In 1994, when Malawi was ushering in the democratic dispensation, Rwanda was at war with itself. Where we inherited the remnants of a dictatorship, they inherited death in the form of bodies washing themselves ashore in rivers, trapped in forests and lying in the open. There was no country to speak of.
In 2016, when Malawi is contemplating feeding mice and grasshoppers to a starving population, Kigali – the capital of Rwanda – is one major construction site. The people have rolled up their sleeves, taken a decision to move forward are dreaming big.
The name Kigali itself, is said to have originated from one of the country’s ancient kings who, when he stood upon a mountain and looked over where the city sits at present, proclaimed it a site of big things. And, big things are happening.
When I land at the airport in Kigali, I am immediately struck by the freshness and cleanliness of the airport. Nothing seems to be out of shape or, indeed, amiss. It is when I am disembarking and one of the cabin crew members is bidding me farewell that I reflect on the service out of Johannesburg. For the past three hours, the flight has been smooth, the food has been great and the service has been impeccable. As I marvel at the Boeing 737-700 that has just flown us the distance, I am told that plans are underway to secure bigger aircraft. Wow!
The arrival hall opens you up to one of Rwanda’s key cornerstones – efficiency. To your left, is the transit gateway. It surprises me somewhat that most of the passengers I have disembarked with are heading that route. Connecting flights from Kigali? Get real!
It does get real for me soon enough. My phone beeps – wifi network available. I click, and the network is open. In a matter of seconds, I am connected and tweeting at a speed I would normally pay an arm and a leg for elsewhere. I get to the visa counter and produce my Malawian passport. No problem.
If you are an African visiting Rwanda, you do not need to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of proving to the cold faces behind a thick glass counter in other places that you will make your return home if granted a visa. Have you ever taken time to understand the humiliation and indignity we suffer as Africans, giving up our entire lives to strangers in exchange for a visa? The other cornerstone of Rwanda’s development agenda has been dignity – giving citizens and Africans at large their dignity. This is what I was given by visa and immigration authorities I encountered at the airport.
About a kilometre away from the airport, my phone beeped again. More wifi. It must have taken me at least two minutes to figure out that the wifi – free high speed wifi – I was now accessing was actually installed in the shuttle I was on. Amazing, right? Not until I discovered that most public transport buses in Rwanda are actually kitted with free wifi for their passengers. As a Malawian dealing with recent tariff hikes on mobile telephony services, can you begin to imagine what is going on here?
Later in the day I am driven around Kigali and one of the places we go to is phase one of the Kigali Economic Zone. In this place, large chunks of land have been reserved for the building of industrial and manufacturing entities. There’s a factory producing clothes for export and to protect it and its likes, the government has banned the importation of second hand clothes. There’s also a computer assembly plant that is looking to expand into smartphones and tablets. LED lights? Yes, there’s a manufacturer for those too.
The public library is, perhaps, the biggest marvel. On the top floor sits an innovation lab, a space for young people to use as creative working space and host events, including exhibitions. These are spaces that allow young people to innovate and come up with ways that benefit their country.
To say we, in Malawi, had a massive headstart over Rwanda in 1994 is to understate the truth. We were far ahead of the country and we had the peace and stability to go with, unlike those who were at war. How come, then, Rwanda has managed to make all these strides in the last twenty-years and is able to deliver services that not only benefit itself but significant parts of the continent?
Beyond the triumph of the African spirit as exemplified by Rwanda, this is a country that is demanding to be heard and respected. Given that it is sprinting while we are still sleeping, it may not be a bad idea to pay some attention to it and learn.