Twenty years ago, Rwanda was the site of what has been called the most hellish 100 days of the 20th century. Today, it is a place of pervasive progress and limitless promise. Visit the shopping malls amidst Kigali’s rapidly maturing skyline, or test the farthest reaches of its country-wide fiberoptic connectivity. Once brushed aside for its seemingly delusional aspirations to become East Africa’s Singapore or Silicon Valley, Rwanda’s message is now loud and clear. Rwanda is serious about its perhaps-no-longer-so-lofty dreams.
But, is it really safe? This is still the most common question I hear from foreigners, not only from the Global West, but from neighboring East Africans as well. Having lived in several major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and now San Francisco, I’m not sure I’ve had a safer home than the friendly hillside neighborhoods of Kigali, Rwanda. But don’t take my word for it – ask Rwandans: A 2012 Gallup poll indicates that Rwanda’s citizens feel safer than citizens of any other country in Africa. The same poll ranks Rwanda second globally in percentage (89 percent) of women who feel safe walking alone at night.
Today, Rwanda is arguably the most peaceful, cleanest and least corrupt country in Africa — not to mention one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Note that this is not just another short-lived and superficial demonstration propped up by the notoriously dysfunctional foreign aid machine. Rwanda has adamantly refused to follow in the ruinous path of its African neighbors. Instead, the country has developed much more organically. Pundits can say what they like about President Paul Kagame, but it’s foolish to argue the success of his rogue philosophy of national development by self-reliance.
Perhaps news of Rwanda’s recent progress is not new to you, but have you pondered its full significance within the context of its tragic past?
Consider the generation responsible for much of this unthinkable turnaround. Perhaps then you might begin to grasp why there is no greater success story over the past 20 years.
Haunted by the most horrific of memories and deprived by and large of parents and mentors — many of whom perished or relocated during the violence — this generation has taken on the most formidable of challenges and emerged victorious. At last, Rwanda’s youth is turning heads around the world.
Take Adrien Niyonshuti, the centerpiece of Rwanda’s first national bike team and the award-winning documentary, “Rising from the Ashes,” who made history by representing Rwanda in the 2012 Olympics. Or Rwanda’s thriving community of young artists – ranging from world-renowned musicians like Cornille Nyungura to fine art studios like Uburanga, Ivuka and Imena, whose peace-promoting paintings and sculptures are quickly rising in popularity across the world.
And I’d be remiss without mentioning legendary entrepreneurs like Sina Gerard and Serge Ndukwe, who have made good on their dreams to provide jobs for thousands of Rwandans by producing some of the country’s most popular and delicious packaged food products.
These national heroes all have something in common: They understand what can happen when a nation and its people are divided. They believe in the importance for all Rwandans to share in a brighter, more prosperous future. “More than personal fame or fortune, we thirst to see our country succeed,” says Jean Bosco Bakunzi, the 28-year-old founder of Uburanga Art Studio.
Adrian desires to win races for his country. Bakunzi and his fellow artists use the beauty of art as a source of healing for their neighbors, orphaned children and people across the world. Edwin fights tirelessly to preserve his country’s wildlife while caring for Rwanda’s rural villages. Sina and Serge create economic opportunity for their country while paving the way for the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs. This generation of young heroes has evolved into the role models this country has lacked in fathers, mentors and teachers.
These stories hint at one of the most glaring, if for now softly measured, indicators and drivers of progress – the degree to which achievement, and economic success in particular, are intentionally aligned with commitment to positive social and environmental impact. This generation’s people and country-first philosophy has established a culture which is propelling Rwanda’s emergence into a hotbed of responsible business and social enterprise.
Next week’s article will examine several elements of Rwanda’s cultural identity that have helped to fuel this emergence.