The missing jigsaw in explaining Rwanda's rebirth

Jake, is a British national who likes to think of himself as a friend of Rwanda. Two weeks ago, Jake and I sat down for a cup of coffee to chat about his recent trip to Rwanda. “It is always interesting to speak to a native about these things,” he explained.

Jake, is a British national who likes to think of himself as a friend of Rwanda. Two weeks ago, Jake and I sat down for a cup of coffee to chat about his recent trip to Rwanda. “It is always interesting to speak to a native about these things,” he explained.

First, we chatted about the wonderful Rwandan weather, which can be described as the crème de la crème of weathers especially when compared to the unpredictable or rather awful British weather. But, that was just small talk; soon enough, we would be comfortable enough to express ourselves.

And so I asked, “How was your trip to Rwanda, Jake?” With a smile, Jake replied: “that country is unrecognisable – I last visited Rwanda in 1995 when I was working for a development NGO, when the country had just emerged out of the horrors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

“Would you believe that one million people perished in a matter of months? But look at it now; when I arrived at the airport, I was greeted by gentle smiles, the streets are impeccably clean, the country is orderly, there is a real sense of purpose. And since my background is in development, I understand partly how Rwanda has achieved all these good things. But, what I do not grasp is how nearly all Rwandans are on the same page of what they need to achieve in such a short time!”

Jake’s professional background falls in the field of development. Over the years, he has worked in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and with that, he has been a witness of many broken nations.

“I have been to many broken nations, nations that have suffered so much either by factors made by man himself or factors that simply are unavoidable. I started my career in Bangladesh, and then worked in Ethiopia for a few months; I also spent two years in Sierra Leone, before moving to Liberia next door. In effect, in every one of these countries, they were facing adversity. In Bangladesh there was chronic poverty, in Ethiopia millions faced the plight of famine – nearly 400,000 people died as a result.

“In Sierra Leone and Liberia, conflicts simply could not stop, and with this came problems after problems.

Poverty, corruption, illiteracy, child mortality, more conflicts, lack of functioning institutions, you name it, it was all there.”

He continued; “As for Rwanda, when I was first there in 1995, it was evident that although the government was trying to put together a few functioning institutions, the journey was going to be a tough one; after all, the state coffers were virtually empty, there were only a handful of businesses, which meant that tax revenues were limited.

Also not to mention,the state of infrastructure was virtually non-existent. I had seen all this before elsewhere, and I feared I was witnessing another broken nation on the horizon.”

But, 20 years later, Jake had a different outlook of Rwanda: “there are many formulas to recovery – economists will have you believe that when you follow a set of principles as prescribed, and then gradually you will develop.

But we are talking about recovering from the loss of 1 million people;it is extremely difficult to achieve anything especially when you look at it in Rwanda’s context. I am not entirely convinced that Rwanda is where it is today simply because Rwandans have followed a set of economic principles.

There is something else that explains this rebirth, and I must admit -I cannot quite put a finger to it!” Jake observed, before adding “and so I put it to you Sabena, what is thatRwandan je ne sais quoi that has inspired Rwandans to achieve what they have in only 20 years?”

As I gathered my thoughts to answer Jake, a quote by Sir Winston Churchill overpowered my thoughts, and I shared it with Jake! In 1940 when Britain faced a barrage of bombardment from Hitler during World War 2, Churchill had this to say to parliament:“we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The concept of resilience, I explained to Jake, is perhaps the missing jigsaw in explaining the rebirth of Rwanda. You see, I went on, in recent history, Rwandans have experienced all sorts of challenges, but there has been no challenge greater than the ethnic divisions later followed by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

I continued to explain to Jake that although I have not been directly exposed to other nation’s challenges as I have been with regards to Rwanda, it is my understanding that after facing adverse challenges, Rwandans have learned to cultivate a unique culture of resilience – the attainment of positive adaptation in the face of significant adversity.

I explained that in Rwanda, people have gradually learned to focus more on finding solutions to problems rather than dwell on problems themselves. For instance, I explained, when it came to reconciliation efforts, apart from the South African case, there was no reference point.

Rwandans had to adapt quickly to preserve any chance of avoiding going back to conflict. Second, I explained the framework of Gacaca - a traditional justice model that was revived to solve genocide-related cases that would have otherwise taken decades to solve.

Then, I pointed to other initiatives such as Community-Based Healthcare, Free Basic Education, Women empowerment, Gir’inka, Agaciro Fund, Ndi Umunyarwanda, Citizen Outreach, anti-corruption efforts, meritocracy, ICT penetration, and many more. All these, I insisted, would not have been possible without the spirit of resilience -understanding that for solutions to be found and implemented, ownership has to be deeply-rooted and understood by everyone.

And so, as we concluded our chat, Jake had one last thing to ask: “do you think that the spirit of resilience among Rwandans will also solve water and power shortages currently besieging Rwanda?” No, I replied, water and power shortages in Rwanda will not be solved by anything but practical solutions.

However, I insisted that any practical solutions of any kind will be founded on the pillar of resilience – all Rwandans coming together with various means for the greater good of their nation.


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