bbc.co.uk Navigation

Rory Cellan-Jones

Hope out of Africa

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 21 Sep 09, 08:40 GMT

I've spent the last few days in Rwanda - and I'm still trying to make sense of what I've seen. So here are a few snapshots.
Terraced fields in Rwanda
Driving through some of the most beautiful landscapes you'll find anywhere - lush, rolling hills, with terraced fields and farmers bending to tend their crops with ancient tools, rather as if we'd been transported back to 16th Century Tuscany.

A child carrying a heavy load of wood on his head down a dusty red road while behind him a luxury coach packed with spanking new laptops draws up to give a taste of the internet to a village which doesn't even have electricity.

The village choir gathering to practice a few yards away, a woman with a drum beating out a rhythm while the rest make a beautiful sound.

Peering down a manhole in the centre of Kigali to see the fibre-optic cable network which now stretches right across this country- while a crowd gathers and a man tries to interest me in one of the hard-boiled eggs he is selling.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

A dusty schoolyard with children kicking a ball around - then inside to a classroom where each of the pupils is brandishing a small green and white laptop, and most are calling out to the teacher desperate to be the first to answer his question.

And finally, in the Kigali Memorial Centre, photos of children, with captions detailing their favourite foods and pastimes - and then details of exactly how they were murdered.

It's just 15 years since the genocide that left a million people dead and tore apart the fabric of Rwanda's society and economy. While the shadow of those terrible events still looms over this country, what's remarkable is how far it has come and how ambitious it is to go a lot further.

Kigali memorial listing victims' namesWe saw what appeared to be a steely determination on the part of President Paul Kagame's administration to use technology to transform an agrarian economy into one based on the knowledge industries - in other words to move from the 18th century to the 21st century in a couple of decades.

So there's a rush to build that fibre network, plus a mobile phone network that would be ahead of anything yet in use in Europe, but the real priority is to train young Rwandans - and the majority of the population is under 20 - to compete for the kind of jobs that are currently done in places like Bangalore or Shanghai. That means pushing through schemes like the One Laptop Per Child project, sending far more Rwandans to college - even switching the official language from French to English to convince outsourcing firms that this country may be a location for call centres.

There is a darker side to this ambition - an impatience with dissent, and a pretty rigid control from the top. But one Rwandan civil servant told me the country just didn't have time to hang around and debate everything:

"If you're one of the G7 countries you have time. When you're close to the bottom and you're impatient to get up the ladder, you can't wait for everyone to jump on board."

But the real hope lies in the aspirations of the young. Just about everyone we met in Rwanda was under 35 - including a whole new breed of young technocrats, many of whose families appear to have returned home after 1994 to help rebuild the country. Then there are the schoolchildren who've already started to benefit from the ICT program.

So a few examples of the kind of people who might lead this country to a better future:

People using computers on bus27-year-old Manzi Olivier, whose parents brought him home from Burundi in 1994, is now working on a mobile broadband project in Kigali after graduating from a South African university - he talked with engaging passion and optimism about his country's prospects; 17-year-old Alain climbed aboard the 'ICT bus' in the village - and was quickly checking his e-mail, logging on to Facebook and trying without much success to watch a Rihana video on YouTube; 13-year-old Pascaline from a poor district of Kigali, who had quickly become the best in the class at using her laptop and shyly told me that she wanted to become a doctor. And even the young man who haggled with me over the price of his masks and t-shirts at the craft market had put down a print-out of a computer course to sell his wares.

We all know how much bad news has come out of this continent over recent decades - and some of the worst emerged from Rwanda. There's no guarantee that a country which is still hugely dependent on foreign aid will achieve its ambition to become a high-tech knowledge economy. But let's hope that Rwanda can give us some good news from Africa.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    You have quite unintentionally painted an almost depressing picture, and not for the reasons you think.

    I work from home (thanks to modern technology which allows me to create an orchestra in my bedroom) and I get up once everyone else has used the shower and gone on their way. This morning, with a promise of a fine sunny day, I wandered through the house noting the blinking lights of various computers, TVs and other contraptions.

    These have now become the focus of life for many families; it is from where they conduct their friendships, their affairs, their business, their entertainment. Last night, I cooked on the barbecue. I have already put the garden furniture away because no one is using it, so I served by marinated spatchcock chicken, roasted potatoes, artichokes and salad in the kitchen. They were eaten down as fast as possible and then everyone vanished back to their computers and I sat in the kitchen alone and eventually went and logged onto mine.

    If Rwanda reaches its ambition, for how much longer will those children be kicking a ball around in the dust? For how long will families be working together to tend their farms? How long will that village choir be singing and women beat out the rhythm of their lives on a drum?

    Rwanda can gain much by being connected, but what will they lose in the process? What will be the cultural cost of this massive step into the 21st Century.

    In the west, we have already lost so much in the last 60 years or so. We know how much we have lost - some clever people have put it on a computer so we can read about it.

