Archive | March, 2012

Rwandans debate abortion. Where are the voives of the women

27 Mar

Abortion is an emotive issue anywhere in the world. Few discussions about abortion are ever moderate. They often draw the most extreme, passionate, distorted and even unreasoned views. And so it has been in Rwanda in the last few days.

The debate here has been fuelled by two things. First, is government’s intention to amend the law on abortion. This has been interpreted (erroneously as it turns out) to mean that government intends to legalise abortion. It is this misinterpretation of intention that has excited passions.

Now, Rwanda has some of the most enlightened economic and social legislation. But it has not yet got anywhere near legalising some of the more controversial and divisive issues like abortion. In some instances, it has tended to decriminalise them, while in others, it has sought to reduce sentences and allow for extenuating circumstances.

In the present debate, the latter seems to have been the intention. The amendment to the law seeks to reduce sentence given to offenders. As Mr Tharcisse Karugarama, the minister of justice, said in a BBC Kinyarwanda programme, Imvo ni Imvano on 24th March this year, offenders should be helped to heal instead of being heavily punished.

Second, was the publication of figures of cases of abortion in Rwanda. It was reported that 60,000 abortions take place in the country every year. Most of these are unsafe, with 40% leading to complications that require treatment.

The number of abortions is probably higher than this because most of them go unreported. We do not even know how many die or whose reproductive capacity is irreparably damaged.

This is the context of the current debate. Most of what I have seen has been wrong. For instance, in all the public discussions, nearly all participants have been men – usually, old men. Most of the men have been religious leaders. You cannot expect a balanced view from this limited and group with strongly-held views on the topic.

First of all abortion directly affects women. They are the ones who make the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy or not. It’s their lives that are in danger. And they cannot be said to be less concerned about their pregnancy than the men who pontificate about the sanctity of life from the emotional safety of the pulpit or office. Where are the women?  They are markedly absent from the debate. Their views on the subject or reasons that compel them to acts of desperation have not been heard.

Also, where are the voices of young people, who are likely to be entangled in the whole question?

 I think it is a waste of time to talk about an issue and seek to prescribe measures regarding it when those directly affected are excluded from the conversation.

Secondly, the views of the men who are brought to discuss abortion are so well known there is nothing new to learn from them. They cannot be expected to offer any other solutions. All men of the cloth, of whatever faith, are vehemently opposed to abortion. They will not even listen to circumstances where terminating a pregnancy may be the only way to save a life or the sanity of an individual. Can they feel the anguish of a mother taking such a drastic decision? Can they feel the pain – physical and psychological – that may have accompanied conception and continue to dog the woman? They can only take refuge from the real world behind a veneer of smug piety and condemn what they have never felt or are indeed incapable of feeling.

I heard someone from civil society condemn abortion in stronger terms than the bishops did. It was easy to tell where his organisation gets its funding from.

But we have to consider this question. Why do abortions continue to take place despite the legal, moral and religious injunctions? Clearly, there are serious issues to look into, and sanctimonious posturing simply won’t do. The debate should address these issues.

Also consider this. Some of the good men of the cloth are responsible for some unwanted pregnancies. And when the poor girl or woman tells the man of God about the pregnancy, he will either deny it or threaten her with divine retribution for daring to slander the servant of the Most High. He will then proceed to denounce loudly the immorality in our society. He will cry and lament the level of moral decadence.

Think about this as well. How many of the obviously well-to-do men discussing this subject have come up to offer help to starving or traumatised children and mothers – victims of rape, incest, coercion by those who have authority over them or some other form of abuse?

We cannot solve the complex question of abortion through hypocrisy, posturing or pious statements about the sanctity of life because this amounts to hiding our heads in the sand.

The debate is healthy, if it takes the right direction. And obviously it is a complex problem as there are serious ethical and legal issues to weigh. But the debate must not be stilted or left to a bunch of old men to determine. Let those who are most affected have their say.

