Archive | July, 2011

The scramble for Africa continues. Shall we lose out again?

26 Jul

In 1884-5 the Berlin Conference formalised the partition of Africa among European nations following an intense scramble for the continent. More than a century and a quarter later, the scramble still goes on with the same intensity.

And the motives have remained largely the same. In the nineteenth century, the reasons for the often savage and brutal scramble for Africa were essentially these: Africa was seen as a source of (at the time free) raw materials for European industries, a market for manufactured products from the same industries and a market for jobs for Europeans.

Today the same motives still obtain.

Similarly, the methods for acquiring territory or influence, raw materials or markets have not changed either.

In the days of the Berlin Conference all these were got for a few colourful; beads or a bottle of whiskey. Where Africans proved stubborn and unwilling to give away their land for useless trinkets, they were bludgeoned into submission and their assets forcibly taken.

We saw this played out, with slight variations, in the post-colonial period in Africa. The beads were replaced by other, more expensive, toys that kept some of the puerile leaders happy as resources of their countries freely taken. In other cases, the mighty and powerful in the developed world played on the bloated egos of the over-grown boys in power in Africa. They convinced them that they were their equal and friends. Pleased, the big boys joined in or turned a blind eye to the plunder of their countries’ resources.

Of course, just as there had been people who had earlier resisted the takeover of their territory, there were leaders who refused to be distracted by toys and flattery. Like in previous times, they were hit on the head for being naughty. Often the stick with which they were hit was aid.

The immediate post-colonial period was intensely ideological and many countries were caught in an ideological conflict between socialism and capitalism. Many became victims of sticking to ideological purity or blindly applying ideology-based models of development designed elsewhere. Or where they developed their own development strategies, they sometimes suffered from ideologically-motivated sabotage if they did not follow a particular model.

In the twenty-first century, there is another excuse to escalate the scramble for African resources. It is China. British Prime Minister David Cameron was candid about this during last week’s visit to South Africa and Nigeria. He said that they had to keep up with China in Africa.

This also is not new. In the nineteenth century the reason for intensifying the scramble was to keep up (or away) with France, Germany, Portugal, Britain as the case might be. Today it is China that is accused of hotting up the scramble for Africa’s resources.

Will Africa’s response to today’s scramble be the same as in the past? I think there is reason to be optimistic.

Over the last fifty years, Africans have learnt their lesson and want to succeed where their predecessors failed.

There are those which have learnt that being pragmatic is the way to go. They are not concerned about ideological correctness or niceties. In any case, we are living in a period where opposing ideologies no longer plays a crucial role in decisions countries have to make. As a result politicians are not mired in ideological debate or conflict. It is only that which works best for them that counts.

Rwanda falls in this category.

Increasingly, what works best means doing business, not depending on aid or debt relief as Prime Minister Cameron noted. For them also, meaningful trade means larger markets, which in turn means regional economic integration.

Rwanda and like-minded countries are not alone in seeing the advantages of larger markets and freer trade. David Cameron’s visit was about the same thing. He said he had come to promote African Free Trade Area and had figures to back it. “An African Free Trade Area could increase GDP across the continent by $62 billion a year. That’s $20 billion more than the world gives Sub-Saharan Africa” he said.

That is probably true. Africa certainly stands to gain from removal of trade barriers and increased intra-African trade. It is also true that Britain would immensely benefit from the Free Trade Area. No guessing why Davis Cameron came, not with politicians, but a group of business executives from Britain’s blue chip companies, private equity and SMEs. It was primarily to promote British business.

Again, countries that want to succeed in the renewed scramble are those prepared to draw lessons about models that have worked elsewhere. For instance, Rwanda’s admiration for Singapore’s development is well-known.

In Rwanda’s particular case, governance and development initiatives have been drawn from the country’s history. Today, for instance, Provincial Governors will present their development targets (imihigo) for the next twelve months to the nation. For the last five years this model of setting and evaluating targets, and being held accountable has worked very well for Rwanda.

So, is the continuing scramble for African resources still a threat? Certainly. But it can also be turned to advantage. The pragmatic, the innovative and those who know what is best for them and are willing to adapt should not be unduly worried. As long as they are resources others need, the scramble will be there. It only has to be managed.


