Scenario one: BBC radio aired an interesting (and depressing) controversy in a neighboring country the other day. A company had imported fish from Japan and it was suspected to be radioactive as it came from the vicinity of the area that had suffered the nuclear disaster.
The debate raged with the government insisting the fish must be inspected before it enters the local market and the company officials saying the fish was fine and indeed of high quality.
What was strange about this whole debate is that the country has huge lakes and a long coastline. Naturally, this means that it should have, and indeed it has a lot of fish; fresh fish! So why import fish?
Scenario two: Step into a Rwandan University class on day one. The lecturer will take students through the course outline and all that. S/he will then ask if s/he has been understood and if not, if there are any questions. The predominant question will be when the students can get the syllabus. Syllabus here means lecture notes, not the course outline. A lot of good reasons will be given for the notes with a bottom line that it will help the students prepare better for class. Notes will be given alongside the course outline which has reference books. The lecturer will ask the students to read ahead and widely so as to improve their grasp of the subject. S/he has just given some students a good opportunity to miss class and show up during exams having crammed and ready to reproduce her/ his notes. In computer parlance; garbage in garbage out!
These two are real life examples of what happens to us when we take things as give and fail to think critically about what we do. There is this notion among us Africans, and across the continent really that everything imported is better. Economically and politically, we are a fairly young continent, indeed the youngest. At independence, we had to import machinery, equipment, vehicles, electronics and other things that either aided production or made life more livable. The sensible way to go was to see how we could start producing these things on our own so as to make them more affordable. This duty fell to the elite. It did not happen and instead we got caught up in import frenzy to the extent that we are now importing fish! Granted, individual countries had rather small markets (the section of the population that had strong purchasing power) that perhaps could not justify setting up of heavy industries. But who says that if you make cars in Rwanda you cannot sell them to Burundi, Kenya or even Colombia?
We took things as given. That if you want anything superb, import it because you cannot make it. Wapi!
One would hope that this mentality would change with generational transition. Rwanda had to start from scratch after the Genocide. There were insufficient books. So, to get around the problem, lecturers were asked to make notes to help their students. Under the circumstances, this made a lot of sense. What followed, however, did not. Lecturers armed with the notes, would teach from one institution to another killing many economic birds with one stone (the notes) through karakas (part time jobs). This compromised quality. Students on other hand would go about their lives without doing their bit of study and research, come back, cram and pass! Today, learning resources are plenty from libraries to internet yet the culture persists. Again we have taken things as given.
These examples are by no means unique. Just look around you. Do you prefer imported things, even if they are locally available? Does your favourite shop not import pretty much everything (even toothpicks) from China?
Don’t take things as given. It curses you to stagnation, development wise. Why do you do what you do the way you do when you do? This is the question.
Sam Kebongo teaches entrepreneurship at Rwanda Tourism University College. He also is a Director at Serian Ltd, a firm that provides skills and business advisory services consultancy.