Where Am I?

I settled into the backseat of my car as we left the capital city airport.

The first thing that stuck me was the orderly flow of traffic. The roadway was smooth and litter was nowhere to be found. The landscape was lush, and the hedges and trees surrounding the commercial buildings looked newly manicured. My driver spoke English well enough to have a basic conversation.

My surroundings were foreign. But familiar.

I was anxious to learn more about this country. If this country were a person, I would describe her as incredibly self-aware.

Years ago, she stepped back and thought about her competitive strengths and how she could build on them. She could name her role models, and knew what she wanted to be known for. She considered all of this in the context of what the world needed.

And then she invested in her strengths. Aggressively.

This country knew it had limited natural resources, so chose to focus on the service and technology sectors over manufacturing. It invested aggressively in infrastructure– roads, power, telecom and wireless. It invested in the education, health, and wellness of its people. It created a business-friendly environment and had zero tolerance for corruption. While some questioned its almost autocratic rule, its economic success was admired. It became a role model for its region.

These were my thoughts the first time I landed in Singapore in 2006.

Singapore blends multi-ethnic cultures and cuisine. It is small in both geography and population, but its six million people collectively inspire nations hundreds of times their size. I admire its efficiency, cleanliness, ethics, and overall ability to get stuff done.

Nine years later, I am having the exact same experience.

But this time I am in Africa. In Rwanda.

Rwanda is commonly described as “the Singapore of Africa.”

The glaring difference is that Singapore is surrounded by sea, whereas landlocked Rwanda is surrounded by East African neighbors Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Burundi.

Rwanda’s neighbors are not always quiet. The Congo has been volatile for several years. Burundi has recently made headlines as many are seeking refuge from escalating violence as their current president seeks an unconstitutional third term.

Rwanda itself has not always been quiet. In 1994, it was the scene of a horrific Genocide against the Tutsi. I was a young analyst on Wall Street at the time, and I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t fully aware of the horror that was unfolding across the world. The 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda” was likely my initial education.

So in preparation for my recent visit, I needed to brush up on Rwandan history.

In a period of 100 days beginning in April 1994, nearly one million Rwandans were killed. Tutsis (and Hutus who were Tutsi sympathizers) were targeted. The killing was gruesome; churches and schools that were scenes of brutal massacres are now mass graves and memorials.

At the time, Rwanda only had a population of around seven million, so the tragedy personally touched literally every Rwandan. It was cited* that 80% of children experienced a death in the family, and 100% had witnessed violence.

It’s hard to fathom moving forward after such an experience. What does a country do with literally thousands of orphans? How does an individual get himself to forgive a neighbor who killed one of his family members?

I wonder if I would have had the strength.

Under strong leadership, Rwanda’s citizens banded together with bold plans to move forward. A new constitution was signed in 2003, and Paul Kagame was elected President for the first of two seven year terms.

There is a sign seen all across Rwanda with the headline “Kwibuka 21.” The Kinyarwanda word “Kwibuka” means “remember.” The number following is the post-genocide anniversary year. The tagline that follows reads “Remember, Unite, Renew.”

It’s a ongoing reminder which strikes a perfect balance.

Rwandans do not sweep their genocide under the rug–it is a critical part of their country and every individual’s story. Nor do they use their genocide history as an excuse. Quite the opposite. There a contagious energy in Rwanda to learn, improve, and be the best you can be.

This balanced reminder seems a key tenet in Paul Kagame’s leadership. But similar to Singapore, Rwanda has implemented bold policies and benefited from consistency in leadership.

The architect of today’s Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew. Over 31 years as prime minister (1959-1990) and another 21 years as a senior minister and mentor, he has woven a bit of autocracy with capitalism. And it has proven an admirable model.

But the first thing I ever heard about Singapore was that spitting on the sidewalk or chewing gum was punishable by caning. It seemed an overly strict measure, but tidy streets signal similar cleanliness in politics and business.

Similarly, Rwanda has taken bold measures. A visible one from my visit is the banned use of plastic bags nationally. Gorilla conservation is a national priority, and correspondingly tourism has become a major part of the Rwandan economy.

I learned that Rwanda’s minimum marriage age is 21, which is among the highest in the world (in the U.S. it is generally 18 but varies by state; in Mississippi, the minimum age is 21).

This is part of a major government focus on gender equality. Nearly two-thirds of Rwanda’s parliament is female, more than double their instituted 30% minimum. There is an entire Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, which means that gender equity is a required focus in politics, business, education, and other social programs. Most global gender equity indices rank Rwanda second only to Sweden.

Education is another focus of Paul Kagame’s government. Primary school enrollment is very high at 97% (though if you tear through the statistics there are definitely areas for improvement). In 2008, English was adopted as the common language in primary and secondary schools. And technical skills are a major focus. I saw a number of science and technical education facilities throughout Kigali, and many of the female scholars I met were planning to study computer science or engineering at university.

I wish I could pocket these initiatives for my return to the U.S.

In 2017, Paul Kagame will end his second and last (according to the constitution) term in office. Whether he and the people of Rwanda push for constitutional change to keep him in office is something to watch.

But in a country of only 12 million people, why should we care?

I am among those who believe that Africa is poised for a surge in economic growth similar to what we have seen in Asia. I will spend more time and continue to invest here. But Africa needs a leader.

And I am not convinced that Nigeria and South Africa, the largest economies in Africa today, are the continent’s leaders of tomorrow.

So far, my bet’s on Rwanda.

* National Trauma Survey by UNICEF, 1995

One Comment

  1. Shelly Sutherland said:

    It is so important to read about positive stories of African countries. Sounds like Rwanda is a totally different place from where it was in the terrible 90s.

    July 29, 2015
    Reply

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