Africa: Serious plus Correct—a Rwandan formula for hope

My husband Brian is driving in Maputo, Mozambique, I’m navigating, and our daughters Brynn and Marley are in the back seat.  We turn the corner, and Brian groans.  Ahead, stands a police officer waving us over.

The girls, moral purists both, are indignant from the moment they see him.  Last night we were stopped while walking home from dinner and asked for ID, which noncitizens are supposed to carry at all times.   As Brian dug in his pocket, I leaned over and explained to the girls, “Sometimes police here want bribes.”

“What did you just say?”  asked the officer scanning from the girls to me and back.  His English and hearing were better than I expected.  Or maybe I felt pissy enough to have used a stage whisper.  I hesitated, scrounged my brain for something credible and appropriate, and finding nothing, said it, “I told them sometimes police here want money.”

“Is that what you think is going on here?!” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.  The previous night, Brian had paid off a different policeman who made his requests for beer money more and more explicit.  I held my breath, wondering what would come next.

The officer gave me a long hard look.  Then, with a quick gesture he took the passport Brian had given to his colleague, snapped it back into Brian’s hand, and waved us on with a look of disgust.

Now, on the morning of our third day in the country I sigh and dig for the rental car papers and passports, and Brian hands them out the window.  As the officer flips through them casually, he waves a hand at Marley.  “Belt,” he says. “She must have a belt.”  Marley shows him the clasped seatbelt, hidden beneath her jacket, and he grunts reluctantly then turns his attention more fully to the paperwork.  He pulls out the Xeroxed title.  “Where is the original?”

“We don’t have it,” says Brian.  “It’s a rental car.”

“You must have it.  Mozambique law says you must.”

It may be the law, but everyone present knows that no South African rental car – or, probably, any rental car in the world—carries the original title.  He is satisfied; he has us.

But we’ve been here just long enough to be reactive, rather than resigned.  “Let’s play this out,” I say to Brian in a low voice.  I’m irritated, but also curious.  “We’ve got all day.  Let’s see what happens if we go to the police station.”

“Give us a ticket!”  Marley says loudly from the back seat.  Brian shushes her, but he says to the officer, “I’m happy to pay a fine, but I want a receipt.  Otherwise if I get stopped tomorrow, I may have to pay again.”   The officer grumbles, but Brian holds his ground.  White privilege and foreign passports are on our side.   Slowly, the officer hands back the papers, one at a time, repeating that we need the original.  We thank him and Brian pulls away from the curb.

In four months of travel, we have seen drivers in India and Madagascar pay off police and have heard Malagasy stories of checkpoint extortion by soldiers who collect cash all day and then go home in the evening when the bandits come out.  “What amazes me is that police officers at home don’t act this way,” I say.  “Why don’t they take bribes?  Why do they put themselves in harm’s way when they get a call?”  I picture the funeral procession that made its way over Capitol Hill not long before we left home, honoring a young officer (and dad) who was assassinated by a drive-by killer.  I feel a wave of utter gratitude toward the Seattle Police Department.

Traveling from country to country this spring, it is clear that whether police take bribes or not, how well they do or don’t do their jobs and why is part of a broader spectrum of questions about use and abuse of power, about integrity, transparency, cronyism and corruption–what it means to win an election or get hired into a government job.

On an internal flight in India, I sat next to a young businessman who said candidly, “We all are taught that the Independence was wonderful and the British Raj terrible, but if you look closely at history, the reality is more complicated.  India is wracked by corruption to the point that it chokes businesses to death.  Things bog down so badly in bureaucracy that entrepreneurs and people with good ideas give up.  There are times I think we would be better off with the British running the place.”  I was startled by his blunt heresy.  The Indian independence movement, Gandhi’s movement, is sacred to idealists around the globe—ok, sacred to me.  Now here was this Indian who said my sacred cow was dirty.

Having heard such sacrilege once, I was less surprised when a Malagasy taxi driver said something similar.  “We got our independence too soon.  Mauritius made it through more of an economic transition while they were still under French rule, so they emerged ahead.  We would be better off if the French still ran this place.”  (Note:  Madagascar has been without central government leadership for almost two years.  After we left fighting broke out in the capitol between the military and a renegade unit of the federal police.)

By the time we got to South Africa, I asked the question myself.  “Are there black South Africans who think this place was better off before? “

“There are some,” came the reply.  “Many schools were better.  Roads were maintained.  Soweto had a world class hospital, the best in Southern Africa. When the ANC took power, they replaced staff, with the criteria being color and connections rather than competence.  Things have deteriorated to the point that only one in five elevators is working.  If you are in the hospital you have to have a family member with you to guard your room.  Else, if you get up and go to the bathroom, your sheets will disappear while you are gone.”

Dirt on another one of my sacred cows.

In each of these cases, people weren’t pining for a return to the days when their parents were exploited by white colonialists.  Unspeakable outrages committed in the service of brute greed, justified by racial bigotry, endorsed by the Christian god, entrenched in legal codes written to serve a privileged few, enforced by guns and torture are not forgotten.  What is extraordinary is that despite these horrors, an Indian, a Malagasy, a South African can utter the words they did.  Each of these encounters speaks to the corrosive power of corruption, of government that exploits people rather than serving them, of power structures that ensure the wellbeing—or at least steady employment—of incompetent family members or other cronies at the expense of outsiders who yearn for functioning infrastructure and economic opportunity.  Traveling in the developing world, an absence of corruption is noteworthy, nowhere more so than in Rwanda, the tiny populous mountain country nestled between Tanzania, Uganda, and Congo.

