“How Rwanda Works” It’s The Little Things

“How Rwanda works”, or “#HowRwandaworks” is something you will come across on twitter, posted by Rwandans celebrating the efficiency of their country’s government. These usually flag up some notable achievement, but the essence of what they celebrate can arguably be best found in the little things. 

My to do list was unequivocal, it would be a busy Saturday. It was to begin with interviewing a hard working, busy minister. To speak of a hard working, busy minister in Rwanda is a sure way of guaranteeing anonymity, because the description fits many a minister you could name. it is not by chance that the country is permanently high on the list of the most efficient governments in the world.

I am a journalist, so naturally, I am imbued with a firm conviction that nothing is more important than responding to the questions I have to ask, but the apology for the cancellation comes with such grace that only an irredeemably monstrous narcissist would fail to be mollified.

And besides, although the interview was admittedly the most important item on the day’s to do list, there are a number of other items on it. So, grudgingly I forced myself to consider that maybe, just maybe, extending some part of the country or other’s access to clean drinking water, might, at a pinch, be more important than sitting across me, being interviewed. 

What is particularly noteworthy here is the access to senior officials that Rwandan journalists have come to take almost for granted. So, when President Kagame, or one of his ministers talk about accountability, the words do have substance. 

It is a Saturday, so the best place to continue working is of course a café. But how to get there. If you are slightly allergic to motor cycle taxis, there are only buses, or minibuses, increasingly, more of the former than the latter.

“How Rwanda works”, or “#HowRwandaworks” is something you will come across on twitter, posted by Rwandans celebrating the efficiency of their country’s government. These usually flag up some notable achievement, but the essence of what they celebrate can arguably be best found in the little things.

My to do list was unequivocal, it would be a busy Saturday. It was to begin with interviewing a hard working, busy minister. To speak of a hard working, busy minister in Rwanda is a sure way of guaranteeing anonymity, the description fits many a minister you could name. it is not by chance that the country is permanently high on the list of the most efficient governments in the world.

I am a journalist, so naturally, I am imbued with a firm conviction that nothing is more important than responding to the questions I have to ask, but the apology for the cancellation comes with such grace that only an irredeemably monstrous narcissist would fail to be mollified.

And besides, although the interview was admittedly the most important item on the day’s to do list, there are a number of other items on it. So, grudgingly I force myself to consider that maybe, just maybe, extending some part of the country or other’s access to clean drinking water, might, at a pinch, be more important than sitting across me, being interviewed.

What is particularly noteworthy here is the access to senior officials that Rwandan journalists have come to take almost for granted. So, when President Kagame, or one of his ministers talks about accountability, the words do have substance.

It is a Saturday, so the best place to continue working is of course a café. But how to get there. If you are slightly allergic to motor cycle taxis, there are only buses, or minibuses, increasingly, more of the former than the latter.

“Boss, ko udakarabye?” (Are not washing your hands?), the young woman in a yellow high visibility vest of the youth volunteers, challenged firmly. Not to me I hasten to add. The Rwandan slogan, “ntibibe njye” it shouldn’t be me [who spreads the virus], is etched on my brain.

The “boss” in question stops, hesitates, looks at the young woman, and clearly deciding she is not to be trifled with, unwillingly trudges back to wash his hands.

Inevitably, he jumps the queue. Rwandans and queuing, so far, oil and water.

Public transport between provinces, linking the country is pretty good. Within cities and towns, there has been much improvement, but it was desperately needed, and the situation still leaves much to be desired. Waiting times are excruciating, an hour or more is not unusual.

Inevitably with such long waiting times, overcrowding is the norm. Since the start of Covid-19, however, overcrowding is no longer a problem. In fact, it is quite gratifying how quickly the public transport system adopted the physical distancing directive.

The waiting on the other hand is quite another thing. It will be interesting to see how people react, when Covid-19 is no longer a threat, and overcrowding returns with a vengeance.

As if it wasn’t enough to stand for an age, anxiety rising, watching as precious a resource as time ebbing away, there is that queuing again.

In the first one is to charge the public transport smart card. As in so many other places, there are helpful markings where one should stand. These particular ones are thick lines, painted in a stunning bright, cobalt blue that make a square. Hard, if not impossible to miss.

In a space of three minutes I have to remind as many people that the concept of a queue is that the last person to arrive, has to go behind the last person they find in the queue.

Things get worse in the line for the wait for the bus. A young woman saunters by and plumps herself at the front of the queue. Here and there, people shuffle, in and get front of each other. They win, I think to myself, too exhausting to keep pointing out the obvious.

I alight at busy little Remera, and head towards the café that is a regular haunt. I pass by a garage adjacent to a petrol station. Several mechanics are gathered, listening someone. I note the appropriate physical distancing. Impressive, I think to myself, and keep walking.

As I move passed them, a ripple of applause rings out, and about four people move towards a market nearby. They are quite close to me now, close enough for me to have to change direction to avoid bumping into them.

I glance in their direction, and do a double take, noticing the unmistakable, tall figure of Johnston Busingye, the country’s Attorney-General, and Minister of Justice.

A few days earlier, Busingye had been on twitter, asking for suggestions on what else should be done to help people better observe Covid-19 preventive measures, given the steady rise in cases. Now here he was, in person, to talk to mechanics, market traders, and anyone else he came across. The words, #HowRwandaworks, suddenly pop into my head.

It was a Saturday afternoon, one minister had just had to postpone an interview with me, because he was visiting some project or other, and here was another, spending a weekend on a walk about to encourage people to observe measures to contain a pandemic. How Rwanda works indeed.

Automatically, I rummage for a phone and sneak a couple of pictures. Someone in the minister’s party sidles up next to me. You are taking pictures, he says, politely enough, but somewhat superfluously, I thought.

It is of course, a pleasant way of demanding to know why I am taking pictures. Ordinarily, I would want to explain that it’s a public area, and I am entitled to take pictures, if the fancy takes me. But he is pleasant, and I try to respond in kind. He smiles and goes back to join Busingye, who is now deep in conversation with a fruit seller.

I head for the café, but not before I am accosted by one of the onlookers. “Ntibyemewe” it is forbidden, he says, without looking at me. What? I ask? Taking pictures, he mumbles, still looking straight ahead. This too is how Rwanda works, people everywhere ready to tell you what is forbidden.

In Musanze district, social distancingWho says so? I ask him, more sharply than I would have liked. The man I have just photographed is a high officer of the law in the land, I say, shall we ask him whether I am within my rights to take pictures?

The man says nothing, and I walk to my café, immediately regretting my harshness to him.

He was admittedly smug, and had absolutely no business pontificating on what was or wasn’t forbidden. But one forgets what a long way Rwanda has come in a very short space of time.

It is a completely different land from the one where the very idea of a minister of state setting foot in a market would be unheard of.

Psychologically the residue of times gone by remains in many a person’s mind. For this man, I was all together too free with my actions. It must have seemed to him too incongruous, too jarring. It will take a little longer yet before mindsets change.

In the café, a couple has taken up residence in my favourite spot. Ah well, can’t stay long anyway, it will be curfew time soon, anywhere will do. My favourite spot is a table, about a metre by half a metre. The couple are sitting quite close together.

A member of staff walks up to them, apologetically, and says something, almost in a whisper. In a parallel universe in my head, he is saying, “oh I am sorry, this seat is much favoured by our regular customer, would you mind sitting over there instead?”

I see the man move, and sit at one end of the length of my favourite table. In the real world, the couple were being asked to keep a physical distance of one metre. How Rwanda works.




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