Young Rwandans spur literary revival

19 Jul

Professor Taban Lo Liyong, the South Sudanese writer and academic, lamented many years ago that East Africa (to which Rwanda now belongs) was a literary desert. Since he made the provocative remark, there have been many attempts to prove him wrong. Perhaps that was his intention in the first place – to get people sufficiently angry to irrigate the region with their anger.

And indeed great literature has since come out of East Africa, admittedly not in the same prodigious quantity as in West Africa. But then West Africans always seem to do things – good and bad – in excess.

Lo Liyong made his famous lament half a century ago. But it remains partly true for Rwanda – not so much a cultural barrenness as an unwillingness to cultivate the artistic landscape. Think of all the landmarks that speak of the culture and history of a place – cultural centre, national theatre, cinema, art gallery or historical monuments. They are remarkably absent in Rwanda. It would appear we are a people without culture or history.

Yet everyone knows that we have a rich cultural heritage. The absence of the places for its expression and symbols of its existence roughly coincide with the time Taban Lo Liyong made his lament – the immediate post-colonial period. Which is a strong indictment against managers of the post-colonial state in Rwanda. They were a bunch of philistines.

Now two young Rwandans and their friends want to fill this apparent cultural void created by people with a Neanderthal mentality. Ms Betty Tushabe, a lawyer specialising in corporate and financial services law and Ms Diana Mpyisi, a communications and creative writing expert, recently came up with a novel idea of holding a weekly recitation and performance of poetry and other spoken art forms at which people can enjoy the spoken word.

Now Rwandans love the spoken word. It comes as no surprise that Tushabe and Mpyisi should start their project, dubbed Spokenword – Rwanda, with the most oral of literary genres – poetry.

Spokenword-Rwanda takes place in a delightfully informal and relaxed setting. Every Wednesday from eight to nine in the evening, poetry enthusiasts meet at Club Shooters in Kacyiru and listen to recitations and performances in the cosy atmosphere of the club.

And here is the special attraction. The crowd at Shooters is not your usual literary sort filled with a sense of their own self-importance who meet to read and criticise (often savagely) one another’s creations. They are ordinary folk, not necessarily schooled in the craft of poetry, but who are brought together by the love of listening to the music of the spoken word.

Judging from the debut performance last Wednesday, there is enormous talent in Rwanda – both poetic and dramatic. Equally evident was the existence of an audience that has been starved of such literary entertainment.

That is part of the aim of the pair behind Spokenword- Rwanda. They say they want to bring out the talent that obviously exists but remains largely out of view.

They also have a more ambitious aim – to contribute to the reawakening of literary and cultural life in Rwanda. This is not to suggest that there is no cultural life in Rwanda. There is and there is creativity, but it is often occasional or event-specific.

And so experience of a cultural activity is always not voluntary. You experience it because you are at an event, invariably a wedding or some national celebration. At either occasion, a cultural dance troupe will be brought out to repeat the same song and dance they have performed countless times before they can actually do it in their sleep. A fellow with an obvious creative talent will be commissioned to compose and recite a poem to mark the occasion. The poem will, of course, be promptly forgotten. At national events, a quaint regional accent used to be hugely popular. That is no longer in vogue. Maybe we have become aware of regional sensitivities or grown tired of the same lilting tone.

It is different with Spokenword-Rwanda. You enjoy it by choice. You enjoy the performance because you want to be there. You go there voluntarily in search of pleasurable literary experience.

There is another reason for starting Spokenword-Rwanda, according to Betty Tushabe and Diana Mpyisi. We need to know that there is life away from ICT, that in addition to math and engineering, you need a little poetry, too. Literary creativity must also have its place in the sun. Also, we are in danger of turning into creatures that communicate in sms or twitter language. Before long we might start speaking in grunts like pigs.

Here is therefore another frontline to save human communication, especially the creative part, from extinction. You may argue that there is a sort of creativity in chopping up words and crafting unspeakable abbreviations. But this is rather destructive and in any case meant for visual purposes.