Many Westerners know little of Rwanda save that it was the site of a brutal genocide in 1994 in which three quarters of a million people died, mostly hacked to death with machetes.  The images (which reached the Western public late, after the U.N., Europe and U.S. repeatedly ignored warnings and then the mounting body count) are now, finally, seared into our collective consciousness.  On the ground in Rwanda, the genocide is ever present—in simple village memorials, in Kigali’s powerful genocide museum (which is also the final resting place of over 250,000 victims), even in slogans on schools which say, “Reject genocide ideology.”

Despite this, remarkably, one of the most palpable aspects of Rwanda today is not trauma, but hope.  And a key component of that hope is the tangible absence of corruption.  “I was driving in Uganda,” says Fred Budaramani, proud owner of a small travel agency.  “The police officer pulled me over and took my passport.  He said I was going 55 in a 50 zone.  He told me I could go into town and pay the fine and then come back and he would return my documents.  Then he started saying, ‘Talk nice to me.’ (meaning pay me off.)  Here in Rwanda you wouldn’t dare try to bribe a police officer.”  Bribes, or the lack thereof are just one part of the story.  Crime is low; government official do their jobs; women walk the streets at night; normally skittish investors see Rwanda as a place to place bets.

Fred and others attribute this climate to good leadership, pure and simple.  In particular they look to the leadership of one man who has little tolerance for what has been standard operating procedure in many developing countries and Rwanda in the past:  Western patronage, tribal cronyism, and passive resignation from those at the bottom of the heap.

The architect of post-genocide Rwanda is Paul Kagame, former child of Ugandan refugee camps, then rebel commander, now president.  (For the fascinating story of Kagame’s rise to power and Rwanda’s rise from the ashes, read, A Thousand Hills, by journalist Stephen Kinzer).  Kagame is a man who takes integrity and civil service seriously.  He has drawn human rights criticism for his heavy handed tactics, but it appears that his core priority, genuinely, is not elevating his family and friends but elevating his country.  He has little patience for things that get in the way, corruption and self indulgence among them.   When he decided that the country’s leaders were diverting too many resources into their own conspicuous consumption, he complained first in private meetings, then public speeches about their luxury vehicles.  Finally, he had the national police erect roadblocks and stop fancy cars.  If ministers were inside, the automobiles were confiscated and later sold at public auction.  The story has echoed across a continent all too familiar with strongmen who wear ostentatious gold, live in luxury compounds, and fly in private jets.   The echo is by design.  Rwanda seeks to be a model, an African success story, the face of the future.

Rwanda has come as far as it has post genocide (contrast with Cambodia) in part because Kagame is a man with an extraordinary ability to delay gratification, and he demands the same of his nation.  His eyes are on the future rather than the present, and he has brought a military discipline to the task of creating that future.  As the commander of a rebel army seeking to repatriate refugees he shared the privations of his soldiers, exacting from them an uncommon level of self restraint:  no drinking, no sex with women you aren’t married to, pay market rates for food.  The Rwandan Patriotic Front under his leadership survived for years under harsh physical conditions and self-imposed austerity.   Kagame’s strict rules served a higher purpose.  He sought not just to win a war but to later govern with the approval of the Rwandan people.   Abuse of power would undermine the long term goal.

Kagame may be an extraordinary individual, but he embodies two traditional Rwandan virtues that any of us can cultivate.  They are at the very heart of the difference between his administration’s effective governance and the elements of corruption and chaos that so frustrated my acquaintances in India, Madagascar and South Africa.  Local people call Kagame “serious” and “correct”  two very weighty terms of praise in traditional Rwandan culture.  “Correct” holds the sense of being morally upright—having one’s behavior in line with one’s professed values but also rational.  It appears to have an element of intellectual integrity—being able to respond to evidence that shows you wrong.  “Serious” has been described to me this way by one expat, “I can’t think of an equivalent phrase in English that quite captures it – it’s not only “determined” and it’s not “sincere” and it’s not quite “earnest” or “committed”, but some combination of all of that, and “responsible”.  I think intention has a lot to do with it as well.”

When I think about these two Rwandan concepts, correct and serious, I realize how hungry I am for them in the political culture of my own country.  When I look at the Wall Street greed frenzy that tanked the global economy.  When I look at the chummy relationship between D.C. politicians and the oil industry . . . .  When I think of the drug company lobbyists who have manipulated our health care system in the interests of profit . . . .  When I think of all the advocates for identity politics—politicians who appeal to the fact that we are white or black or Hispanic or gay or straight rather than simply American, and all of the talking heads who are more concerned with market share than reality . . . I yearn for leaders who can be described by words like earnest and responsible, rational, ethical, sincere.

Like the people of Rwanda, many of us in the West seek a better future.  But we who are focused on the future– progressives we call ourselves–often have little attraction to military discipline, authority, coordinated action, or austerity.  Corruption may not be rampant, but self-indulgence is.  In Rwandan terms, how serious are we?  We rail against British Petroleum while stuck on crowded freeways.  We lament economic disparity over lattes.  We say that our planetary life support system is in jeopardy, and we devote ourselves to it in our spare time.   We may not abuse the power that has been entrusted to us, but how casually we seem to squander it.

In Rwanda, one gets the sense that there simply isn’t enough room for power to be either abused or squandered.  The stakes are too high.  If the vision falters and is lost, the alternative may be a return to violence— tribal conflict over scarce resources.  Is that not the risk, honestly, for all of us?  Perhaps a small, landlocked country in the middle of Africa could have a thing or two to teach the world.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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