In 25 years, the capital of Rwanda has gone from a city of genocide, to a city where the wellbeing of citizens is valued
Rwanda is a country that is unfairly judged by its worst moment. This is not to minimise the genocide that occurred in 1994, but to emphasise the double standard between countries. Over generations, Western countries have been allowed to create their own national narratives despite public initiatives to hold them accountable for their worst moments. It would seem odd to judge Germany in 2019, by how Germany was in 1939. Yet, other countries are not given the same grace to build their own national narratives after their worst moment. This double standard is why Rwanda’s ascent as a model of wellbeing, communal solidarity, and economic development is hard for many people to believe.
Kigali is a city on the run, in more ways than one. A decade ago, Rwanda was seen as the 139th easiest place in the world to do business. Today, it is ranked 29th. With a roaring economy that grows by 7% or more per year, the country has gone from being heavily aid-reliant in the wake of the genocide, to funding 84% of its budget itself. Although some have raised concerns about the cost to democracy to achieve this progress, Rwanda has become an example for other countries in East Africa.
Government policies have encouraged international investment, from companies such as KT Corporation from South Korea that is setting up a 4G LTE network throughout the country. Entrepreneurs are growing in confidence, and Kigali is becoming a regional tech hub. If you’re heading to any global conference in Africa, it is most likely happening in Kigali, one of the top three most popular conference and meeting destinations on the continent, after Cape Town and Casablanca.
Visa-free entry to all visitors from other African nations and the rest of the world has increased tourism and helped Rwanda to develop a strong service sector. Anyone who is a frequent viewer of the Premier League will have noticed the adverts encouraging people to “Visit Rwanda” during matches of Arsenal Football Club. In 2017, more than 1.3 million people did just that.
More than 60% of the country’s parliamentarians are women, the largest percentage of any national government in the world. In many ways, Rwanda, and Kigali in particular, is a place that is attracting attention for all the right reasons. If you are impressed by the overall improvement of Kigali, you will be inspired by what is happening on the streets of the city, and how that is resonating beyond Rwanda’s borders.
In 2016, Kigali and the Rwanda Biomedical Centre wanted to encourage healthy lifestyles among the populace by having car-free days once a month. The popularity of those events grew so much that they now occur on the first and third Sundays of every month. That a city has a car-free day is nothing special. What sets Kigali apart from other cities is the frequency of those events. It is a bold move that aims to reduce air pollutants, encourage recreation, and improve public health, all in one event. As residents hit the streets for three hours in the morning to cycle, stretch, play soccer, and other forms of physical activity, the Rwandan Ministry of Health offers free screening for non-communicable diseases. The success of Kigali’s car-free days is why it was one of the five laureate cities for the 2019 Wellbeing City Award.
The participants come from a wide spectrum of society and have made a massive impact on Kigali residents. People exercise with relatives, kids play with their friends, and coworkers stay fit on the streets together. Even Kigali’s mayor, Marie-Chantal Rwakazina, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and his wife, First Lady Jeannette Kagame, participate.
What drives the popularity of the car-free days is that people see the nation’s leaders physically leading by example, not just with declarations and press conferences. They also have a need for increased medical screening for diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory ailments, breast cancer, eye testing, and dental issues. Since the screenings happen often, medical staff involved can monitor any health issues that were discovered during the screenings, and observe their progress in the months ahead.
Another activity that works similar to the car-free days is the “Umuganda,” or mandatory community cleanup. On the last Saturday of every month, able-bodied residents between the ages of 18 and 65 are required to clean the public realm or face fines. Together, keeping the city continuously clean and the car-free days, builds civic pride and helps neighbours converse with each other.
Kigali has been able to increase the occurrence of car-free days to a frequency that many Western cities who love to do, but politically cannot. This is achieved by constantly consulting with residents and the business community. The benefit to residents is obvious, but what about the business community?
Many companies have been sponsoring and getting involved in the expansion of car-free days into more parts of Kigali, because the government carries the burden of providing some of the benefits that they would have had to offer to their employees. For example, if workers get free dental cleanings every six months by taking advantage of car-free days, those are less benefits that companies would otherwise provide. The incentives for participating in the event make both residents and businesses eager to get involved.
As a result of the popularity of the events, people are coming to Kigali to observe these moments of mass recreation in person. In Africa, some of Rwanda’s neighbours are following its lead by starting their own car-free days. Ethiopia held its first car-free day in Addis Ababa and other cities in December of 2018. Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda are also implementing similar events as a way to enhance the wellbeing of their populations. The mayor of Tunis, and some other mayors in the Francophonie, have visited Kigali and even participated in the events themselves, with the goal of implementing it in their cities.
What started as a solution to a lack of facilities for physical activity in Kigali, has become a major public health initiative. As the desire of residents to get more active has increased, this interest in physical activity and the country’s growing economy are elevating the value that Rwandans place on sports. There are new stadiums under construction, as well as construction of the new10,000-seat multi-purpose Kigali Arena.
Earlier in 2019, as Rwanda remembered the lives of those killed during the genocide, the country did something that too many countries do not have the courage to do. Collectively, they took an earnest look back at their worst moment and vowed to never let it happen again. Two decades of Gacaca court justice and communal discussions have done a lot to bring Rwandans together, although no society is without its issues. Collectively, they are moving forward as a country and developing in ways that might have seemed impossible to some 25 years ago. With events like car-free days and Umuganda, Kigali is showing the world the value of focusing on the wellbeing of citizens. Rwanda is a country that is conscious of its past, but enthusiastic about its future. For the increasing number of foreign investors, a burgeoning entrepreneurial class, and the millions of visitors to the country, that is the narrative that matters.
Words Phil Roberts