Want to know Rwandans think? Visit social media, listen to radio

Our neighbours in East Africa have a strange perception of Rwandans. They think we are a quiet lot. We never publicly say what is in our hearts or on our minds. We are not excitable and so do not give loud and passionate vent to our emotions.

Our neighbours in East Africa have a strange perception of Rwandans. They think we are a quiet lot. We never publicly say what is in our hearts or on our minds. We are not excitable and so do not give loud and passionate vent to our emotions.

We are going to hear a lot of this in the coming days during the presidential election campaigns.

 

It is an uninformed view and whoever says we don’t say a thing doesn’t know what is going on here. There is lively debate on all sorts of issues, including government policies, on social and even traditional media.

 

Of course, the bit about being non-excitable, too loud or confrontational is true.

 

A few examples will illustrate.

Recently the Rwanda Development Board raised the cost of gorilla tracking permits to $1500. Immediately people took to twitter and facebook to voice their opinion on the new rates and a heated debate ensued.

Decisions in Rwanda are usually not taken on impulse, and one must assume that the increase was a well-thought out measure informed by the market. But some people did not see it this way and made their opposition known in the most strident way.

Now, discussion on social media has some advantages. It is immediate, brief and to the point. But this mode also imposes limitations. Brevity, which is a social media virtue, is also its vice as it gives little room for different viewpoints and build up a case. Responses can appear disjointed.

And so it was with the gorilla permits. Some displayed great understanding of issues around tourism. Others showed incredible ignorance of the link between tourism, conservation and the welfare of human communities living close to tourism areas.

The opponents of the hike thought the decision was rush, unfair to the majority of Rwandans and might not even bring in the expected benefits. It could, in fact, advantage our competitors, they argued.

For those in support, the issue was about sustainability. Profitable tourism is not just about receipts or affordability for as many people as possible. What would be the point if, after a few years of mass tourism and good earnings, there was nothing more to see?

Sustainability involves conservation, which may entail limiting human traffic. It involves empowering local communities, which may mean raising rates so that there is enough to share.

It is also about ownership and management of a common resource for posterity. It has been shown that exploitation of resources without protection or replenishment leads to their depletion and finally loss of revenue.

These opposing views were expressed and responded to with respect even if the natural impulse was to box the ears of some of their exponents.

I don’t know who won the argument. The gorillas, which were at the centre of the debate, didn’t have a say in the matter. But they might have the last word if they continue to thrive and attract the well-heeled visitors and receipts increase.

Another subject of intense debate recently was language in education and employment. Here the issue was about the relative advantages of Kinyarwanda and foreign languages in getting a job in Rwanda.

The point of contention was that recruitment favours the more competent in foreign languages; that Kinyarwanda did not seem to matter at all.

Linked with this was the fact that those educated abroad were more likely to be more competent in foreign languages and therefore land the best jobs.

This is an important comment on a number of issues.

One concerns language education in Rwandan educational institutions. Proficiency in foreign languages is low, which means that there are weaknesses in the teaching and learning of these languages.

Another has to do with the place of Kinyarwanda in employment. It does not seem to be an important consideration.

Then there is the question of inequality that educational opportunities may create.

The debate did one good thing. It called on those in authority to recognise the gravity of these and other employment related issues and address them appropriately.

There are other discussions that go on daily on radio and TV centring mainly on the provision of services by government and the conduct of individual officials. The topics cover such areas as education, health, agriculture, land issues and government administrative services especially at the local level.

The smart government official or business person listens to them and works to avoid being the subject of such discussions. To that extent, they serve a very useful purpose.

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