Dan Magaziner recently penned a reflective piece about hearing President Paul Kagame’s speech at Yale University. President Kagame had been invited to the US varsity as part of Yale’s Coca Cola World Fund Lecture series and Professor Magaziner correctly expresses that this visit sparked debate. Sadly, Professor Magaziner seems to have missed, or manipulated, the incredibly important message that the President was trying to covey.
Mind your own business was not the message
Professor Magaziner expounds that President Kagame was stressing that Western countries have no say about goings-on in Rwanda because they did nothing to stop the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. While this argument actually holds significant weight, it was not at all the message shared by the President. Not only did Kagame never mention the word ‘Genocide’ but his speech focused nearly entirely on the present and future not the past.
The President’s message focused on the notion that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, whether this was in regard to democracy or trade policies. To quote the President’s words himself, “But the defence of universal values must focus on substantive outcomes rather than on fundamentalism about process, since clearly no one holds a monopoly of wisdom, as events have demonstrated.”
He goes to great lengths to show different moments of dangers of the so-called ‘universal truths’ and that one must take circumstances on the ground into account when evaluating anything. It should be noted that it is quite scary that this point still needs to be made by a Head of State speaking at an Ivy League school.
Professor Magaziner ignores the Rwandan people
Throughout the Professor’s piece he neglects to mention the most important thing in Rwanda – the 11 million souls that call it home. Speaking endlessly about the Head of State ignores the rights and hopes of the people who entrusted the President with the power that comes with his office. This is a common trait of criticism of Rwanda – to treat Rwandan citizens as lemmings. Ironically, President Kagame alluded to this exact type of observation bias in his speech on that day, when he said, “What matters is the value the system accords to each citizen, and their ability to give input and get their concerns and ideas addressed. Nothing done against the wishes and expectations of citizens is sustainable.”
There is a consistent and shocking approach in some analysis of Rwanda – that blankets Rwandans as irrelevant to the discussion. Anyone who has stood in a room of more than three people knows that people are shaped by different experience and that these inform their opinions. Assuming people can agree that Rwandans are humans – it is safe that 11 million people deserve to be part of one’s analysis if one chooses to speak about the country they call home.
Let us all be more humble
President Kagame ended his speech with words so powerful they may be the only lines one needs to remember from the speech. “Be as humble, as you are curious. Be contrarian where needed, and ready, where necessary, to fight for what is right. But let’s all remain open to having our views and understandings improved through a better comprehension of what others have endured, and what they want for their future, and what they can contribute.”
Rwandans will always welcome that Professor Magaziner has an interest in the country’s development but ask, humbly, that he approach his learning about a country that is foreign to him humbly.
Professor Magaziner, you shook the President’s hand but I shook the hand of an 89-year-old farmer called Amos in the most rural part of Rwanda. I asked him what made him the proudest and, to my surprise, he said it was that he was just being proud now. “I have seen so much suffering but now I see a promising future. In many years, Rwanda has changed but now my grand-children have the hope of being anything they want.” The President said “To lead the world and make it better, you first have to understand it.”
I think you and I, Professor, should listen more to farmer Amos – he has so much to teach us about humility and listening.