Re:visiting Rwanda

Famous for its civil war and genocide in the 1990′s, Rwanda has made a remarkable turn-around. Some are calling it Africa’s best success story. Its GDP is growing rapidly, it has more women in parliament (per capita) than anywhere else in the world. But it also has an autocratic president. Humanosphere took an investigative field trip to Rwanda from Nov. 7 to Nov. 18, 2011 (courtesy of the International Reporting Project).

Tom Paulson has been asking questions and learning about what’s actually working in Rwanda and what role international groups and corporations are playing. Even before he left, he was surprised to discover how many groups in Seattle alone have a hand in Rwanda.


10 reasons why Rwanda can’t be described in a sound-bite | 

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind fact-finding tour of Rwanda with the International Reporting Project. I can now report with great confidence that these Rwandan school children are enjoying themselves:

Beyond that, I have to admit I am still trying to process the experience. Rwanda is a tough country to get a handle on. Here are some reasons why:

1. Rwanda has been ranked by the World Bank as one of the best countries in Africa, or anywhere, for doing business.

2. Rwanda has been ranked by Reporters Without Borders as one of the worst countries in the world for free speech and media independence.

3. Transparency International has ranked Rwanda as having low rates of corruption and one of the best records in East Africa specifically for cracking down on bribery.

4. Rwanda’s political system is frequently ranked as not free and de facto one-party rule. As the U.S. State Department notes, President Paul Kagame won 93 percent of the 2010 vote in a “peaceful and orderly election” — preceded by assassinations, terror attacks, closure of two newspapers and the disqualification of opposition candidates.

5. Rwanda has seen some of the most consistent economic growth anywhere in the world, averaging a 7 percent annual increase in GDP since 2005. Here’s a chart.

6. Poverty rates are high in Rwanda, with nearly half the population living in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations Development Program.

7. The government of Rwanda wants to transform this tiny nation into the Singapore of East Africa, a knowledge-based economy and financial hub for the region. Yet nine out of ten Rwandans are subsistence farmers, many of them semi-literate or with only primary school level education. Many depend upon foreign food aid, according to USAID.

8. Rwanda today has the highest percentage of women, a majority, holding elected office of any country in the world. In the 1994 genocide, sexual violence was at an all-time high with an estimated 250,000 women raped (and often murdered).

9. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa but most of the 11 million people live in rural areas and the country, whether seen up close or from space, is still very green.

10. Because of the 1994 genocide, it is against the law in Rwanda to identify yourself as an ethnic Tutsi or Hutu. Yet the (Tutsi-dominated) government recently required that the tragedy be described as the “genocide of the Tutsis.”

Scenes from Rwanda | 

I’m leaving Rwanda today, heading home as you read this, but I will be posting more about my trip next week.

I will take a closer look at a number of projects (including some run out of Seattle) that are helping to make this once devastated nation what many see as “Africa’s success story,” a harder look at President Paul Kagame’s responses to allegations of suppression of the media free speech and many more stories about this tiny but amazing country.

A chat with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame | 

Tom Paulson

Rwanda President Paul Kagame

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is, like his country, very pleasant but enigmatic.

I got a chance to talk with him for two hours today, along with a dozen or so other journalists here on a trip sponsored by the International Reporting Project. Before I get into details, let me say that Kagame is quite charming and personable.

He doesn’t act at all like a war criminal or dictator, which are some of the charges his most strident critics throw at him. Kagame comes off more like a professor, making his points at length, with a chuckle here or some slightly irritable admonishment there.

Still, we had a job to do and tried to get at some of the more critical issues swirling around this architect of an “African success story” – beginning with the perception some have that his government is regarded as authoritarian, stifling of critics and free speech.

“The debate is more outside than here,” Kagame said. “That is not the reality in Rwanda…. Do you believe what you see or not?”

We acknowledged that in our two weeks touring Rwanda, we had seen some pretty amazing signs of progress made in health, education and the economy. Many Rwandans say they believe things are getting better. But economic growth and democracy, as one student at the University of Rwanda told us, are two different things. Continue reading

Walking the media tightrope in Rwanda | 

There are few simple stories in Rwanda.

There are official positions, which are often stated simply and unilaterally. But if you dig deeper, you often find multiple and complex story lines seething just below the surface.

Like the “We are all Rwandans” comment we hear so often.

What this can mean is that the ethnic tension between the Hutus and Tutsis, which spawned the 1994 genocide, persists but is generally taboo to talk about. By some accounts, this sense of ethnic division may even be on the increase due to the current government’s tendency to favor Tutsis.

Tom Paulson

IRP journalists interviewing in northern Rwanda

We are journalists exploring Rwanda through the International Reporting Project. And this is a country notorious in the West for its authoritarian tendency to put journalists in jail, fine them or otherwise punish critical commentary.

Some even end up dead.

That sounds like an easy target for condemnation – which many organizations, like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, do. Yet even this situation is more complex than it sounds.

Rwanda’s media in 1994 played a leading role in promoting, and to some extent even coordinating, the “Hutu Power” slaughter of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children. So President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government is not too sympathetic to arguments advocating unrestricted media freedoms.

Media independence and freedom of expression has been a lot of what we’ve been talking about – when we’re on the bus between meetings with officials, in private discussions with Rwandans we meet or maybe over beers recuperating from a day of mental exercise.

What’s not clear is how we should best report on it. Our primary host — and fixer — is a local journalist named Fred Mwasa who keeps saying things that make us nervous. Continue reading

Mountain gorillas with journalists in the midst | 

No visit to Rwanda is complete without seeing the mountain gorillas. Here’s one who came to have a closer look at us.

