The Beat Goes On

Rwanda is a country on the move. You can read that sentence to yourself in the voice of a 1940’s newsreel announcer and picture speeded-up black & white videos of construction workers scaling scaffolding, whole cities suddenly turning on the lights as they receive electricity for the first time and rows of neatly uniformed school children calling out the sing-song refrain of primary school English students across the African continent: “Good Morning, Teacher! I am fine. How are you?” And all those images would only begin to express the rapid development taking place all across the country. Let me bullet-point it out for you:

  • In the fall of 2008 the Rwandan government announced that from the beginning of the next school year in 2009, i.e. the second week of January, the exclusive language of instruction in upper primary and secondary schools would be English. For an analogy, imagine that the US Department of Education announced in June that, by the following September, all instruction grades 4-12 must be in German. And, what’s more, the SATs/ACTs will only be given in German and all university instruction, too. And, then, the government basically said “Peace out! Good luck with that!”
  • I mentioned in my last post the Rwandan institution of umuganda – compulsory community service. Dating from the 1970’s, this development effort is less extreme but nonetheless inconceivable in the American context. Imagine, again, your mayor deciding on a community service project and fining you 10-25% of your monthly salary if you don’t show up on the appointed day. You can also count on less access to government services as well. Oh, you want permission to add a story to your house? I’m sorry – you should have come to umuganda last month.
  • Ok, let’s assume you’re a good Rwandan and you attended umuganda so you saved your salary and you’re still in good with the local mayor. Now, you receive a message on your cell-phone from the government inviting you to contribute one month’s salary to a new “Development Fund.” This contribution is voluntary, of course. A friend of mine asked a Rwandan what would happen if you didn’t contribute. “Maybe you would somehow lose your job” was the answer which I think we can all agree doesn’t at all present a cause for concern.
  • Having attended umuganda and turned in your voluntary contribution, you probably just want to relax in your standard wattle-and-daub, thatched roof house, right? Not so fast, average Rwandan. The government has decided (not entirely unreasonably) that tin houses are preferable. In fact, they’re so preferable that everyone will be required to have one … by next month. Sure, it’s expensive but won’t that be better?
  • In another, reasonable-in-its-way plan, the government wants to consolidate the people into population centers so that there aren’t small-holders/subsistence farmers scattered over every hill and valley in the country. This will both facilitate the delivery of services like health care and electricity and help these resources be used more efficiently. In order to accomplish this, the government mandated that families with small-holdings in valleys move their residence to already populated hill-tops within a specified period of time. Additionally, the semi0long-term plan is to standardize agricultural regionally so that all farmers are working in co-ops to grow crops that the government has identified as suitable for the region. Farmers may still grow a variety of crops of their choice in small kitchen gar

All this development is a double-edged sword. It propels Rwanda forward and raises the general standard of living. At the same time, it does not respect civil liberties (as we conceive of them in America) and it can exact a human toll because poorer families struggle to underwrite these new national standards. Nonetheless, when you drive through downtown Kigali, as I did this weekend, and see construction site after construction site and block after block of buildings slated for demolition and renovation, you can’t deny that Rwanda is a country on the move.

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