Mammoth crowds attend his campaign rallies. People come to the rally ground in their tens of thousands. They come down from the country’s famous hills. They come across the plains.
They come as early as eight in the morning. Soon the ground is filled and the people who come later spill over into the surrounding areas. And then they wait for their hero.
They brave the July heat. In the cooler areas where unseasonal rain occasionally falls, they don’t mind, as it happened in the northern part of the country in the first week of the campaign. When it the rain fell, it was no discomfort to the thousands at the rally. For them, it was “farmers’ sweat”.
For all the time they are waiting, there is a festive atmosphere at the rally ground. The place resembles two things. One, it is like a huge open year festival of song and dance, interrupted occasionally by loud references to Kagame’s achievements. Two, it looks like one of those big religious rallies by the Christian revival movements.
Both comparisons are not misplaced. The campaign rally is indeed a sort of celebration. All the songs, dance and poems celebrate the improvements in the lives of Rwandans over the last ten years or so.
They attribute these achievements to the leadership of President Paul Kagame. The celebration is not a staged political show. Old and young, urban and rural, dance about the changes they have experienced in their lives.
There is genuine enthusiasm and joy and sincere gratitude. And soon there is evidence for the upbeat atmosphere.
People come forward to tell of how their lives have changed as a result of Kagame’s leadership.
A former rebel came up and told of how he had been afraid to return home, “fearing that he would be arrested and punished.” But when he eventually did, he was overwhelmed by the reception he got.
He was helped “to reintegrate into civilian life and to resettle.” The government enabled him “to set up a business whose turnover is now several million francs.”
One young man who had dropped out of high school related how he had heeded the president’s call for people to, “create jobs and set up a vocational school that not only brings in money, but also gives other young people skills with which they can earn a living.”
Another woman narrates of how, “with investment as small as ten thousand francs,” she has “built up a business worth several million francs in less than five years.” The returns on her very modest investment have not only been phenomenal, she has also helped other women set up income-generating projects.
These success stories are not isolated. There are many and spread across the country. These are the successes about which songs and poems have been composed. They are the ones that fill the air at the rally ground. They are testimony to Rwanda’s regeneration and determination to create a prosperous country.
They also have a religious likeness. The real life success narratives are akin to the testimonies of salvation from the clutches of sin one often hears at religious revival meetings. In both cases the people speak of salvation.
And in the Rwandan context this is doubly significant. The individuals narrating success stories give testimony of how they have been saved from poverty, and in some cases, certain death. On a wider, national level, the story of Rwanda in the last sixteen years is one of salvation from collapse.
But more than that, the individual and the state have gone beyond just survival to building prosperity. And all this is credited to the leadership of Paul Kagame.
Finally he arrives at the rally. He is greeted by wild, enthusiastic cheers from the mammoth crowd. Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in The East African two weeks ago doubting Kagame’s campaigning ability.
If he didn’t have any public campaigning inclinations in the past, he has certainly learnt. The moment he arrives, he goes straight to the crowd to greet them. He is mobbed by people who want to shake his hand, or have a close look at him. They rush after him as he moves through the crowd.
There is no flesh-pressing, back-slapping, baby-cuddling or hugging one’s associates with American-style presidential campaigning. Still there is a connection with the people. And you can see that they like what they see.
When he gets up to speak, he says the things that resonate with the crowd. He selects the right phrases and examples that strike a common chord with the people. You can see that Kagame and the crowd are singing from the same song sheet.
It does not come as a surprise when many times during the rally he gets up and does a jig with them. The mass of swaying, joyful people get encouragement from him and want to dance till the sun goes down.
If this is what democracy is like, then play on! Let us have more of it.