After a whirlwind week of meeting with Rwandan officials, business leaders, local journalists, activists and others in the capital city of Kigali, we took off for a few days to journey high up into the Birunga mountain range to the northern town of Kinigi, near the Congo and Uganda borders.

I’m traveling with a group of American journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project. Our aim is to gain perspective on this country so many associate only with its genocidal past – but which many others today dub an “African success story.”

Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful country. There are many signs of economic progress, but it is still plagued by widespread poverty. Gorilla trekking is expensive and brings in a lot of tourism money. But how much of that is making its way to improving the lives of the average Rwandan?

After driving for hours from Kigali on some pretty rough roads (and some really good ones), we finally arrived at the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge. We all felt like we had reached a remote part of Africa.

Tom Paulson

Bill and Melinda Gates slept here, says Ishimwe Alex of Gorilla Mountain View Lodge

Then I saw the photo above the reception desk of Bill and Melinda Gates posing with the lodge owners. Sheesh. I can’t seem to get away from those two Seattle folks. They’re everywhere.

The lodge has no web access and heats its rooms by a somewhat anemic and soggy wood fire. This is equatorial Africa, but at high elevations (7,000 feet or so) it can still get pretty cold at night. All around the tourist enclaves up here are farming communities, with wandering goats and cattle. Some still live by poaching in the national park, which poses a threat to Rwanda’s number one tourist attraction.

Tourism today represents a significant part of Rwanda’s economy and the mountain gorillas, made most famous by the late Dian “Gorillas in the Mist” Fossey, are the iconic centers of this universe.

More than 600,000 tourists visited last year, an official with the Rwanda Development Board told us, as compared to maybe 6,000 in 1995, the year after the genocide.

“Tourism has contributed to this community significantly,” said Prosper Uwingeli, chief warden of Volcanoes National Park. Uwingeli met with us in Kinigi along with staff at the Karisoke Research Center (the conservation organization started here by Fossey).

Rwanda’s tourism boom is one of its success stories, but the gorilla trekking business alone may be too fragile and limited to make a huge dent in reducing poverty throughout all the communities living around the national park. It has made a dent in Kinigi, where a dozen new hotels have sprung up in the last decade. But how many of these tourism dollars flow down to the poorest of the poor? Continue reading

Rwanda’s future could depend upon a really good cup of coffee | 


Farmers sorting coffee beans at a Technoserve cooperative

Most Rwandans are poor farmers.

And most depend upon growing coffee for half or more of their annual income.

A four-year-old social enterprise project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation appears to be helping farmers significantly increase their income by taking better advantage of this mountainous nation’s fairly unique ability to grow the best coffee in the world.

By geographical happenstance — very high elevations and wet, tropical weather – Rwanda’s unlike almost any other place when it comes to growing coffee. But until recently, few coffee farmers here were making the most of their advantage.

“Now we’re seeing some farmers earning up to three times more than they were before we started working with them,” said Paul Stewart, regional director of the Technoserve Coffee Initiative in Rwanda.

Overall, Stewart said, the incomes of participating farmers have increased by 70 percent over the last four years.

Technoserve is a non-profit organization devoted to helping the poor make a profit. It’s been around a long time, created in 1968 by an American businessman who felt the best way to fight poverty was to help the poor improve their business prospects.

In 2007, the Gates Foundation gave Stewart and his colleagues at Technoserve a $47 million grant to apply their strategy in Rwanda – to see if showing farmers how to boost the quality of coffee could put a big dent in poverty. The first step is showing them how to properly care for the newly picked coffee beans. Continue reading

Rwanda is empowering girls, with a little help from Seattle | 


The first class of the Rwanda Girls Initiative, launched by two Seattle women

It has become a mantra in aid and development circles today to say that empowering girls is the single most effective means of fighting poverty, inequity and any number of ills in poor countries.

This is one of the international community’s top priorities, for good reason.

But saying and doing are two different things. Talk is cheap, they say.

Paul Kagame’s government in Rwanda is clearly walking the talk on girls and women — and a number of Seattle organizations are assisting in the gender revolution happening here. Continue reading

Transforming Kigali, murder mystery site and Hotel Rwanda | 

The first thing a seasoned traveler might notice about Rwanda’s capital city Kigali is how clean and ordered it is, as compared to many other cities in Sub-Saharan Africa (or anywhere, for that matter).

Not much garbage and no plastic bags flying around. They’ve been banned here. The grass and foliage in the traffic medians are well-tended. All the motorcyclists wear helmets and travel at the speed limit. People smile a lot and ask you how they can help. You can see why Rwanda is sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of Africa” (except for that smiling and helping part. The Swiss could take a lesson).

What makes this all the more impressive is that the Swiss haven’t had to recover from a violent civil war in which the French-speaking Swiss tried to exterminate the German-speaking Swiss. But that’s something like what happened here in Rwanda just 17 years ago.

Tom Paulson

The future of Kigali, as seen by the Rwandan government

How Rwandans deal with this horrific history while ambitiously building toward what many say is a fairly promising future is both inspiring and a bit odd at times.

I’ve come to explore Rwanda with a group of journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project based at Johns Hopkins University. Today is our first full day (since arriving last night) and the initial order of business was to get an overview of Kigali. It’s clearly a city moving forward with a plan, with little patience for those resistant to change.

“It’s not something new you question but something new you embrace,” said Liliane Uwanziga Mupende, director of urban planning for the City of Kigali. “It’s extremely exciting.”

Continue reading