During April and May 1994 world headlines fixated on one event – the culmination of the long march to democracy in South Africa and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela on 10 May. As Western media seem to feature one African story at a time, another African event was a footnote: an ‘African tribal war’ in a country not many had heard of – Rwanda.
In South Africa we were anxiously preparing for what we knew would happen – white rule would be crushed, the ANC would be swept into power and Nelson Mandela would become our president. South Africa was experiencing one of the most anticipated elections in history. More than 400 foreign correspondents were filing stories. Many believed that South Africa was on the brink of civil war. But the cataclysm wasn’t in South Africa; it was further north.
I remember reading snippets about massacres unfolding in Rwanda. News flow was limited and the early days of the genocide were filled with confusion. Towards the end of April, when we were queuing to cast our ballots and usher in the ‘new South Africa’, we began to see the horrific images of the nightmare underway in Rwanda, a country the size of Massachusetts. But it was only around the time of Mr Mandela’s inauguration the first week of May that Reuters first defined the bloodletting as genocide and mentioned organised death squads. The Americans and Brits even tried to block the word ‘genocide’ from the UN Security Council. Otherwise, under international law they would have had to act. This was neither Western politicians’ nor the UN’s finest hour.
I first visited Rwanda less than five years after the genocide, when Lifeline Energy (then known as Freeplay Foundation) was a start-up. Despite having read extensively about the genocide, the experience was impossible to prepare for. It’s still painfully difficult to forget.
The killing spree lasted 100 days, claimed 800,000 lives – more than 10% of the population – and left a nation profoundly traumatised. No one was unaffected. Rwanda was then, and remains, Africa’s most densely populated country.
Kigali was eerily calm. Little English was spoken, except by those who had fled to Uganda, mainly Tutsis displaced between 1959 and 1994. People were sombre, and everyone I met had lost someone. An aid agency staff member told me that 30 family members had been killed.
Evidence of the war, as it was referred to locally, was still visible. Rocket propelled grenades and bullets pockmarked government buildings. The Umubano Hotel remained badly scarred. The Central Bank had been looted down to its last franc and stood empty. The library had been torched. Kigali’s deeply potholed roads were a contrast to the main arteries linking towns, which remained in fine condition having been constructed by Chinese labourers prior to the genocide. In 1994 everything had been wrecked – and not just infrastructure – also education, justice, agriculture, health systems and people’s lives.
Chain gangs of prisoners (called ‘genocidaires’) clad in baggy pink shirts and short pants repairing roads were a common sight. More than 120,000 men suspected of genocide crimes were crammed into prisons. Many were put to work.
Most foreigners (muzungus) were aid workers. The handful of hotels and restaurants accepted only cash and electricity was erratic. A German-built brewery, the first colonizers of Rwanda at the turn of the 20th century, loaned Kigali water purification tablets when they ran out.
Beaten-up mini-bus taxis were largely empty as few could afford to use them. There weren’t enough cars on the road for a traffic jam to form. Bicycle taxis were the most common transport after walking. With fewer than 10,000 fixed-line phones, communication was difficult and cell phones, ubiquitous in South Africa, were still in the future for Rwanda.
An experience impossible to prepare for
Back then, the provincial town of Nyamata was nearly a two-hour journey south of Kigali on a road so rutted a 4-wheel drive could barely climb out of second gear. En route we passed small cemeteries with rough-hewn wooden crosses. Prior to 1994 Nyamata had 64,000 inhabitants; afterwards its population was 2,000. With a group of women mainly from other African states, we visited the Roman Catholic Church where an unspeakable massacre of 10,000 people seeking refuge took place.
With tears rolling down our cheeks we listened to stories of survivors. A mother lay under dead bodies, presumed dead herself. Her entire family had been hacked to pieces and her children were in the pile of corpses above her. Many children had machete wounds visible on their calves or arms. An old man described how he had survived in an abandoned pit latrine. Another woman told how neighbours had hidden her for two months, but the man repeatedly raped her and she now had a daughter. She still lived next to this family.
The underground graves were a sobering reminder of the slaughter. Thousands of skulls neatly organised on wooden shelves with bones placed below them is an image my mind will never erase.
Emergence from the abyss
Over the past 22 years I’ve visited Rwanda more than 40 times, and am here now for the World Economic Forum on Africa. I was blown away by the newly renovated modern Kigali International Airport. With the toughest environmental laws in Africa, plastic wrap around your luggage is removed and plastic bags are banned. Arriving at night, workers were still putting up signs and streetlights. I saw dozens of labourers painting zebra stripes along roadsides where visitors will pass. The city is doing their utmost to impress the 1000+ delegates soon to arrive.
Kigali is the cleanest city in Africa. Its streets are void of trash, well-lit, with pedestrian pavements, drainage ditches and
landscaping. Palm trees beautify the main street from the airport to the city centre. The traffic lights are what you’d expect to see in a European city, even beeping for the visually impaired. And now there’s traffic and plenty of it. The new highway to Nyamata is a 30-minute drive.
Trendy coffee shops offering Rwanda coffee, some of the world’s finest, are commonplace. Ubiquitous ATMs are easily found and mobile banking is on the rise. The government promotes digital financial inclusion, especially for women. This might seem minor, but one of the things that impressed me most were paper toilet seat covers in the ladies room at the Umubano. That to me is a real measure of progress and attention to detail.
A model for developing countries
The country’s astonishing recovery is considered a model for developing countries – when it could have easily gone the path of a Somalia. Often called a ‘country in a hurry’, under President Kagame’s decisive (and often controversial) leadership, its ambitious blueprint for growth and development is to become a middle-income country. Its key aim is to transform from an agrarian (85% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture) to a knowledge-based economy. It was the world’s twelfth fastest-growing economy in 2015.
With over 1,500 kms of fibre optic cables, smartphones work virtually everywhere. Data is one-tenth of the cost in South Africa. Even by 2004, cellular networks covered 100% of the country and my cellular reception was better in Rwanda than in America.
Rwanda boasts Africa’s highest school enrolment rates for both girls and boys. Major improvements in the health sector are extraordinary across the board, and up to 90% of the population has health insurance coverage. To curb population growth, vasectomies are offered for free.
Another remarkable achievement is that Rwanda ranks number one in the world for female parliamentary representation – 64%. Half the country’s 14 Supreme Court justices are women. Women are involved in politics from village level to the Cabinet. A Gallup poll revealed that Rwanda is the safest place for females to live in Africa by its residents. It’s the African city that I feel safest in.
Not to say Rwanda isn’t without weighty challenges – endemic rural poverty, low levels of electricity, serious environmental concerns like deforestation, a lack of media freedom and human rights.
The next 22 years
Collapsing into a failed state and a return to the killing fields were distinct possibilities for Rwanda even as late as 1998. Irrespective of what you think of the soft-spoken, iron-fisted President Kagame, his accomplishments are undeniable. Relentless, disciplined and purpose-driven, Kagame used massive infusions of aid to reduce poverty, rebuild institutions and create stability. Acting more like a CEO than a democratic politician, Kagame continues to lead Rwanda on a growth trajectory into the foreseeable future.
That said, unlike in Rwanda, South Africa’s media and citizens have the freedom to publicly criticise President Zuma and his largely crony government. And our courts have the freedom to prosecute politicians. Whether they’re found guilty and convicted is another matter. At this point, that wouldn’t happen in Rwanda.
I reckon that if a million people in 1994 were randomly polled and asked to write down where they thought Rwanda would be in 2016, I’m pretty confident that not one person would have been correct, including myself. And not one person would have predicted that the Davos of Africa would be showcasing Rwanda in Kigali – except perhaps President Kagame.