I spent last week in Rwanda, as Chair of UNICEF Ireland, bringing some of our individual donors to see our work with children.
It was my first visit to Rwanda, and I was incredibly impressed by the sheer beauty of the place. It is a small country, almost the size of Ireland, and like Ireland extremely green and lush. The scenery is stunning: Kigali, the capital (of “mille collines”, a thousand hills), is built amongst hills and valleys; Gisenyi near the border with Congo is on the shores of the spectacular Lake Kivu; and we finished amongst the Virunga volcanoes near the border with Uganda. Bluegum, sugar cane, eucalyptus trees and vegetables and flowers are abundant in the fertile soil. Three languages are predominant, with most people multi-lingual: Kinyarwanda, French and English.
In preparation for my trip, I had read Dervla Murphy’s own account of her visit in 1997, and I was very keen to see what changes had occurred since then.
The entire country is pristine. I saw no litter anywhere whatsoever, and no graffiti. Plastic bags are illegal, and I had been warned in advance that customs officials will confiscate them from your luggage on arrival. One Saturday morning each month, the entire nation – including its politicians – take part in community service, umuganda, which traditionally was a form of labour, as opposed to financial, tax: as I saw last Saturday morning, each community goes to work on maintaining the local paths, tracks, water infrastructure and so on.
The parallels with us here in Ireland seem remarkable, except perhaps a different view in Ireland of pervasive tidiness, purity and social commitment. Like us a few decades ago, Rwanda is a wonderful country with incredibly friendly people, in a green oasis of rural agriculture, and an under-developed but potentially services-led economy. Gisenyi is a concealed haven, right on the Congolese border beside Goma, but at our hotel we saw an internationally very well known US film star, and Bill Gates is also rumoured to be a periodic visitor.
The population of Rwanda is 9m, with only about 23% urban. The main roads pretty much everywhere have people walking along both sides of them – it needed steady nerves from our UNICEF driver to ensure that nobody was hit. The main roads are tarmaced, but potholed, and almost all side roads are heavily rutted dirt tracks. On one bruising 20km drive along one to visit a school, I had the chance to ride a gicugutu: a scooter, made entirely of wood – the frame and the wheels – great fun, if exhausting.
The five year term of Paul Kagame since 2003 has seen the economy grow 44% to 2.4Bn$ (2006 figure), with growth of 4.5%-6.5% expected for 2007. The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Rwanda is just 3%, very low compared to some other nations, and due in part to the strong educational and health programmes of the government. There are elections next autumn, and from what I learnt, Kagame is a highly popular leader even if sometimes controversial internationally in the aftermath of the genocide.
Re-integration of society since the genocide of 1994 has clearly been painful and every citizen was affected by what happened. It was surreal to visit and have a drink in the bar of the Hotel des Mille Collines in central Kigali, an apparently perfectly normal international hotel but also Hotel Rwanda. Each April, there is a one week of national mourning, in memory of the start of the events of 1994. I naturally took the opportunity to talk quietly to individuals, and heard their personal stories and how they have dealt with the situation. One of the key national educational issues is how to explain what happened to the young Rwandans who have been borne since 1994: how do you explain to young teenagers what the adults around them – including their teachers – did and experienced just 14 years ago ?
On this particular trip, the focus was primarily on education (as opposed to e.g. HIV/AIDS for which I have visited other African nations before). UNICEF worldwide has a programme of what are called “child friendly schools” – a term which I personally find strange since it implies that other schools are “child unfriendly”, but there is a certain logic. Child friendly schools generally have better staff/student ratios, sports facilities, teacher training, re-integration of orphans and challenged children, and in particular are safe locations for girls – separate latrine facilities for example. Attendance rates, and completion rates, in child friendly schools are generally excellent. In Rwanda, the target staff-student ratio is 1:55 (as opposed to nearly double that historically). Sports facilities – like soccer, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics – are very helpful in re-integration of orphans and vulnerable children into the normal society of their peers.
We visited both child friendly and as yet un-refurbished schools. A child friendly school is used as a centre point for a cluster of schools within a district, with teachers at the centre training those from the periphery. The contrast in terms of fit-out were obvious: concrete floors instead of mud; desks instead of benches; good sanitation and separate latrines; rain proof roofs; rain water collection tanks, and so on. The far better attendance by girls in child friendly schools was conspicuous as we visited classes.
We also visited child headed households, which I had experienced in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Zambia on previous trips. I was invited into the home of a 14 year old girl, who ran the household for her three younger siblings with support from UNICEF. Her extended family had been killed in the genocide. Her eyes carried a deep sadness which will haunt me for some time. In the schools we visited – of both categories – there were between one third and one half of the children like her and her siblings who had been orphaned and were vulnerable. Attending school, and getting younger siblings educated, is clearly an enormous challenge when so many domestic issues – including in particular food – pre-occupy teenage-led families.
Paul Kagame hosts a national childrens summit on an annual basis, over two days which are also nationally broadcast. Childrens issues are high on the national political agenda and UNICEF is a valuable partner.
For me, UNICEF is a wonderful organization and I occasionally surprise myself with deep awe, respect, sadness and hope – and yes, from time to time, tears. IMHO, to make a difference we really do need global organizations with scale and impact. UNICEF eradicated polio across the planet: I’m not convinced that many other organizations could have done this. It is not just about emergency relief but also about development of nations. I understand that a well known Irish national NGO has recently decided to cease any development activities and focus solely on emergency relief: while this is perhaps understandable given their limited scale, it has left projects abandoned with funding suddenly stopped, and with organizations like UNICEF then having to step in at short notice to pick up the shattered pieces. Development requires sustained, multi-year long term commitment: a “spray and pray” strategy is immature. Sometimes smaller NGOs suddenly abandon a country, as a response to strife, and in some cases – despicably – pull out their white staff, leaving other staff to their fate: UNICEF continues for example in Kenya and indeed Melanie Verwoerd, our UNICEF Ireland Director, had been in Kenya just the previous week – she was interviewed live from Kenya on the Gerry Ryan show amongst others. Sometimes, as an emergency relief response, smaller NGOs have difficulties working where they have no track record: at the time of the Asian tsunami in 2004, smaller NGOs reputedly turned up at Jakarta on short term tourist visas. The Indonesian government came under some entirely misplaced media criticism here in Ireland and elsewhere at the time: but on the ground the Indonesian authorities had long established operations with UNICEF and the Red Cross and handled the crisis well with military efficiency.
We visited, on our first morning, the Kigali Memorial Centre, where there are mass graves for 250,000 people. We laid three wreathes on the graves, and spent several hours inside the centre itself. Apart from the Rwandan story, including its impact on children, the remaining third of the centre is devoted to other genocides, including the Nazi and former Yugoslavia genocides in Europe. Let me leave you with one of the quotes carved outside the centre:
“In a search for a hideout, I found Jerome, his legs cut off. I could not leave him in this state. I tried to lift up Jerome so that we could leave together, but the car of the commune stopped near me. It was full of machetes and other instruments of death. I lay Jerome down on the ground and ran because a man got out of the burgomaster’s car to kill me. He finished Jerome off. I saw this when I looked back to see if anyone had followed me. I will never forget the way Jerome’s face was filled with desperation. Whenever I think about it, I cry all day long.”
In the spring of 1994, approximately one million Rwandans were brutally and savagely murdered. But, as the Memorial Centre says, what really happened was not a million murders but first of all, one extremely violent and brutal one. The loss of a beautiful human life. And then, another was done. And then, incredibly, a third. And then a fourth. And on and on and on, relentlessly, on over a million separate individual occasions.
PS: if you are really really interested, there are some photos here.