What drives Rwanda’s transformation?

As IT happens every year, last week the bigwigs of this land stopped all business and for two days were holed-up in a hideout where they bared it all.
Pan Butamire
Pan Butamire

As IT happens every year, last week the bigwigs of this land stopped all business and for two days were holed-up in a hideout where they bared it all.

But I am getting ahead of myself. When I heard that these heavyweights were going for their National Leadership Retreat, one of those uniquely effective home-made work-methods that Rwanda is now becoming famous for, I asked to tag along as a fly-on-the-wall, watching in from the sidelines.

However, when I alighted from one of those indistinguishable buses – for everybody (big-guns and those like ‘Fly-on-the-wall’!) and borrowed from government institutions – things began to go awry. After alighting, my spectacles lost a lens; later, I got some flu; and when at the end of the retreat I ‘drank’ a cure, the cure turned me into damaged goods! But, even with the drama, I am not the story. The aim of the retreat is.

And the aim of the retreat is a story that involves all Rwandans and their representatives from all aspects of Rwanda’s life. The retreat itself was for representatives from the executive in government, legislature, judiciary and government organisations.

It involved envoys in foreign countries as well as mayors and representatives from the private sector. All boarded buses last Wednesday, headed for the military barracks of Gabiro School of Infantry in Mutara.

But, as the road to Gabiro revealed to me, the story is much bigger than the above barons.

When I first travelled the road in 1995, all around it was semi-arid land of withering grass that barely fed the wild animals roaming it. Human settlement could only be found some kilometres towards Kigali, on the Kigali-Kagitumba road, and further north towards Kagitumba, bordering Uganda.

Today all that has changed. Thanks to such work-methods, the area is lush green and teeming with trees, where before, if you spotted a tree, it was the occasional hardy acacia.  Now organised farming and cattle-rearing have found a home there.

Yet a look at the area in 1995 reminded me of a remark by a fellow student back in our secondary school days. We were in Mpororo, Uganda, an arid area. When we jumped down from the school lorry we were travelling in, the student looked around, puffed out his chest and proudly declared: “I am the first Munyankole to discover a tree in Mpororo!”

Of course, as you’ll have guessed, he was making sarcastic reference to the explorers in our history books who claimed to discover geographical features that Africans had lived with for centuries. Even then, though, I felt like making the same remark as a Munyarwanda in Mutara.

But I digress. I was on the story.

When the bigwigs reached their ‘double-decker’, ‘out-door-shower’ dormitories, they brushed up for the night and in the morning, after cleaning up their sweaty, ‘chaka mchaka’ bodies, they were bent over their desks in the hall.  Then, after their head had spelt out what needed to be done, they started their intensive two-day self-examination that bared all.

Every head of an institution made a presentation of the pledges they had met, explained why, if they had not, and how they’d do it. And then they made new pledges for the coming year. After presentation, they sat and watched as their presentation was torn to shreds! Amicably, however, together they all reassembled it, showing how everything could come out better.

They examined how they can collaborate better and improve collaboration among and between their institutions. They showed how, with determination, they can inspire one another and all Rwandans to work towards achieving an economic growth of 11.5% and make poverty history, even when developed countries are hitting their all-time low.

The leaders pledged to always hold meetings that are result-oriented and to demand it of their development partners, who seem to be opening up their purses again. They looked at how they can overcome capacity challenges; how they can espouse a culture of being open-minded, to listen more than to give directives.

They showed the overriding need for implementation of government’s policies.

When after the session they came up for air, it was time to unwind. In a camaraderie that you thought these workaholics were incapable of, they let down their hair, skin-heads as most of the male members of the group were!

While the faithful rejoiced in prayer in the quiet of their dormitories and in the joy of conversation, in the hall the ruckus was up and it was jokes, laughter, dance and booze.

Looking at all this, I recalled the celebrations and laughter of citizens and their leaders, as they chewed on maize, just after the 2010 elections and thought I saw a vision.

Yes, I’d seen it. The transformation of Rwanda and Rwandans is the story.

A country that was regressing before 1994, bogged down by division, repression, corruption, suspicion, outright hatred, lack of visionary leadership and all the evil possible, today holds hope for a transforming people.

Yet, looking at these leaders tensely bent over their desks as they began their session, anyone would have been tempted to agree with some outsiders who mistakenly take Rwandans to be a repressed, closed society. Except that the retreat soul-searching was open to the media.

Yes, the National Leadership Retreat is one of the drivers of Rwanda’s transformation.

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