The emergence of Spokenword-Rwanda must be pleasing to our policy makers. It is evidence that their policies are working, that Rwandans are enjoying some measure of affluence. When people begin to show taste for the finer arts, that is a sign that they have gone beyond the mere satisfaction of physical needs and want more spiritual fulfilment.

Is it time to talk about a cultural renaissance? Perhaps.

Marriage is a thriving business

12 Jul

In most of the world, especially the developed parts, marriage as an institution is under siege and continues to decline. It has become a subject of intense discussion among academics, religious leaders and social commentators. Statistics show that in the United States first marriages have plunged fifty per cent in the last forty years. Comparable figures obtain in other developed countries.

In developing countries, on the other hand, marriage is alive and well and growing. In fact in Rwanda, it is a thriving business – literally.

It used to be that every Saturday you were likely to trip on a newly-wed couple and their entourage in the streets of Kigali. That largely remains so, but changes are beginning to occur. You are now equally likely to bump into a marriage procession on Sunday or Friday. Such has been the competition for the most sought-after venues that many of them are booked more than three months in advance, forcing couples to shift their weddings to other days of the week.

Whatever else you may say about the increasing rate of marriage in Rwanda– and I am sure there are many views – you must admit that it is good business. Over the last two decades it has spawned a huge industry with many linkages in which large profits have been made from minimal investment.

Let us start with the venue for the reception party that is often hired for upwards of five hundred thousand francs for a two-hour celebration. It started as a simple hall at a church, school or social centre. Then it spread to banquet halls of some of the plush hotels. Finally enterprising people built their own halls for wedding receptions.

Venues for marriage celebrations have since diversified. Anyone who could get a sizeable patch of land and pitch a tent on it got in on the act. But that can sometimes be too closed and stifling.

Something had to be done for those who love the open air. Those with the nose for business got a similar patch of land, fenced it off and turned it into an attractive garden that hosts wedding parties and other outdoor entertainment.

There are venues to suit every pocket – from upscale areas accessible only if you have private means of transport to roadside halls that can be reached by public transport.

The venue is just one. There are other related services that are all too eager to cash in on the itch to get hitched. Nearly all people still think that a marriage is not such without a church ceremony – never mind that most couples were last in the hallowed place when they were getting baptised. I have seen priests embarrassed at the inability of the couple exchanging vows and those accompanying them to church (like they would to any swearing ceremony) to follow the rituals of the mass.

Now, the church charges a fee for indulging the couple’s love for a worthy public spectacle. So does the choir that serenades them – and the florist and decorators at the church.

Then there are the many bridal parlours dotted all across town whose business is to make the bride appear like a doll at a huge cost. These are matched by sops that seem to sprout at every corner to rent wedding-related things like traditional attire, items of Rwandan decor and modern things like plastic chairs.

No wedding celebration would be complete without a cultural dance troupe to lend traditional colour to the event. There are so many of these that, in a bid to make each unique and more marketable, they try to outdo one another in innovation and adaptation that often results in a distortion of the genuine traditional Rwandan dance. And for this they are paid handsomely.

Perhaps one of the most innovative and enterprising creations of the modern marriage ceremony has been the emergence of a new professional group of paid MCs and praise singers. Those with a gift of the garb are now guaranteed a weekly – may soon become daily – income as masters of ceremony. The more poetically creative can be assured of a big package from singing praises to unseen cattle – well, envelopes are not exactly invisible, but what they contain is.

For cultural enthusiasts, this must be something to cheer. Here is an attempt to preserve some of the Rwandan poetic and rhetorical traditions, albeit for selfish reasons.

Do not ask me if all these groups and individuals pay taxes on the professional fees they charge.

Of course there are other businesses that make big profits from weddings and pay taxes – Bralirwa, for instance, and the hotels and restaurants with outside catering services.

Where does all this leave our obvious need to limit our population? With the average marriage age of between 20 and 24 years for women and 25 and 29 for men, the more pessimistic might see a Malthusian nightmare ahead. The more hopeful might count on the post-marriage reality setting in to counter the euphoria of the event and advise a more realistic course – like not exceeding three children.

In the meantime, marriage remains a thriving business.