisite for a patriot.
As Rwanda’s security has improved and development flourished, however, for many Rwandans patriotism has evolved from the military to the mercantile and charitable.
In Kigali and throughout the country one encounters educated Rwandans returned from abroad who are working to assist Rwanda’s development, despite significant cuts to their salary compared with what they could earn for their skills elsewhere.
According to UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Rwanda has lost at least 19% of its skilled workers and academics to ‘brain drain,’ the emigration of educated technicians and professionals to more developed countries.
But as Rwanda’s economy continues to grow and foreign investors fill the Kigali Serena, educated Rwandans are trickling back from overseas to utilize their expertise at home for some a home they are getting to know for the first time.
Alain Munyaburanga, 30, is one such Rwandan. Born and raised in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, he moved to Canada when he was sixteen, where he attended secondary school and university, ultimately receiving a masters degree in electrical engineering. He then worked in Kano in northern Nigeria as an independent service provider for MTN.
The area “was under unrest due to religious intolerance, so I sold the company four years later,” Munyaburanga said.
He then moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he helped establish the A.A.T.C. Freight LLC, now one of the largest African forwarding companies in Dubai.
From there he moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and worked for the business of one of his relatives. He did not visit Rwanda for the first time until 2003.
“I had never been there before. You hear Kinyarwanda being spoken everywhere and you can speak it to everyone – it’s your language, your country.”
Opportunity to return to Rwanda soon presented itself. In 2006 Anne Heyman, a lawyer and philanthropist in New York, proposed the building of a youth village and secondary school for orphans in Rwanda.
Called the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), its goal was to provide a loving home and top-quality education to promising orphaned youth who would otherwise not have the means to attend a competitive high school.
“There was this great project happening in Rwanda, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Munyaburanga said.
He respected their vision to make a long-term contribution to education in Rwanda and determination to make ASYV a collaborative project between Rwandese and foreign partners, and knew he could facilitate the latter.
“They may have the money but we (Rwandans) have the perspective and the incentive. The fact is we have to help ourselves. We have to be responsible for and take pride in our development. So working for ASYV I knew I could provide the Rwandan side and insight the project needed.”
Munyaburanga was hired as the in-country project coordinator and moved to Kigali in 2006. He is visibly impressed by the security and rapid rate of development here.
Though with his international background he could find work anywhere in the world, he is happy and proud to be in Rwanda.
“There are so many opportunities here, to give and to gain,” he said.
“The country is in a very promising time, it is a great place to work. And at the end of the day you are contributing to your country.”
Rwanda is slowly gaining distinction in the international community for its stability, tourism industry, and astonishing reconstruction.
As its notoriety fades and reputation strengthens, says Munyaburanga, all Rwandans are uniquely placed to contribute to the country’s continued success and development, regardless of their economic or educational background.
“Every Rwandan is an ambassador of their country. Most people don’t see it or understand it like that, but it’s true.”
He said that to show patriotism is to show “the best side of Rwanda. This is spreading a positive image of the country.”
For people to simply be reliable, on time, and do what they say they are going to do would greatly counteract the negative stereotypes of ‘African time’ and African inefficiency held by many foreign contractors and workers in Rwanda, he emphasized.
By working hard and surpassing expectations, Rwandans can show the world what they are capable of accomplishing on their own terms and gradually wean free from dependence on foreign aid and experts to boost development.
Munyaburanga acknowledges that his move to Rwanda was precipitated by more than just love of country. Were Rwanda’s security and circumstances less auspicious, he would have been much less likely to return for the long term.
“You can’t be patriotic if you don’t gain something from it,” he said with a shrug.
“I am benefiting from working here, and I am helping my country.”
One woman returned from overseas to work in Rwanda, despite the fact opportunity to benefit from it was less clear.
Anysie Mukeshimana, 33, is headmistress of the Gakoma Secondary School south of Butare in Southern Province, near the border with Burundi.
A native of Gakoma, she lived there as a child and moved to Kigali to attend the Lycée de Kigali secondary school. There, Mukeshimana excelled in her studies of biochemistry, winning a government scholarship to attend university in Bangalore, India.
Just four hundred students in Rwanda were selected for this opportunity. She moved to India in 1998 and earned a bachelors degree from Bangalore University in 2002.
Bangalore “was a nice place to study,” she said. “The university was very good. I was able to study biotechnology, because at the time we did not have this in Rwanda.”
When Mukeshimana left Rwanda, the country was still going through considerable turmoil. With war breaking out in DRC and spreading throughout the region, security was tenuous and Rwanda’s future uncertain.
Despite this, she never considered abandoning her pledge to return home after finishing school. “I never went back to Rwanda during those four years. But people visited sometimes and brought us news. They told us the situation and when I was graduating, I knew there was peace in Rwanda. I didn’t think to stay in India or move to another country.”
While at Bangalore University she met her husband, Gaspard Kamali, a fellow scholarship recipient who was getting his degree in electrical engineering.
They returned together to Rwanda and began looking for work. Mukeshimana was quickly disappointed.
“For two years I waited for a job,” she recalled. “I was trained in biotechnology but there was no opportunity to use it.”
Then in 2004, acquaintances in Gakoma contacted her; the local high school was no longer going to be headed by the local church, and needed a new principal. No background in education was required for the job, just a bachelor’s degree and the ability to speak English and French.
“I took the job. I needed to work, and Gakoma is my native place,” she said.
Mukeshimana takes great pride in her work and school. “Our school has no resources. Our faculty’s salaries are paid by MINEDUC but we receive no supplies. One year we received less than twenty books, and we have over one hundred students. But still our students get good marks. We work very hard.”
She is frustrated sometimes because her skills as a scientist have remained unutilized since she graduated from university, and fears her training as a biotechnologist will become obsolete if she remains outside the field for too long.
Despite the enormous difficulties of her work, Mukeshimana does not doubt her decision to return to and remain in Rwanda.
“I stay because this is my country. Sometimes it is hard because the school has no resources. And I want to someday be able to use my training and work in biotechnology.”
She hopes to go to the United States to earn a masters degree, and then return to Rwanda to work. Mukeshimana and her husband have an eleven month-old son. When asked whether she would want to raise him overseas and send him abroad for university her answer is immediate and definite.
“No. I want my son to stay here. Rwanda has good universities in Butare and Kigali. Our country is developing quickly, quickly,” she said.
“This is where we will stay.”
As Rwanda grows, so must the Rwandan understanding, perception and practice of patriotism. It appears fewer and fewer Rwandans believe the ‘old lie’, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
As Munyaburanga stated, “being patriotic is not just a military distinction anymore. It’s a matter of everyday life, how you are living, being responsible. And most importantly being tolerant. How can you love your country if you don’t love your countrymen?”
A patriot may fight and die for his or her country if they must. But it is perhaps instead a greater service to employ your talents, encourage tolerance, and live in peace for it.