The world mostly knows Rwanda for the cruelty that was let loose in 1994; when over one million perished during the murderous frenzy that was unleashed against the Tutsi. Sixteen years later, Rwanda has evolved into a highly contrasting image of its former self, and left the world even more awed by its progress and resilience.
In her book, ‘The New Rwanda’, Sondra Meyers, a senior fellow for international, civic, and cultural projects at the University of Scranton, expounds on the journey to attaining a National Conversation in Rwanda—something she believes sets the strongest foundation for a democracy.
The handbook was created as a resource for discussions under the umbrella of ‘The National Conversation for Prosperity and the Public Good’ in Rwanda’.
It was the result of a roundtable discussion that took place in Kigali in March 2008 under the theme, “The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Civic Responsibility, Interdependence and Prosperity.” This meeting brought together key Rwandan educators and a team of international academic leaders.
Having been endorsed by President Paul Kagame, the roundtable delivered a set of recommendations one of which was to enlarge the public arena by creating several opportunities for Rwandans to discuss the critical ideas and issues affecting their society, to take ownership of these issues and to act responsibly to achieve constructive change.
In the foreword of the book is President Paul Kagame’s call to action. He mentions how Rwanda has transformed itself yet continues to struggle for prosperity.
“Prosperity is a choice that requires the new Rwanda to develop citizens that can compete in a knowledge-based global economy,” he said.
Education being a priority in Rwanda, Kagame goes on to explain how the education sector has an element of leadership, responsibility and prosperity.
“Twenty percent of our national budget goes to education. It is essential that our educational system includes every citizen. Through both formal and informal education, every Rwandan must internalize the values of interdependence, civic responsibility and leadership,” Kagame said.
With a go ahead from Rwanda’s Head of State, the handbook has been deployed as a text for use in discussions taking place in schools, communities, churches and in all places where Rwandans gather to discuss issues of common interest.
“We the citizens of Rwanda have the responsibility to make Rwanda the great nation that it can be, meeting the needs of all our people, and bringing prosperity to all,” Kagame further asserts.
Sondra Meyers has written a book composed of interviews and texts from distinguished scholars and public leaders on the importance of building a civil society, and reports on Rwanda’s most pressing challenges.
Among these, Meyers briefly touches upon geographic and demographic facts and figures about Rwanda, revisits Rwanda’s history where she focuses on the pre-genocide, genocide and post-genocide era: she then expounds on the genetic make-up of a nation that has risen from tatters to strength in the heart of Africa.
Michael Fairbanks, the co-founder of The SEVEN Fund and founder of the On The Frontiers (OTF) Group, contributed to ‘The New Rwanda’ where he unveils the ‘Changing Mind of Rwanda.’
Fairbanks recounts how the world has entered into an era where it has become increasingly difficult for societies to breach the barricades that obstruct interpersonal trust, forgiveness, and self-esteem, propensity for civic engagement, optimism about the future and tolerance for those who attach a different meaning to life.
“There are no perfect examples of this kind of society. Still, there are nations that have much to teach us, and learning is especially interesting when it comes from an unlikely place. Rwanda may be such a place,” Fairbanks says.
Given the nasty image of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that the international media perpetually spreads, in reality the new Rwanda has undeniably achieved major successes in all spheres of society. Because President Kagame has asked Rwandans to forgive, they have forgiven; he asked them to keep the cities clean, they have kept them pleasant; he asked them to work together, they have instead reconciled and united for their own good.
In an exclusive interview with Meyers, Rev. John Rucyahana, the President the National Unity & Reconciliation Commission (NURC) and founder of the Sonrise Schools, further explores the subject of how Rwandans are taking ownership of their identity, a prerequisite for the destiny of the New Rwanda.
With outstanding Good Governance policies, a major reform has been established in Rwanda as a resilient state that is rising from one of the worst case scenarios of Africa to become the best leading example, and indeed Rwanda is a “work in progress.”
Speaking of reforms, Chapter Three of ‘The New Rwanda’ highlights Rwanda’s strategy of building a dynamic civil society at the helm of economic development, political stability and democracy.
Meyers affirms, “an educational protocol for entrepreneurship and other skills necessary for prosperity should go hand in hand with learning about the ways of democracy and civil society, in particular the central role that citizens play in making democracy work.”
“In my view, the most precious right that an individual can have is the right to be responsible for the public good. Responsibility gives meaning and dignity to our lives, and the hope that we can make the world a better place for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.”
More insight on the path to the new Rwanda is provided by scholars like: Benjamin R. Barber, a senior fellow at DEMOS, President of CivWorld and political theorist who explains the ‘Civic Tripod’—the State, Private Sector and Civil Society.
Armstrong O’Brian Ongera, Jr., the Executive Director of the Capital Youth Caucus Association in Kenya, who works with young people to strengthen the culture of democracy by teaching civic values explains how Rwanda’s youth are drivers of national renewal provided, “they are empowered with proper education at all levels so that they can further democracy, civic engagement and human rights which are critically important to Rwanda’s development.”
In Chapter Four, economic gurus like Eric Kacou, OTF Group’s regional Director for Africa, analyzes Rwanda’s Vision 2020 as well as Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS). Michael Edwards, the Director of Governance and Civil Society at Ford Foundation captures the complexity of Philanthrocapitalism while Michael Brennan, a member of OTF Group’s Rwanda project, delicately finds the connection between Civic leadership and poverty reduction.
In an exclusive interview, Sondra Meyers has said she firmly believes that Rwanda is a democratic model for the rest of Africa – more precisely, a light of hope that is shinning for the world to see.
Speaking about democracy, Meyers said: “Authoritarianism is just as bad as weak leadership and anarchy. It creates fear. And as Rwanda saw in 1994, fear leads to unimaginable chaos and tragedy.
But it is dangerous to accuse strong leadership of being anti-democratic. Strong leadership is the basis for security and trust which is the root of any democracy. We see how lack of those two elements has virtually destroyed Pakistan and Afghanistan and how it cripples Iraq today.”
“There is good reason for critics to keep a close eye on Rwanda, just as there is good reason for Paul Kagame to use his landslide victory to lead his country into progress. There is less reason or justification for Western concerns about democracy, especially in the face of Western history in Africa.”
In January 2010, at the request of President Kagame a Kinyarwanda version of ‘The New Rwanda’ handbook was introduced.
With discussion questions at the end of every chapter, the handbook has become a vital tool for those citizens who engage in the habit of talking about ideas, issues and solutions to their societal problems.