In Tito’s Rwanda: Beneath the surface

Spotless: A view of Kigali’s city centre from the Genocide Memorial. There are some street children in Rwanda’s capital, but the roads are in top condition and nary a shack in sight. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

Spotless: A view of Kigali’s city centre from the Genocide Memorial. There are some street children in Rwanda’s capital, but the roads are in top condition and nary a shack in sight. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

I spent last week in Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s favourite African city. It wasn’t my first time but I have never spent more than 72 hours there. This time around, I decided I would take two extra days to explore a bit and understand beyond the cleanliness on the positive side and the seemingly limited rights of association and speech as demonstrated by the arrests of anyone opposed to President Paul Kagame on the negative side.

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A few days after my arrival, I was accosted by a street child of about 10 asking for money.
There is no country without street kids but I swear, up until that moment, I had never thought Kigali, in particular, and Rwanda, in general, had any. “My friend, give me money,” the boy asked as I walked out of the library.

I would later be asked for money by street children a total of four times in both Kigali and Musanze, a town about two hours out of Kigali. Not even a quarter as many as happens in many other cities, whether African or worldwide, but I was still curious enough to ask where the children may be coming from.

I thought I could understand a narrative of adult panhandlers who may have lost their minds or property to the genocide but I could not quite understand these young ones. Were they from neighbouring countries perhaps? On asking around, no one seemed to have an answer for me.

What I did gather was that Rwanda was more successful than many other countries in rehabilitating the street children. For instance, the Rebecca Davis Dance Company rehabilitates children with ballet and then later on they are sponsored to be put back into the school system. The founder of the programme also runs similar ones in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Guinea. For the sake of the children in the programme, one can only hope that Ms Davis doesn’t turn out to have any similarities to the infamous Katie Meyler of More Than Me in Liberia. Rwanda, like, or perhaps more than, other African countries, seems to have its fair share of the white-saviour industrial complex, you see.

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On Friday evening, after attending a book launch by Rwandan publisher Huza Press, I went for dinner with some of Rwanda’s well-heeled. It turns out all is not well in Rwandan hospitals. Those women who chose to give birth in Rwanda told nightmare stories about unrequested C-sections, lack of care pre- and postnatal for mothers and children — and this is in private hospitals. One of them wondered how the majority of Rwandan women, who have to cope with public health, actually do. I thought this may be exaggeration by pampered princesses. A conversation two days later with one of my younger friends who is relatively less privileged and has never left Rwanda seemed to have similar condemnation for the public health system. Hopefully those in charge in Rwanda are listening and taking notes and will make some changes.

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On Saturday, I took a turn to Nyamirambo, Kigali’s oldest township. It has a high population density but isn’t like other townships I have visited. You cannot tell someone’s income bracket by going to Nyamirambo. Their home may be a mansion, or it may be a small brick house with a red roof, something akin to our RDP houses. What’s interesting about Nyamirambo’s RDP homes is that the Rwandan government is working on phasing them out so that they can give Rwandans homes with dignity. I asked around and no one, including my young friend born in 1998 and therefore without the sort of allegiance to the Kagame government older people have, seemed to know about the presence of shacks as we know them. That’s right. As far as I know from the little travel that I did, the plastic and zinc homes with “Vote ANC: A Better Life For All” boards on windows don’t seem to exist in Rwanda.

The road infrastructure, wherever I went, including to a village outside Musanze where I went canoeing on Lake Ruhondo, was impressive. Forget villages in the Eastern Cape or Free State, I could see some neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban that could be schooled by Rwandans.

I could see why Mboweni would admire Rwanda. What I couldn’t understand is why the political party he belongs to, or the leading opposition in charge of the Western Cape, doesn’t seem to think South Africans deserve equal dignity.

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