Misfortune brings out markedly different responses from human beings. It sometimes brings out the nobility in us. Other times it bares the beast hidden in the human body.
For the rest of the time it reveals the indifference in most people. The most recent misfortune to hit humanity was the earthquake that devastated Haiti, and all these responses were present.
The African response to the Haitian disaster has been spectacular in its difference from that to similar disasters in the past. It has largely brought out the noble in the character of most Africans - leaders and ordinary citizens.
Not since the days of the liberation struggles in Southern Africa have we seen such common cause. Many countries contributed to the humanitarian effort in that country that has a proud history of independence, but a long record of calamities. The amounts given may have been small, but that this was done at all marks a significant shift in the collective mindset of most Africans and augurs well for the future.
In the past, Africa was synonymous with disaster – both natural and self-inflicted. And whenever these happened, African leaders would go to the West, hat in hand for alms.
Sometimes they denied that any such disaster had happened until nearly fleshless corpses began to appear with increasing regularity and in greater numbers on TV screens and in newspaper pages.
And so whether it is drought and famine in Ethiopia, or floods in Mozambique, or the displacement of thousands of civilians by beastly rebels, we have often relied on Western TV pictures and newspaper coverage to prick the conscience of humanity to the immense suffering of fellow human beings.
Pictures of children with oversized heads, glazed eyes staring blankly, lifelessly into the faces of helpless mothers, tongues painfully attempting unsuccessfully to moist cracked lips, who soon turn lifeless in the arms of their mothers wrench at the hearts of most people.
A mother giving birth atop a tree in the flooded plains of Mozambique elicits floods of sympathy and admiration.
The face of a child whose nose, ears and lips have been chopped off by crazed or spirit-possessed rebels is so horrifying that it can only lead to outrage against creatures responsible for such atrocity.
And always the wealthy Western countries sent in relief aid to the disaster-hit areas. Western music stars organised mega fundraising concerts that raised huge amounts of money.
The songs they composed for this purpose became instant hits on African radio stations (for their tunes, not their humanitarian purpose). A massive relief effort soon averted the possible extermination of the people of an entire region.
This is what we had come to expect almost as a right – that disaster would strike and someone would rush to our rescue as if they were obliged to do so.
That has been changing for a while now. The African response to the Haitian earthquake is only the latest example in this transformation.
It started with peace-keeping. African countries now take up peacekeeping duties in troubled areas of the continent and beyond. It is not just the big and wealthier countries like Nigeria and South Africa that are involved, either, but even the little ones like Rwanda. In fact, Rwanda has been involved in peace-keeping and policing duties in Sudan, Liberia, Haiti and East Timor.
Admittedly the success with which peace keeping is done is mixed, ranging from the exmplary to the pitiable. But the important thing is that it is done.
This sort of intervention to alleviate the suffering of others has been evident in the response to the earthquake in Haiti. Again it is the smaller countries that have led the way. Liberia gave fiifty thousand dollars, Rwanda, a hundred thousand and Uganda fifty thousand. It is a sign of changing times.
Of course, not everyone sees it the same way. Some Ugandana see their government’s contribution to the humanitarian effort in Haiti as a cynical gesture to impress donors while their own drought-stricken and famine-prone north-eastern region is forgotten.
Mercifully, the same accusation cannot be levelled against Rwanda. Actually, we started this much earlier and have learnt to respond to vaious calamities using our own means without waiting for external aid to arrive first.
This might in the end be one of the greatest contributions Rwanda can make: showing others how it is done.
The ministry of agriculture constantly reminds us that famine has been banished from this country, and that even when it attempts to make a comeback as happened in Bugesera a few years ago, we are quick to run to the rescue of the people affected.
Again when Rwandans were expelled from Tanzania a few years ago, ordinary Rwandans and their government contributed food, materials for emergency shelter and other relief items and helped to resettle them in the country.
In 1994 hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who had been living as refugees in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, DRC and Kenya returned to the country and resettled without any international support whatsoever.
Since then we have seen many other, huge, homegrown, national efforts at solving calamities. The biggest has been the setting up of a fund for the survivors of the genocide against Tutsi, building homes for survivors of the genocide and other vulnerable people, and more recently, the one-dollar campaign for the same purpose.
The response to the Haitian earthquake disaster is useful in another sense. It is a sort of rehearsal of how to respond to disasters nearer home.
But as a rehearsal it shows that there are still many things lacking. And that is the point of a rehearsal. It enables people to put their act together early so as to put on a flawless performance on the the day of the show.
This is perhaps why the countries that have been quick to respond are those that have experienced upheavals in the past.
They have been there before and know what it is like, and in some instances have developed the capacity and preparedness to handle such situations.
This is certainly true of Rwanda. It appears that it is spreading to other African countries. That is a good thing.