On July 4th, 2011, Rwandans marked the 17th anniversary of the country’s liberation. They did it in typical Rwandan fashion: a short but exciting public ceremony to give people enough time for private celebration – or rest; just enough fanfare to entertain the people, but not to obscure the meaning of the event; and no high-flown rhetoric to excite scholars of speech, but just the concise message to inspire the people.
This has become the Rwandan way – celebrate, enjoy, but let the people go away with a message they understand and that will change their lives. The message has always been short, crisp and consistent.
Rwandans must live in dignity; no one has the right to take it away from them. They must develop themselves because no one owes them their existence.
That’s about it. No rumbling speeches full of statistics about GDP growth, results of various surveys, HDI and other indices, and so on, ad nauseam. Incidentally there seems to a sort of competition for the invention of a new index every so often.
This appeal to self esteem and independence is followed by an exhortation to work hard (not in the Boxer of Animal Farm sense, please) because dignity, self- reliance and prosperity are not given; they are earned through hard work.
Yes, even dignity, which is innate to human beings is earned and defended through hard work.
This has been the message for the last seventeen years. Has anyone been listening? Yes, and in their hundreds of thousands. You don’t have to believe this because someone tells you so.
There is proof that this is happening. And this is another Rwandan way of doing things: every claim is supported by evidence.
It is not enough to give sermons on dignity. There is no need to rival those whose profession is to say morally uplifting things and even add the bonus that we can hope to reap the benefits of our conduct in the after-life.
First, we must make gains in this life. What happens in the next life– well, we really don’t know – and in any case what about those who do not believe in life after this one?
So, the proof of dignified existence must be now. That’s why public testimony of how “I was once poor, but now I am rich” sort becomes necessary – as proof that the message has been understood.
It can be tested, too because there is indisputable material and physical evidence of change.
And so this July 4th, Mr Telesphore Rucibiraro gave the nation testimony of his transformation from a barefoot labourer earning 150 francs a day to a confident, multiple award-winning model farmer.
He told the nation that, although he had often despaired, he never lost hope that if he worked hard enough, he would someday enjoy the benefits of his perseverance. That faith has now been rewarded.
The change in Rucibiraro’s life is testimony that in Rwanda, even the most humble can rise to prominence.
You cannot doubt his story. Truth and honesty are stamped all over it. Nor can you question the reasons for his success. Never mind that his speech betrays that he has been listening much to the local mayor.
The story of Rucubiraro is repeated on every hill, in every village and town in Rwanda. Rwandans are taking control of their lives and making use of available opportunities to change their lives and ensure they live in dignity.
There is indeed a Rwandan dream that can be realised as long as one is prepared to work hard. That, as President Paul Kagame keeps telling the nation on many occasions, is the meaning of liberation. It is not some lofty and abstract philosophical ideal.
At this year’s July 4th celebrations another typically Rwandan thing was in evidence. The military parade was simple and fast without reducing its pomp. I have known other countries where parades on national days are an excuse to bring out on display their awesome arsenal – perhaps as a way to intimidate neighbours or internal opponents.
Now, the fighting capability of the RDF is so well-known it is almost legendary. In that sense there is no need to show off its arsenal. You may liken this to Wole Soyinka’s famous retort to negritudinists that a tiger does not have to shout its tigritude. A tiger is, well, a tiger.
But while the “tigritude” of the RDF on the battlefield is not in doubt, there is another reason Rwandans choose not to shout about it.
They prefer to show that the army is not just a fighting force but also has a contribution to make in nation-building.
In a commemorative issue of Rwanda Dispatch, the RDF is shown building bridges, schools and houses for the vulnerable. The army’s medical corps are seen treating patients in various hospitals across the country. We are shown the army on peace missions in other countries.
We see them responding to disasters and making other humanitarian interventions.
Both Rucibiraro and the RDF are just two of many aspects of Rwandan life that represent the new Rwanda – a country of opportunity, where hard work can get you to your dream and one whose people have concern for fellow humankind.
It is becoming a country about whose people others will surely say – you will know them by their actions.