Having been raised in an especially conservative region of the United States, my decision to move to Rwanda for 6 months was not taken lightly. Considering that many people in the state of Arkansas regard Africa as a country, and not 54 countries with massive variations in culture, tradition, and history- the common views surrounding life in Rwanda are not necessarily based on fact.
I’m fairly certain that many of my friends and family thought I would be living in small hut, with a dirt floor, in a rural village hours away from civilization, farming maize and herding goats in 100-degree weather.
Most are conditioned by advertisements for charity organizations that include images of starving children and streets covered in filth.
Regrettably, these biases are not strictly limited to deluded conservatives. The international media of late has neglected many of the realities of Rwanda. Instead, information is analyzed using an obvious and misguided confirmation bias that confirms the preconceived notions of Westerners.
The New York Times has recently published several articles that attempt to incriminate the Rwandan state. The suspension of two newspapers, refusing to grant an extended visa to a Human Rights Watch researcher, the so-called “Island Prison” at Iwawa, grenade attacks, the arrest and bail of Victoire Ingabire, and most recently the arrest of Peter Erlinder- these stories have solicited responses from the international media, and have been taken to mean that the Rwandan government is, in general, excessively repressive and increasingly less democratic.
Especially coming out of the United States, the home of ‘exceptionalism’, I find irony in these criticisms.
Considering the international standards of national sovereignty, it is reasonable to conclude that Rwanda is well within its rights to national self-determination. Again, however, the pessimistic point-of-view purported by the international media is conditioned by severe misinterpretation and confirmation bias.
And that is the essence of the Western media’s coverage of Rwanda- feeding the biases of Americans educated by fictional Hollywood films and aid organizations seeking to inspire sympathy in their donors.
Journalists like Josh Kron and Jeffery Gettleman have not sought to understand the Rwandan context in any meaningful way, and instead interpret information to suit their own preconceived notions in an attempt to produce thematic, sensational news.
It has become an American tradition of sorts to tell this story about African nations, regardless of the inescapably positive realities. Repression, dictatorship, and nepotism are assumed to be endemic characteristics of the sub-Saharan African nation.
Without understanding the nuances of particularity, the Western media continues to validate this false assumption worldwide instead of aspiring to fulfill their journalistic responsibility to disseminate unbiased fact.
As I approach the end of my stay in Rwanda, I know that the Western image of African countries does not truly apply here. Of course poverty exists in this country, and there are many other challenges to Rwanda’s development. If anything, however, my time here has shown me that Rwanda is, in a word, exceptional.
My experiences in Rwanda have endowed me with new perspectives that are removed from the typical Western bias. Those opportunities have allowed me to see past the overwhelming misconceptions that are so prevalent in the Global North.
While in Rwanda I have not seen a people afraid of their government. Instead, I have seen a proud and patriotic people. And it’s not because the population is terrified of an autocratic leviathan. They support their government because they respect the leaders and benefit from its policies.
The real facts about Rwanda do not fit into the confirmation biases of recent international media contributors. Therefore they are inconvenient.
The difficulties of giving up self-assured generalizations about this continent have apparently come to outweigh the idea of journalistic integrity. The truth is that the Rwandan government is distinct.
This nation is developing; and unlike so many developing nations that have become reliant on the purported altruism of Western aid, Rwanda is developing on its own terms.
The current administration values national sovereignty more so than it seeks the approval of the New York Times. Frankly, the leadership in this country is more interested in the prosperity of its constituents than it is with the pursuit of arbitrary forms of international approval.
With virtually no corruption, increasingly promising development indicators, and an ambitious, overarching development strategy (Vision 2020), Rwanda stands to achieve a position at the top of the African socioeconomic scale, and, in doing so, defy the pessimistic expectations of the misguided West.
Robert Lord is an International Relations student at Hendrix College and an intern at Rwanda Development Board