Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dispatch From Rwanda

Kigali, Rwanda -- Two seemingly unbelievable stories surround the tiny east African nation of Rwanda at present. The better known one is that of the 1994 genocide, which took the lives of 1.1 million people in one month and continues to haunt the nation. However, alongside this horrific history is a story of a hopeful future. Over the past three months, I have spent time in Rwanda and three other east African nations: Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Unfortunately, in each of these countries, a significant portion of the population lives below the poverty line. Rwanda felt a bit different than the others, however. It feels as though it has embarked on a path that may lead to a more prosperous life for its people.

Throughout Rwanda, roads are being repaved, commercial centers are being built, and the tourism industry is being developed. After talking with several Rwandans and expatriates, I became convinced that the development could be in large part attributed to the power of politics. More specifically, the country is benefiting tremendously from political will, on both domestic and international fronts, to improve its social and economic infrastructure. Within Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government, led by President Paul Kagame, has committed itself to meeting the many standards set forth in the UN Millennium Development Goals. The government is, for instance, implementing programs to prevent and treat malaria, building schools throughout the country, and taking measures to protect the environment that are unheard of in the region.

While the efforts of the RPF are commendable, in no way would its effort be possible without support from foreign governments. There seems to be more foreign aid pouring into Rwanda than into other east African countries on a per capita basis. As I drove through rural areas, I noticed that aluminum pails carrying supplies from USAID were everywhere. The only other place I had seen them had been in the refugee camps of northern Uganda. Although there is no official explanation for the apparent higher level of foreign aid in Rwanda, it seems that the developed world is trying to make amends for its total inaction during the genocide of 1994. Without this foreign aid, there is little doubt that the RPF would be unable to implement its programs and develop the country's infrastructure, regardless of the government's will, competency and lack of corruption. My experience in Rwanda has left me convinced that the responsibility of foreign governments is two-fold: first, to work with the governments of developing countries to ensure transparency and reduce corruption; and second, to provide aid that lifts people out of poverty.

Despite Rwanda's progress, the country still has a long way to go. A large portion of its population remains impoverished, particularly in rural areas less likely to see foreign aid. What is more, memories of the genocide continue to loom intensely over the nation. While speaking to a genocide survivor who worked at the Kigali Memorial Center, I commented on how impressed I was with the development that was taking place in Rwanda. He told me that on the surface, everything did seem fine, but that the wounds would never heal, and that the people would always be tenuously balancing the reality of daily life with the nightmares of the past. While the international community will never be able to undo the tragedy and effects of the genocide, its support has undoubtedly made life more bearable for the thousands of people who suffered the unthinkable.

Maureen Sarewitz