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.

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