Africa's rising star
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The last eight months have been tumultuous for Africa. The year began with mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt followed by political unrest in Ivory Coast and war in Libya. Then East Africa was hit with a famine so severe that it threatens to further destabilize Somalia as well as newly independent South Sudan.
With such reports dominating global headlines, it is easy to believe that little good news can come out of Africa. But take a closer look at the other 49 nations and you will find uplifting stories that continue to give the continent hope. One fine example can be found in the land-locked central African country of Rwanda.
On the surface, it would appear that this densely populated country with an annual per-capita income of only $1,100 is an unlikely candidate to carry Africa's torch. After all, Rwanda gained notoriety in 1994 when reporters descended on this little-known country to draw the world's attention to a genocide taking place there. During 100 days of terror, nearly a million Tutsis were killed by Hutus.
Unfortunately, 17 years after the genocide, most people still think of Rwanda only as violent and poverty-stricken. Against the backdrop of this misconception, I traveled to Rwanda in February, determined to learn the truth about the country.
As I walked out of Kigali International Airport, I brushed aside anxieties of what lay ahead and braced myself for the unexpected.
Rwanda is a picturesque assembly of rolling green hills that accommodate a rapidly evolving infrastructure. The capital city of Kigali is well-organized, orderly and glaringly devoid of the litter that has become an environmental nightmare for many African countries.
Clare, my Rwandan host, later explained that Rwandans are conscientious about keeping their country clean. In fact, on the last Saturday of each month, all citizens, irrespective of wealth or status, President Paul Kagame included, spend hours cleaning their neighborhoods and public areas. This gives you a glimpse of the level of commitment and togetherness driving the country.
One step Rwandans have taken to heal from their past is to no longer categorize themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi. They are simply Rwandans. One people, working together to rebuild their country.
Take Damas Gisimba. He is an unassuming man who earned national recognition for heroically saving the lives of 400 Tutsis by hiding them in the ceiling of his orphanage. Although Mr. Gisimba is not afraid to talk about the tragedy of 1994, his words surprisingly gravitate towards the liberating power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Like most Rwandans, he refuses to be defined by genocide.
The steps Rwanda has taken towards national reconciliation have been rewarded with phenomenal gains. Rwandans have formed a stable government with a parliament in which women are well represented. With Kigali at the epicenter of development, roads are being constructed to better connect farmlands and cities so that poorer rural areas can benefit from the economic transformation.
Real estate is booming, with both residential and commercial developments supporting investments that favorable government policies are attracting to the country. A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum has Rwanda leading the East African region in global competitiveness.
Rwanda's hospitality industry is rising to meet the needs of tourists, who brought in an estimated $174 million in 2009. Improvements have also been noted in health care; Rwanda has one of the most advanced malaria control systems in the region.
Despite these advancements, Rwanda remains poor. According to the World Bank, Rwanda's annual per-capita income ranks it 193 out of 215 countries. There is limited access to health care, education and electricity. And President Kagame has been accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian since he took power in 1994.
What the World Bank and other reports cannot quantify, though, is the spirit of togetherness and resilience spurring the growth of the country.
President Kagame is personally engaging with Rwandans in the diaspora to accelerate the nation's prosperity. He has worked with influential individuals such as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser to strengthen Rwanda's business sector. On Friday, he will be in Pittsburgh to describe Rwanda's economic goals and announce a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.
Such a circle of reputable friends and institutions will provide invaluable opportunities to Rwanda, but it is ordinary Rwandans who are taking advantage of these opportunities to create tangible results.
I remain in awe of the moral fortitude of the Rwandan people, who have risen above a horrific time in their history to move their country forward. The African countries reeling from uprisings, wars or famine need only to look at Rwanda to understand that out of calamity can come a rare opportunity to rise anew.
First Published September 15, 2011 12:00 am