Rwanda: clean, green, and proud

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Sometime during my time as a student at university, I read the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, an account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was understandably horrifying but also inspiring, and I decided right then and there that I would go to Rwanda someday.

So, in 2018, I did.

It’s only in recent years that Rwanda has become something of a tourist destination. But that wasn’t what I sought. I didn’t fancy trekking, and I couldn’t afford the $1,500 permit to see the gorillas. I hadn’t heard anything about the cuisine. I guess I was just curious.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Sometime during my time as a student at university, I read the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, an account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was understandably horrifying but also inspiring, and I decided right then and there that I would go to Rwanda someday.

So, in 2018, I did.

It’s only in recent years that Rwanda has become something of a tourist destination. But that wasn’t what I sought. I didn’t fancy trekking, and I couldn’t afford the $1,500 permit to see the gorillas. I hadn’t heard anything about the cuisine. I guess I was just curious.

Known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’, Rwanda lies to the west of the Rift Valley in East Africa, surrounded by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Geographically, it’s tiny: only 26,338 square kilometres, which is about the size of the entire Waikato region in New Zealand. And, with a population of 12.63 million people, it’s one of the most densely populated nations on the African continent.

What’s intriguing about Rwanda is not just its tumultuous past, but the way in which it’s rebuilt itself. Once synonymous with war, genocide, and violence, Rwanda now represents a nation dedicated to conservation and sustainability. It was named the third greenest place in the world by The World Travel Guide in 2015. In 2019, the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Rwanda at number 31 in Safety and Security, ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.

Today, Rwanda couldn’t be further from its past. Tourists come for the national parks, the wildlife, and the gorillas. You could quite easily breeze through the capital city of Kigali without having the faintest idea of the events of the 1990s.

But to appreciate what Rwanda is today, it’s important to understand what happened before.

Rwanda today is made up of three peoples: the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. The Twa are an indigenous pygmy people, believed to be descendants of Rwanda’s earliest inhabitants.

In the 13th century, the Tutsi tribes arrived in Rwanda and conquered the Hutu and Twa people, creating a feudal kingdom. The country became The Kingdom of Rwanda in the 1900s as the Tutsi kings established control and began enforcing anti-Hutu policies. This was interrupted in 1884 when Germany colonised Rwanda, making it part of German East Africa.

Belgium followed suit during World War 1, and the colonists overthrew the monarchy, enforcing a pro-Tutsi policy and effectively dividing the population into three different groups.

In 1959, the Hutu people revolted. By 1962, they had killed thousands of Tutsi and established their own pro-Hutu republic. Although a military coup in 1973 saw the powers switch sides again, the country remained divided.

Civil war broke out in 1990, and the Hutu presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their aircraft was shot down on 6 April 1994. Just hours after the plane crash, Hutu extremists began a bloody genocide. Over 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people were killed, mostly Tutsis.

The genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, backed by Uganda’s army, gradually seized control of the country.

The remains of over 250,000 people are interred at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Photo: Katie Stone

I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial one sunny Sunday afternoon in 2018, and left reeling. It wasn’t just the graphic footage of the massacre, or the gardens in which more than 250,000 victims of the genocide have been buried.

It was seeing the reaction of a group of Rwandans who had come to the memorial for the first time. They stood together, clutching one another and wailing at the scenes before them. It was one of the most heartbreaking and emotionally-charged places I’ve ever been in my life.

The memorial itself is otherwise peaceful and carefully looked after. There is a wall of names dedicated to those who died, although the identities of many victims are still being documented. Many of the bodies buried in the gardens are unknown.

These horrors are difficult for anyone – local or foreigner – to comprehend. But what matters now is that Rwanda has chosen to remember, and move forward.

And move forward it has.

Over the last 30 years, this small country has worked tirelessly to shake off the images associated with its past. It has become one of Africa’s most progressive nations in politics, education, ecotourism, and conservation. It’s also the only low-income economy to feature in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, where it ranks 29th out of 190 countries. It’s managed to reduce extreme poverty by 24 percent, with an estimated one million people lifted out of poverty since 2000.

