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.
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.”
The Kigali master plan, Mupende explained, is at the core of the nation’s over-arching strategy known as Rwanda Vision 2020. It includes supporting the development of the city as a center for information technology and the transportation industry in Africa while emphasizing “green” and sustainable development practices. Kigali’s ambitious and futuristic urban plans have won international recognition.
But such a dramatic vision and transformation doesn’t happen without dislocation and disruption, which includes government seizure of lands and relocation of residents.
One of the big concerns about Rwanda’s rapid growth and ongoing transformation of its economy is that it is being largely driven and directed by government fiat from President Paul Kagame.
A local journalist and founding editor of The Chronicles newspaper here, Fred Mwasa, told us that many residents are complaining of being forced from their homes without adequate compensation.
“But you have to be careful about complaining,” Mwasa said. “Kagame is a strong man. Complaining can land you in jail.”
We asked the city planners for details on the forced relocation. Mupende said there is a process in place that begins at the local neighborhood level, discussing the renovation plan and ascribing ownership (since some of the residents are squatters without legal rights). People are compensated if they can show ownership, she said.
Mupende’s American consultant Donna Rubinoff, with Denver-based Oz Architecture, jumped in to acknowledge that “expropriation was a challenge.” But Rubinoff said they are currently working in one part of the city targeted for big changes to create a more participatory process with the residents. She declined to identify the neighborhood where this was happening.
Following the script
This is the odd side to the inspiring story of Rwanda. There’s no question that this lovely city is undergoing a transformation and in dramatic fashion. The economy is growing at a clip. But folks get a little nervous if you dig too deep or ask questions that don’t quite fit established talking points.
We encountered more of this syndrome — you could call it script adherence — on a visit to the former residence of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s home. It was the assassination of Habyarimana that sparked the genocide. To this day nobody (well, almost nobody) knows who shot down his airplane.
The airplane crashed right next door to the former Presidential Palace. This seems bizarre, and maybe it is, but the residence is right under the flight path for airplanes coming to land at the Kigali International Airport. And that’s what Habyarimana was doing in the airplane along with the president of neighboring Burundi, who was also killed.
Our tour guide of both Habyarimana’s former estate and plane wreckage, Safari Jean Baptist, told us we could take no photos of the estate or the plane wreckage — apparently out of concern that the photos could be used by someone to make a case for any of the various theories regarding the assassination. But the photo above is all over the web, taken immediately following the crash.
The theories of who was behind the assassination include blaming Kagame, or Hutu extremists unhappy with Habyarimana’s moves to make peace with the Tutsis, or the French, the United Nations or possibly even Habyarimana’s wife. Baptist did not want to entertain this conversation much, simply emphasizing that it remains a mystery.
Many are willing to talk generally about the 1994 genocide, for example, but they often clam up when you want to explore the ethnic divisions – between the Hutu and Tutsis — that spawned it. You can go to prison for talking about it, apparently, for spreading “divisionism.”
Our tour ended with an amazing lunch at the beautiful Hotel des Milles Collines, otherwise known to most of the rest of the world as Hotel Rwanda — where a hotel manager succeeded, through clever manipulation and a lot of alcohol, to prevent many killings during Rwanda’s darkest days.
That hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, has since been charged with a variety of crimes against the state by the current Rwandan government. He now lives in Brussels, Belgium.
Times do change.