Knitting a civic society in the New Rwanda

Last month (October), Sondra Myers, a Senior Fellow for International, Civic and Cultural Projects at the University of Scranton, and editor of the book, ‘The New Rwanda’ that focuses on Prosperity and the Public Good, visited the country for the sixth time to continue her work in strengthening the Rwandan people’s civic participation in society.
Sondra Myers, author of The New Rwanda Prosperity and the Public Good. (Courtesy Photo)
Sondra Myers, author of The New Rwanda Prosperity and the Public Good. (Courtesy Photo)

Last month (October), Sondra Myers, a Senior Fellow for International, Civic and Cultural Projects at the University of Scranton, and editor of the book, ‘The New Rwanda’ that focuses on Prosperity and the Public Good, visited the country for the sixth time to continue her work in strengthening the Rwandan people’s civic participation in society.

She has worked on several other books as the, co-editor of, The Pluralist Paradigm: Democracy and Religion in the 21st Century (2006), The Interdependence Handbook (2004), and editor of The Democracy Reader (2002) and the Democracy is a Discussion handbooks (1996 &1998), which are translated into over 20 languages and used throughout the world.

Myers focuses on two major themes: the strengthening of democracy and the culture of interdependence worldwide and, the integration of culture into public policy in the United States.

Around the world, about 50 countries have used Myers books.

She has travelled to the country six times in three years and says she feels connected to the Land of a Thousand Hills.

“I haven’t felt as close to another country because I have done more focus here unlike other countries. I didn’t have a close connection with what I wrote—except for some academic institutions in the US—I have a great affection for the people I know here who are interested in what I’m doing,” Myers said.

In her book, ‘The New Rwanda ’, she addresses Rwanda’s progress towards becoming a mature democracy. Myers said the handbook was created as a resource for discussions under the umbrella of ‘The National Conversation for Prosperity and the Public Good in Rwanda—a result of a roundtable discussion that took place in Kigali in March 2008. During the discussion, several Rwandan educators and a team of international academic leaders, expounded on the theme, ‘The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Civic Responsibility, Interdependence and Prosperity.’

The endorsement

President Paul Kagame endorsed the book, and as indicated in the forward, a call to action was made:

“Rwanda has transformed itself yet the struggle for prosperity continues. Prosperity is a choice that requires the new Rwanda to develop citizens that can compete in a knowledge-based global economy,” he stated, adding that, “…It is essential that our educational system include every citizen. Through both formal and informal education, every Rwandan must internalize the values of interdependence, civic responsibility and leadership”.

Among the recommendations after the roundtable discussion 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.

“…as a text for discussions to take place in our communities, in schools and churches and everywhere we gather to discuss matters 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,” the President said in his endorsement.

Culture and Policy

During an interview with The New Times, Myers said, both her personal and professional life directed her vision to publish these books. She was the Senior Cultural Advisor to the government of Pennsylvania State (USA), before she was put in charge of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in Washington State. This is where she picked her interest in culture and policy.

“In the late 80’s and early 90’s as I was travelling in Europe, I started to see changes happening around the world, with the collapse of communism and dictatorship,” Myers said.

“I came to realize how difficult it is to become a citizen, to feel like a citizen to behave and do what a citizen does when you have been a subject all your life. When you have had no say at all, in what your society should be like”.

Against this backdrop, Myers thought there was need for “a wanting on how to become a citizen” because, “all the things you do as a citizen are the opposite of what you do when you are a subject”.

Her books were so successful that people read the articles and responded from all over the world.

She said: “There are people who have the power to do something in their society, to make their society what they want it to be; this is what I see in Rwanda”.

The books have short chapters on various topics of relevance to Rwanda. This format makes it easy for a national conversation. So far, books have been distributed to Akillah Institute for Women, School of Finance and Banking, FAWE Girls School, the Parliament as well as a number of ministries and parastatals, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—and Myers says she hopes that 10 books of each language are placed in all Rwanda’s Embassies to involve the Diaspora.

“The time is right and the books have a theme that is Rwanda specific,” she adds.

A national conversation

Involving decision makers in a national conversation is essential in knitting a civic society that is responsible for its welfare.

“I hope that more Rwandans will feel more confident in becoming active citizens who deal with issues that affect them. The more citizens are active, the more the society improves,” Myers said.

Putting societies into context, the author of ‘The New Rwanda’ underscores that every society is unique in its formation and needs.

“I know that there are no perfect societies or perfect solutions, but, I do think that developing an active civic culture is about as good as it gets for people in terms of making life better for their countries,” she says.

However, the author suggests that the challenge of attaining a complete civic society lies in: getting more people to step up to their civic obligation, interesting more youth in these discussions and creating a network of discussions within communities, venues and the media.

Already a radio talk show “The New Rwanda Speaks: The National Conversation” on Radio 10 is in place.

Additionally, the image of the New Rwanda can efficiently be made readily available, through the book, to people out of the country, who can use the book to understand the current Rwandan context, a far cry from its past.

Democracy

“Democracy is culturally specific, you can’t export democracy and can’t import democracy,” Myers states.

She explains that when a country decides to be free, it does not mean they cannot learn lessons from the experiences of others, to fit into their context of a dynamic democracy.

“Democracy has to be generated internally; it’s never finished, it’s always moving forward and changing society. That is why people’s involvement is important,” she adds.

“Being a good citizen of your country at this stage in our history is being a good citizen of the world and not just of your own community,” Myers concludes.

gloria.iribagiza@newtimes.co.rw 

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