They came to Rwanda, saw and believed

15 Nov

It is amazing, nay shocking, the level of ignorance people have about other countries. They remain insular, disconnected and bigoted in a world that has been shrunk and is increasingly connected by modern technology. The irony is that almost everyone has a prejudiced view of the other.
Take this report from the Times of India of Sunday, 13th November 2011 in which the author wonders how poor African can look after their women better than India does. The incredulity is apparently a result of the image of Africa the Indian middle class harbour. It is one of starvation and voodoo.
Now, there is no denying that famine strikes in parts of Africa from time to time. But to take that as representative image of Africa is stretching it too far. As for voodoo, many Africans wouldn’t know what that is.
The Africa posting consistent economic growth rates of more than six percent annually, of gleaming high rise buildings, modern infrastructure and world-class leaders in a variety of fields is unknown to the readers of the Times of India. Or some choose not to know it.
In a similarly ignorant manner, the enduring image of India among many Africans is that of the self-immolation of unhappy wives, or girls jumping to their death because of a tiff with a boyfriend. Other lingering images are those popularised by Mother Theresa – of starving, homeless, dying people littering the narrow streets of Calcutta waiting to be taken in by the sisters to be fed or to die in compassionate arms.
The other India – of international steel moguls, cutting edge information technology centres and high finance – is often forgotten. That India is an emerging economy on the same level with China and threatening the dominance of traditional Western economies remains only in the minds of pundits, international economists and business people, and in development discourse.
Some of these obviously incorrect views are a result of wilful ignorance. Others are a product of genuine lack of knowledge or laziness. None is excusable.
Again, take the case of Rwanda. In the last seventeen years, the country has made tremendous advances. Yet there remains a stubborn refusal in some quarters to acknowledge that Rwanda has made progress. The image of Rwanda that lingers, often out of choice, is of a country irreparably torn apart by war and genocide.
The consistent economic growth backed by figures and attested to by reputable international organisations does not seem to count. Advances in education and health are not real. The physical evidence of development may well be non-existent. Above all, the common decency of Rwandans is actually no such. It can only be timidity imposed by an ever watchful state.
And so, all the good things Rwandans have done are dismissed as empty propaganda by the government or as the praise songs of those who have been seduced and fallen in love with Rwanda for unexplained reasons. Or else the progress is explained away as only possible because of massive infusions of foreign aid.
The reasons for dismissal boil down to a desire to wish away a fact because it does not fit into a preconceived picture of what a developing country should be.
It was therefore a wonderful break from this predictable and studied disbelief last week when there was genuine appreciation of Rwanda’s progress. Participants from across the world attending a conference on peace building in Kigali were bowled over by what they saw in the country. Clearly, it was different from what they had heard or imagined.
You may attribute the gasps of eyes newly opened to what was thought impossible to a long tradition of not believing until you have seen. It did not start with Thomas. But it did not end with him either. People must still see the scars and put their hands into the hole in the side in order to believe, figuratively speaking.
But seeing and feeling makes for complete conversion and turns one into an ardent disciple. Indians from the State of Kerala can testify to the ardour of St Thomas.
The most positive remarks about Rwanda being where it is came from a very unlikely source – donors, who are often critical of national policies and diplomats well-known for their careful, non-committal utterances. This time they reeled off a long list of positives – Rwanda has come this far because it has committed leaders, designs and owns its own development strategies, the people are accountable and they use aid effectively.
Rwandans are not in the habit of chest-thumping. But I am sure they did not mind other people doing it on their behalf and for once getting the world to look at Rwanda without blinkers.
At the end of the conference I heard Rwandans express differing views about Rwanda’s progress. Some did not notice it because they took it for granted. Others were excited that outsiders had seen it too and approved. One could detect in this latter group another tendency close to Thomas’ doubt. Sometimes people won’t believe in their own abilities until they get approval from outside. Lack of confidence is as bad as prejudice.

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