My family and I have just returned from a trip to Rwanda, inspired by our daughter’s study of the genocide.
What was supposed to be an ‘educational family holiday’ in fact metamorphosed into an impromptu promotional campaign by Rwandans, due to a question that my husband and I decided to tweet their president, Paul Kagame.
He replied, and in no time at all, the astounding ‘Twitter storm’ that ensued reached the news headlines in the capital city, Kigali.
My initial tweet was this: “My family and I are very impressed with your country. What do you say to those who think your methods are dictatorial?”
President Kagame’s answer was: “Feel free to go all around the country asking ... and decide what to believe! What do you think of those who believe the opp.?”
Within minutes, countless Rwandans were tweeting, retweeting and messaging me, and soon I found myself in daily Twitter contact with what seemed like half the nation!
The vast majority of these tweets were in fierce defence of their president; only a few were bitterly opposed to him, implying that I was a duped foreigner taken in by the thin veneer of Rwanda’s beauty and smiles.
Many tweeps thanked our family for our appreciation of their country, urging us to campaign back home about their success story, and to counter-attack criticisms written by Western journalists who don’t fully understand the miracle that Kagame has achieved in bringing a broken country together after the devastation of the genocide in 1994.
Very soon after sending my initial tweet, two government officials requested to meet us. We duly met the following day; they thanked us for our support of their country; they talked about its enormous progress over the past 22 years, and encouraged others like us to come and see for themselves.
Whether or not we are naive foreigners being duped, we have been deeply moved by what we have seen and heard during our visit to Rwanda. Quite apart from the sheer breathtaking beauty of this ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, Paul Kagame has achieved nothing short of a miracle when one considers the tragedy of the recent past.
In short, he has managed to bring a decimated country back together and pull it into the 21st century.
He has promoted youth and women’s rights (Rwanda has the highest percentage in the world of women in parliament at 63.8% data taken from the Inter-Parliamentary Union), he has made free education available to all children, combatted poverty, channelled foreign aid into worthwhile projects, and – by far Kagame’s most remarkable achievement to date – convinced genocide survivors to accept their loved ones’ killers back into local communities. (This being done after the killers have served their prison or Gacaca sentence – a local community form of justice.)
Linda Melvern, a renowned writer on Rwanda, said of this repatriation scheme: “It was as though in 1945 the Jews and Germans were to live together in Germany after the Holocaust, under a Jewish-dominated army.”
During our 10-day visit we spoke to Rwandans from all walks of life – a taxi driver who proudly pointed out the shiny silver roofs in nearby hills, explaining that they were part of Kagame’s extensive re-housing project; a postcard-seller who had survived the genocide as a child by hiding in the attic, and who will never forget the screams of his family being killed below; a young passerby on the street who engaged in conversation with us and said that Paul Kagame was the only man to lead Rwanda forward; the manager at our motel who wryly asked us to point out the local dirt track road in need of renovation when we next spoke to ‘our government friends’, and others. (There are in fact plans for a new road infrastructure in Kigali.)
Rwanda is now considered to be one of the safest countries to visit in Africa, and with its rapidly growing economy, one of the best places to do business on the continent.
It is a beautiful land filled with hills, mountains, volcanoes, tea and banana plantations, lakes so vast that they look like the sea, and a friendly, welcoming people.
But none of this, none of it a tall, would have been possible without the skill and determination of the former General of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who ousted the Hutu Power killers, stopped the genocide, and went on to become President.
So, our answer to the question that President Kagame tweeted in reply to our own was this:”The Rwandans we have met during our stay confirm that your policies show that the seemingly impossible can be achieved.”
The writer is British educationist currently living in Poland. She recently was in Rwanda as a tourist together with her family.