In Rwanda, it’s not all work – there is play, too

19 Mar

The Rwandan State has an enviable reputation. It functions efficiently, delivers public goods to its citizens and generally registers pluses in whatever it does. Smart, confident and intelligent young people (there is a sprinkling of 50 plus among them) run it. This corps of highly capable and motivated people have all the country’s programmes with all the facts and figures and different scenarios at their fingertips and tips of their tongues, depending on the circumstances.

They have the singular ability to cut through complicated policy issues with the assurance and expertise of a surgeon, and in the twinkling of an eye, come up with the most workable and suitable option. Knowledge oozes from every pore of their skin. It is hardly surprising since Rwanda has elected to be a knowledge-based and driven economy in the shortest time possible.

This is no exaggeration or wishful thinking. It is what is behind the Rwandan miracle – quick recovery from ruin, followed by equally rapid growth, all in a little over a decade and a half.

Of course, there are areas like service delivery where we are still falling short. The legendary efficiency has not yet been brought to bear on the remaining brakes to faster development. But when it does, which is sooner rather than later, the sloppy, indifferent and sluggish delivery of services will be history.

You may be tempted to think that Rwandan officials are an army of smart robots dismantling a backward system and quickly assembling a more sophisticated social and economic structure in its place. Or whizkids with their noses in books or cyberspace, smelling out the smartest ideas. Or even bored bureaucrats buried in some brain-numbing routine.

They are no automatons or super beings. As I found out at the recent national leadership retreat, they are actually ordinary humans – playful and funny and incredibly creative. They are good and at home with comedy as they are with policy issues.

Picture this. The head of Rwanda’s high court discards his judicial robes for a clown’s gown and becomes the country’s chief comedian. He changes from the forbidding judge who intimidates counsel and litigants that appear before him alike to a joking, entertaining man. Or a renowned academic and the country’s top governance expert comes down from the lectern to become the former’s main accomplice. Unlikely but true.

The duo, in an act to rival any professional stand-up comedians, treated everyone to a hilarious performance that left many aching ribs. Even the usually restrained (at least in public) President Paul Kagame had such a hearty laugh that must have left its mark of pain.

No one escaped the quick wit and sharp barbs of the two-man comedy act. Not even the president of the republic – the most famous unpaid switchboard operator in the country’s history.

And the president had set the tone for the hilarious ending of the most relaxed retreat ever. He had earlier humorously, but correctly, prescribed electricity as a potent family planning device.

Laughter, too, had been prescribed by the minister of health as a pleasant and cost-free life-prolonging exercise. And if her prescription has any effect, those who attended the closing of the retreat should have another five years added to their lives, judging from the amount and duration of laughter.

Nothing that took place during the retreat had escaped the sharp eye of the part-time comedians. Whether it was a ministerial shuffle (dance?) in time to the rhythm of mchaka mchaka or a semi-scientific debate on the merits (and dangers) of Coca cola and bananas – they heard and saw it all.  Which can only mean one thing – they had been attentive and had taken in all the discussions. If this was a measure of the general attention of all participants, we can rest assured that they got it all and will implement whatever was decided, and the miracle will get bigger.

The stand-in comedians waded into English lexicon and popularised an otherwise unfashionable word, in the process stretching its usage beyond its limited range.  The word issue has become so versatile it turns everything within range into an issue.

The young people, also known as the dot com did their thing as they only can do it. They provided entertainment by way of song and dance, which was expected. After all, as they revealed, they practice every weekend. Perhaps less so was the self-deprecating candour about how they juggle their weekend escapades with work – which apparently they do expertly.

The women, not to be outdone, put on a drama of some quality. So did the district mayors.

So, Rwandans have other talents that help them to maintain a balance between the demands of rapid economic and social transformation of their country and the ability to stand back and enjoy what they are creating. The balance, in the right proportions, is obviously needed for the Rwandan miracle to continue.

And as a character in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times said in a nice, lisping way, “people cannot alwayth be aworking. They mutht also be amuthed”. Rwandans have certainly found a way of doing both and gaining capital out of the experience.

