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Re:Visiting Rwanda, a closer look at an African success story

Flickr, extremeboh

Gorillas in the mist. Mass genocide. The movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and maybe coffee.

Those are the things most people say when Ralph Coolman asks them what they know about Rwanda — a tiny central African nation that has had (and is still having) a profound impact on the West’s view of Africa, on the international community’s view of itself and the whole concept of aid and development.

Seattle is connected to Rwanda in a number of ways, beginning with the country’s role as a major producer of high quality coffee beans for Starbucks and Costco. A number of local humanitarian organizations, as well as social enterprise business ventures, are active there.

Coolman, a Seattle man and my neighbor in the Green Lake sub-district of Tangletown, works with a girls’ education project launched there by two exceptional Seattle women, Suzanne Sinegal McGill and Shalisan Foster. It’s called the Rwanda Girls Initiative. I’ll be writing more about that project later.

I’m headed to Rwanda along with a dozen or so other journalists sponsored by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. For the next two weeks, I’ll be reporting on the trip and also posting stories on a number of Seattle projects at work there that have helped make Rwanda — despite its horrific recent past history — into what many see as an African success story.

Rwanda, that little red dot in the middle of Africa

I should note that IRP receives some of its funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an increasingly ubiquitous organization in the field of global health and development which I try to cover with an appropriate level of independence and critical analysis.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Not much of what we’ll be looking at in our whirlwind tour of Rwanda (ten days) has much to do directly with the Gates Foundation, though they are working with local coffee farmers there. I will be writing about that Gates-funded project a bit later also. But in general:

As described by the IRP, the journalists on this tour will “meet with a wide range of Rwandans and explore issues in health, economic development, environment, politics and regional security, reconciliation and justice, religion, education, agriculture, media and other areas.”

Holy cow, brain freeze! If I’ve learned anything after a quarter century of committing journalism, I know how difficult it can be trying to gain a true and clear picture of anything in such a short time period. To say the least of an entire country with a very troubled past.

And, in some ways, Rwanda is even more of an enigma than other African countries.

It is certainly a success story insofar as its overall level of economic growth (something like a 10 percent increase in its GDP last year) and its current level of social stability. But many Rwandans are still quite poor and the country’s stability, say many critics of President Paul Kagame, is due to the somewhat authoritarian nature of the present government.

At a recent Open Society Institute forum called “Revising Paul Kagame,” several leading journalists joined a former Rwandan top official and Kagame confidante, Theogene Rudasingwa, to express their concerns over what they contend is an increasingly dictatorial — and unstable — approach to governance in Rwanda. Here’s a video of the discussion, which is long but pretty informative and lively:

Another participant at the forum, former U.S. State Department consultant Timothy Gallimore, strongly disagreed with the critics of Kagame. Gallimore contended Americans have no concept of the tightrope Kagame is walking — keeping a lid on the natural tendency for retaliation after a civil war, the constant threat of political and military instability coming from militias in neighboring countries such as DR Congo.

Rudasingwa, who has made some pretty strong allegations against Kagame since fleeing the country, told Gallimore that Americans may see Rwanda as the “Switzerland of Africa” (they’ve banned plastic bags), but some of this is a disguise:

“We have a very scripted way of what we show foreigners,” says Rudasingwa. “It’s a very organized society … too silent for my own comfort.”

Many like Rudasingwa say Kagame is on his way to becoming another African strong man, a president for life. They warn that the

Ethnic tensions that erupted in 1994, just below the surface?

That’s is a common warning.

Nearly a million people were killed, often by machete, when Hutus conspired to massacre Tutsis to consolidate power in Rwanda. The two ethnic groups had fought before, but this conflict was literally world-changing. There were also reported retaliatory massacres of Hutus by Tutsis, allegedly condoned by Kagame’s RPF army as it fought for power against the previously Hutu-dominated government.

Yet many Americans who now work in Rwanda, people like Ralph Coolman, believe Kagame has largely done what was necessary to establish order and peace after what was without question one of humanity’s worst self-inflicted mass wounds.

As anyone who’s read about the 1994 genocide (or watched the film Hotel Rwanda) knows, the international community failed Rwanda when it was in crisis — when it was in the greatest need. The world had intervened to stop the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia but, for the most part, looked the other way when the same thing was happening in Rwanda.

Kagame and the Rwandans were largely left to their own devices and deliberations to deal with an almost incomprehensible tragedy.

On the surface at least — it turned out surprisingly well

At least, if you consider how badly it could have gone.

Today, Rwanda is at peace. Kagame is viewed by many as a fairly progressive leader with the highest proportion of women (nearly 50 percent) in elected office anywhere in the world. I think Sweden and the Netherlands are next in line, while the U.S. political leadership is still largely (80 percent) male. The country is recognized for having very little corruption and building up basic services in health and education.

So it may be tough to sort out the different views of this success story, if it really is a success, or to try to decide if it is sustainable and has any lessons to offer elsewhere. But there’s no question that Rwanda is worth a closer look even if it remains a bit of an enigma — like a fleeting glimpse of a gorilla in the mist.

“It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and, considering what happened there only 15 years ago, it’s pretty amazing where it is today,” said Coolman.

Stay tuned for updates, here at Humanosphere — as I learn more not just about Rwanda, but about what we mean by “success” in global development.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.