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The New Times - Rwanda
By: Carl Wilkins
The writer is former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda. In 1994, he was the only American who chose to remain in the country after the Rwandan genocide began.
It felt a bit unreal. One moment I was in the dead of an American winter and the next I’m in Kigali sitting between Bishop John Rucyahana, president of Rwanda’s Unity and Reconciliation Commission, and Madeleine Nirere, chairperson of the National Commission for Human Rights.
“What is UMUSHYIKIRANO?” I had asked myself as I read my invitation from the President of Rwanda. Now here I was looking forward His Excellency Paul Kagame’s opening remarks.
By now I had learned that UMUSHYIKIRANO (the National Dialogue Council), was about examining how well the government’s services were meeting the priorities of its citizens.
The President began with the positive affirmation that Rwanda is strong because of each person in the country - and that’s no accident he stated. Where others in the world may walk, President Kagame said we must run.
Every time I’ve visited Rwanda since 1994 I’ve seen this “running,” in the form of intentional strategies that often call for sacrifices, hard choices, and hard work by everyone, government and citizens together. I was about to see what together looks like.
In the opening minutes President Kagame restated Rwanda’s consistent invitation that has echoed back though the last 25 years: An invitation for all Rwandans, no matter their mindset, to come home.
The President shared how Rwanda is among the top ten countries worldwide in terms of gender equality. When he said we may one day have a female president the gathering exploded in applause!
Then he promptly challenged everyone to not settle for the top 10 but go for the top 5. I could see he was setting the tone of his talk - tirelessly striving for the best.
I had known about Rwanda’s consistent economic growth rate of 8.5-9% over the last ten years but I was shocked when the President said that Rwandans now generate 84% of the national budget!
Rapid development has taken place in the world of entertainment, tourism and sports with Kigali soon to host the new NBA backed Africa Basketball League championships. They’ll be held in Kigali’s new state of the art sports arena.
President Kagame also talked about continuing challenges such as adequate housing for all and the urgent need to raise the quality of education. To the youth he encouraged them to refuse the “old mindset.”
He urged them to refuse the culture of not exposing mistakes. Instead of defending mistakes the President said we must find solutions. The old mindset too often blamed lack of budget for not getting things done.
Things that often had nothing to do with budget. “Empty respect,” is what he called a culture of fear of your boss. His concluding counsel was to not hide in committees, but go straight to the point, and be polite but firm: we want results.
Around the country people were participating at off-site live stream locations. A young man made a powerful and passionate plea to those outside Rwanda to come home and take advantage of the security, stability, and opportunities Rwanda offers.
What made his plea so touching and memorable was that his father, who he called out personally, is the current leader of the FDLR. This terrorist group in the DRC has been attempting to overthrow Rwanda for 25 years.
The young man and his two siblings have all been beneficiaries of government bursaries. They are restorative examples of perpetrator’s children being given the same opportunities as others.
As concerns and request were voiced, various ministers responded. I won’t soon forget how President Kagame spoke pointedly on behalf of the citizens when he felt the responses to their concerns were not adequate.
At one point the room became very silent as the president went back and forth with increasingly specific questions for a government official who had not resolved an old problem in which some of his community members had not been paid by a government contractor.
I came away from that exchange shaking my head and thinking, “WOW, if I as an ordinary citizen who just watched my president take up my case in the way President Kagame just did, I would develop a fierce sense of loyalty and gratitude.”
As a committed believer in “finding the good” I was so happy to see how every person who raised a concern always began with a statement of gratitude for some progress that had made their lives better.
Throughout the day there was an obvious positive collaborative feeling. It reinforced my belief that Rwandans are often intentional in building a collaborative/consensus based environment rather than a confrontational one - even in the world of politics.
It was fun to watch what happened as the gathering was concluding.
The emcee pointed to an elderly woman on the screen at a remote location raising her hand.
Taking the microphone she said, “Look how old I am. Since the king [which was back in the 1950’s] I have never seen a leader like you President Kagame. You really take care of the elderly!” Once again the assembly rocked with applause and laughter.
As I said goodbye to my seat mates I thought about Bishop John’s response to my question: “What really results from Umushyikirano?” Without hesitation he responded, “Increased transparency, accountability, and a deeper sense of responsibility to others.” “Wow,” I thought, “Three things we desperately need in America, and actually around the world.”