Rwanda is also a trendsetter in female representation. In 2003, President Paul Kagame passed a constitution that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. Rwanda now boasts a higher percentage of women in parliament than any other country. The government has also encouraged education for girls and the promotion of women to leadership roles, from government ministers to police chiefs.

Just as heartening is Rwanda’s focus on conservation. In 2008, it became one of the first countries in the world to ban plastic bags, and in 2019 was the first country in Africa to issue a complete ban on all single-use plastics. It’s now aiming to be the world’s first plastic-free country, and the UN recently named Kigali as Africa’s cleanest city.

Kimironko Market in Kigali
Photo: Katie Stone

In 2011, Rwanda was one of the first nations to join the Bonn Challenge: a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. Since then, more than 80 restoration projects have been implemented nationwide, from Akagera National Park in the east to the Gishwati-Mukura National Park in the west. Domestic investment in landscape restoration has been quadrupled in this time, and forests now cover about 30.5 percent of the country. It’s also the proud protector of four national parks.

The world’s entire population of mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains on
Rwanda’s border.
Photo: Jeffrey Strain, Pixabay

Tourism has increased substantially, which has contributed to the growing economy. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see gorillas in their natural habitat. The Volcanoes National Park in the northwest region is home to 20 gorilla families, which is around 60 percent of the entire population in east Africa.

Seeing the gorillas in Rwanda is designed to be a luxury experience: the permit alone costs $US1500, plus the costs of accommodation. A private trekking excursion can cost up to $US15,000. The first permanent centre for gorilla research and education is set to open in late 2021, funded by The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.

How has this tiny nation emerged so powerfully in such a short space of time?

While foreign aid has certainly helped, much of the country’s progress is thanks to ‘Umuganda’, a tradition dating back to pre-colonial times. In Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s official language), Umuganda loosely translates as ‘coming together in common purpose’. So on the last Saturday of every month, everyone aged between 18 and 65 must gather to participate in some form of community service from 7am to 11am.

Umuganda is a longstanding feature of Rwandan culture. Historically, it is said to have originated in feudal times as the exchange of cattle for protection. The practice of Umuganda was also how homes were built: everyone’s neighbours and friends would come together to help out with the building process. It is said that each person would bring a piece of timber to contribute to the build, creating the notion of ‘community self-help’.

Today, Umuganda has evolved into a system of community labour that has no doubt played a major role in the country’s political and economic development. The government first promoted a formal version of Umuganda in 1962, when Rwanda became independent from Belgium. By 1974, participation in the monthly community work projects became mandatory. It’s now estimated that Umuganda has contributed some $US60million to the country’s development.

Everyone – from civilians to government officials and even the president – must take part in the monthly work schedule. Police monitor the streets to make sure everyone is involved, and those who don’t take part can be fined 5,000 francs: about $NZ7.00. This is quite a sum when the average income is about $150 a month. Even non-citizens and tourists are invited to participate, albeit voluntarily.

Although opinions about the mandatory work have been mixed at times, policymakers and international donor organisations have proclaimed Umuganda a success. Besides the enormous progress Rwanda has made in conservation, Umuganda has resulted in new schools, medical centres, and hydroelectric plants as well as rehabilitated wetlands and farms.

Umuganda has also fostered communication. Locals can interact directly with authorities and voice issues that affect them and their neighbours. People living in the same city can meet and get to know one another, or even just keep up with local news.

Perhaps most importantly, the practice has contributed to a shared responsibility for the area. The impressive results are an enormous source of pride for the Rwandan people. Throughout Rwanda, city streets are remarkably clean, neat, and orderly. The capital city of Kigali is peaceful. Litter is so rarely seen that other forms of community service have been incorporated into the work schedule, from building roads and repairing houses to cultivating vegetable gardens.

 

While Rwanda still faces many challenges, Umuganda has also helped bring the country and its people back together. This is a country that has seen more pain and bloodshed than many of us could ever comprehend, and yet it has reemerged with purpose.

There’s a lot the rest of the world could learn from Rwanda.

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