Rwandan media growing in quality

19 Mar

There is no doubt that the media in Rwanda is growing in numbers, speed and quality. In the last few months we have seen the birth of new publications like The Chronicles and Igihe that provide readers with a choice of what to read. KFM radio, from the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group, has entered the already crowded but popular FM radio scene. Obviously there is always room for one more. And already this new entrant is drawing a huge number of listeners.

These developments follow reforms in the media law such as the recently passed freedom of information act and robust national debate on such things as defamation and removing regulation of the media from the Media High Council and giving the function to the media.

The journalists’ association also changed leaders through one of the most peaceful elections.

All these should have caught the public imagination and made the media scene in Rwanda very exciting. But they have not. There are several reasons for this.

First, like most things in Rwanda, growth, even if it is phenomenal, is done without much fuss. The Rwandan way is to get things done without any fanfare. In the modern Rwanda, there is no place for boasting. Well, except for a few of us who have taken it upon ourselves to do the bragging on behalf of the real actors.

Second, the recent developments have disarmed (one would hope, disabled) the dishonest (and dishonourable) critics who constantly portray Rwanda as an enemy of free media. Now they cannot find fault with the law or the general environment within which the media operates. They cannot complain that the state controls the media when it is clearly disengaging from regulation. The new publications and radio station are also privately-owned. But they also offer sober, balanced and objective reporting.

And so because they are not rabidly anti-President Paul Kagame, sensational or the sort that throw mud at everything the government does, they have not been received with open arms (but actually ignored) by the so-called watchdogs of media freedom.

Current developments in the media are typical of its history in Rwanda. The earliest media in this country, except radio, was independently owned. The oldest newspaper – Kinyamateka – was started and is still owned by the Catholic Church. One might argue, and with justification, that for long periods of the country’s history, the interests of both so converged that they were practically inseparable.

That may have been so. Still, the paper can be said to have been independent.

But that is as far as the independence, or indeed, existence of any media went. In the colonial and post-colonial periods, Rwanda lacked a vibrant, vigorous and independent media. Surprisingly (perhaps really not so) there were no adverse criticism of this state of affairs from the guardian (better to say impostor) angels of press freedom – Reporters without Borders, Freedom House and kin. Which calls into question their motives or sanity.

The staid, unremarkable media climate in Rwanda was broken by the shrill, hate-filled and unashamedly partisan publications of the early 1990s. Following the birth of multi-party politics, political pamphlets and propaganda sheets were passed off as genuine journalism. Hate mongers, rabble-rousers and back alley bullies using abusive and inflammatory language were celebrated as fearless fighters in the war for freedom of expression – not only by their local handlers, but also by their foreign puppet masters.

Understandably there was never any condemnation from the angels (another word would be better, but I was taught to be charitable even to those who do me wrong) from Paris and New York for whom destruction equals freedom, especially when it happen in such places as Rwanda. Actually the angels who possess a perverse sense of mirth, cheered them on to greater frenzy of viciousness.

A semblance of open journalism may be said to have started after 1994. But even this developed in a skewed manner – for obvious reasons.

There was a lack of tradition of responsible journalism to follow. It was a situation of anything goes. And so, houseboys turned into editors overnight (that’s what the Exposer says) as did other people with severe language and intellectual deficiencies.

Obviously, it was too much to expect such people, propelled out of their depth into unfamiliar space, to tell the difference between fact and rumour, abuse and fearlessness, or fair comment and defamation.

But they were loudly touted as frontline fighters for freedom of expression. Egged on by their sponsors, they outdid themselves, like a faithful dog in pleasing the master, and committed more outrage. Eventually when tail wagging and barking at the sound of the master’s voice was no longer enough to earn praise and bread, they went to sit at his feet to get a more appreciative pat on the head and more food in the bowl.

Now this is changing. There is real movement in the development of the media which leaves no room for other people’s poodles here. Everyone, especially the watchdogs, should be happy. But no, they won’t. We are building, not destroying, and that’s bad for them. So the best they can do is choosing not to see.

But the choice to see or not to see is not the question. The question is that there is something to see. And it is a fact and pleasing. That’s all that matters.