They call it the land of the mountain gorillas, or the land of a thousand hills. It is also the land of remembrances. The smallest country in Eastern Africa, with a population of 12 million, Rwanda is shaking off its tragic past. The country of undulating and picturesque terrains has scaled great heights since it witnessed in 1994 one of the worst genocides in recent memory. Much-needed political stability ushered in development, and the country has been growing at a clip of eight per cent for most years since 2004. The unparalleled focus on education (with a 16 per cent allocation from the national budget) and health (close to 10 per cent of the budget) is already paying rich dividends. Poverty still persists, of course, but Rwanda is looking ahead. Some vignettes from a recent trip to that country.

Kwibuka 24

Any new visitor to Kigali is unlikely to miss the inscription ‘Kwibuka 24’, visible across Rwanda’s beautiful capital city on gigantic billboards and posters on government buildings.

In the local tongue Kinyarwanda, kwibuka means “to remember”. The message urges all Rwandans not to forget the atrocities unleashed during the genocide 24 years ago. The state-sponsored massacre left 800,000 to one million people dead and a multitude of children orphaned.

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Forget not: For 100 days — April 7 to July 4, marking the period when the killers went on the rampage — Rwandans visit the hundreds of genocide memorial centres


For 100 days — April 7 to July 4, marking the period when the killers went on the rampage — Rwandans visit the hundreds of genocide memorial centres that have sprung up in different parts of the country to pay homage to the dead. The Kigali Genocide Memorial, on the outskirts of the city, alone remembers 2.5 lakh people.

Rwanda’s three-time President Paul Kagame has played a major role in healing the wounds of a people ravaged by the untold violence between the ethnic groups Hutus and Tutsis. Though 85 per cent of Rwandans are Hutus, the Tutsi minority has long dominated the country. The mass killings were sparked by the death of the then President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, after his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) for the killing and launched a well-organised campaign of slaughter of not just Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.

Kagame, who commanded the rebel force that restored order, became the president in 2000 and subsequently brought in strict laws against racial or other kinds of discrimination. “It is even punishable to describe anyone as Hutu or Tutsi any more,” says Janvier, a taxi driver who lost his parents in the genocide.

Food for thought

A heated debate has divided people across the world: Is food charity good for lifting millions out of poverty in mutinous and strife-torn countries in Africa? Many economists and development experts think it is not such a great idea, after all. Rwanda has now given the world yet another model to ponder over. It joined hands with Dutch nutrition company Royal DSM, UK and Dutch development agencies CDC and FMO, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to set up a world-class food processing company, Africa Improved Foods (AIF). This supplies nutritious fortified blended food not just to the Rwandan government’s mother-and-child programme but also the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) aid schemes in many other African countries. The WFP has signed a $100-million multi-year contract to buy AIF products for its African food initiatives.

The AIF, which completed one year in May, also caters to the commercial market in Rwanda and neighbouring countries, selling branded fortified porridge flour at about one-third the price of comparable imported products.

Located at an industrial park just outside Kigali, the AIF is the largest food manufacturing plant in East Africa, with an annual capacity of 45,000 tonnes of fortified cereals, enough to feed two million.

Under an agreement, the government annually buys $6 million worth nutritious complementary foods from the AIF for free distribution to impoverished expectant and nursing mothers, and children up to age two, through its growing network of primary health centres.

Rwanda is already addressing the problem of malnutrition and stunting among its children through focused actions. By ensuring that 90 per cent of births take place in hospitals, it has helped drastically reduce maternal and infant mortality rates.

The aim is to reduce stunting among under-five children from 38 per cent to 32 per cent by 2020. “In 2005, stunting among our children was as high as 51 per cent. We have been able to bring it down to 38 per cent in a decade... We hope to reduce the early childhood stunting further with the help of nutritious food produced by the AIF,” said Anita Asiimwe, national coordinator for the Rwandan Government’s Early Childhood Development Programme.

This is not “straightforward business” but an effort to improve the lives of the people, stressed Hugh Welsh, president of Royal DSM for North America, who spearheaded the setting up of the AIF. “We are also contributing to the development of Rwanda and its agricultural productivity,” he said.

“We are expected to be profitable because this needs to be sustainable,” he added.

Nearly 50 per cent of the food crop used by the AIF — mainly maize — is produced by the country’s small farmers. “We work with 50-60 cooperatives, which have around 27,000 small farmers as members. In one year, we have been able to increase farmers’ incomes by 30 per cent,” said Amar Ali, CEO of the AIF.


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Nourish a nation: AIF’s fortified food is given free to poor pregnant women and children up to age two


The income increased because farmers saved on costs, he explained. “They save transportation and threshing costs as we buy maize from the farm gate,” he said. “In the coming years, we plan to engage experts to help the farmers adopt better agronomic practices.”

The AIF plans to set up similar facilities in other African countries, with Ethiopia likely to be next.

Woman power

Rwanda may be grappling with poverty and economic destruction, but it is a world leader when it comes to women in positions of power. Sixty-four per cent of the representatives in the lower house of Rwanda’s national legislature are women. Half the Cabinet members are women.

Asiimwe, who is also a medical doctor and a politician, attributed to Kagame the strides made by women. “Our Constitution ensures that 30 per cent of leadership positions of any government entity should be filled with women. More important, our senior leadership (of the ruling RPF party) is all for it. Our President challenges us and asks us, ‘Why do you want to be comfortable with just 30 per cent and why can’t you aspire for more’,” she said.

The mass massacre played a role, too. Records show that after the 1994 carnage, women constituted 60-70 per cent of Rwanda’s 5.5-6 million population. In the pre-genocide Rwanda, the role of women was no different from that in most other countries. But now they were expected to play a greater role, even if many were not educated or had never thought of taking up careers. Much like after World War II, the dearth of men created spaces for women. At 86 per cent, Rwanda has one of the highest rates for female labour workforce participation globally, as against 56 per cent in the US.

Today, Rwanda places a lot of importance on educating the girl child. In 2016, the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum placed Rwanda fifth after four Nordic countries in gender equality. It found that Rwanda provided favourable conditions to women for finding economic opportunity, political empowerment, health and education.

Roads to progress

Clean and well-paved roads are often seen as a barometer of prosperity in a country. Rwanda may be a poor and developing country, but its roads are as smooth as an Indian actor-politician’s much-vaunted cheeks. Kigali, certainly, has more beautiful roads than most other cities not just in Africa but elsewhere. The wide roads are lined with palm trees and have spacious pavements. Even the national roads, equivalent of India’s national highways, that crisscross the country have footpaths for pedestrians. The line dividing the road from a footpath may not be marked out or raised, but is sacrosanct: Rwandan drivers never cross the line, even if it means they have to tail a slow-moving truck for kilometres at a stretch.

Kigali and other cities in Rwanda are also known for their rainwater harvesting structures. These well-designed structures capture the rain falling on raised plots and direct it to neighbouring waterbodies through well-laid-out networks. To increase revenues, Rwanda is focusing on promoting tourism. Visitors pay high prices for gorilla tracking permits. In some areas, Rwanda has left other, more prosperous countries behind. Homosexuality, for instance, is legal here.

There’s a lot to forget in Rwanda, and so much to remember.

( The writer was in Rwanda at the invitation of Africa Improved Foods)

T V Jayan