  • Comment number 2.

    "But the real hope lies in the aspirations of the young. Just about everyone we met in Rwanda was under 35 - including a whole new breed of young technocrats, many of whose families appear to have returned home after 1994 to help rebuild the country."

    That is interesting and quite significant. The people returning from the Diaspora are likely to have had relatively good education coupled with that vital Western experience. We saw how this trend did wonders for India and China.

    That said, I think your report, or indeed any report on Rwanda, would only be complete if there was a LOCAL reference point to which you would compare what you found today. The way I see it is that your current point of reference is your experience back home, the UK. That's understandable as this may well be your first trip to there.

    So, to be (more) fair and objective, perhaps you should consider a return visit in a year or two so that you could give us a good perspective on the change and direction things are or will be going.

  • Comment number 3.

    To "Gurubear",

    The Indians and the Chinese are very close to reaching their ambition of becoming better than you! while you sit there indulging in your self-importance. Take a look outside the window, the world is changing; you are now begging the Communist Chinese to bail you out.

    The Rwandans and Africans have their own ambitions too. Watch this space!

  • Comment number 4.

    MrFaulty wrote:

    To "Gurubear",

    The Indians and the Chinese are very close to reaching their ambition of becoming better than you! while you sit there indulging in your self-importance. Take a look outside the window, the world is changing; you are now begging the Communist Chinese to bail you out.

    ###

    What on earth are you talking about?????

    I write a post on how the internet may be taking away from older cultural traditions around the world, including in the UK, and you chose to insult me for it?

    I would ask for an apology as you obviously have completely misunderstood my post!

  • Comment number 5.

    I live in Rwanda and there are three key points that concern me about the emphasis govt. officials, journalists and analysts place in the importance of the Internet for the development of Rwanda.

    Firstly, cost. I keep hearing about how the price of Internet access will come down once the cable is connected, but I'll believe it when I see it. If and when prices do come down, how far will they come down? Will the market dictate the price, will the govt. step in to regulate prices much like they have done recently to freeze the cost of land? At the moment, a pretty slow, unreliable connection from Rwandatel - supposedly the best ISP in Rwanda - costs me 75,000Rwf or about US$133 per month. The installation fee is another 100,000Rwf

    https://www.rwandatel.rw/?ADSL-Pricing

    Even if prices are halved, this would still be an extremely expensive proposition for your average Rwandan. And then there's the electricity supply. We have powercuts every single day and much of rural Rwanda is still in the dark.

    Secondly, freedom of speech. You only have to listen to the voices on the recent World Have Your Say podcast from the Milles Collines hotel in Kigali earlier this week:

    https://worldhaveyoursay.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/todays-programme-venue/

    to hear a distinct difference between what Rwandans living in Rwanda are prepared to say and what those living overseas feel free to say. Self-censorhip is pretty big out here. Will blogs, twitter etc. take off and will Rwandans self-censor themselves online too? Or, will they feel free to express what they really think? And if they do, how tolerant will the govt. be of anything that doesn't toe a positive line in step with the 2020 vision - https://www.theeye.co.rw/vision_2020.php ?

    While this is not the most repressive of governments when it comes to the media and freedom of speech, there are still significant problems as noted by the Committee to Protect Journalists:

    https://www.cpj.org/2009/02/attacks-on-the-press-in-2008-rwanda.php

    Lastly, this switch from French to English is a big concern. There doesn't appear to have been much, if any, "phase in" period, let alone proper English training for teachers. And if teachers have to teach in English, but lack the ability to do so, how will this impact on the quality of education in the short to medium term?

    You can't doubt Rwanda's ambition to move forward and you have to take your hat of to them for what has been achieved since 1994. However, there is a sense that much of the ambition could result in a lot of castles in the sand if the basic core skills of the people - the "knowledge" in the knowledge based economy - is lacking. Beyond knowledge, if the massively ambitious 2020 vision fails on the infrastructure side, the Internet might prove to be a bit of a white elephant at least in those parts of the country without a reliable electricity supply, or any supply at all.

  • Comment number 6.

    "Gurubear",

    I did not intend to insult you and I do not believe that I have. My view is that the contradiction in your contribution was so stark, and in reference to the Rwandan people, bordering on insulting.

    On the one hand you praised technology for enabling you to work from home, while on the other you asked, "If Rwanda reaches its ambition, for how much longer will those children be kicking a ball around in the dust?"

    To me it sounded like you would rather the Rwandan people continued the hard life of fetching firewood on their heads or whatever, for so long as that maintained their sense of 'culture'. Meanwhile you have technology that enables you to enjoy a finer life.

    I do recognise the legitimate concern of gadgets taking over family life, however, your expression of shock at what would happen to Rwandans if they achieve their technology ambitions, is rather suspect. Hence my reaction. If you were genuine, you would simply offer your advice of how the Rwandans could avoid some of the pitfalls your society has had, as a result of technology taking over family lives.

    To "kigaliwire",

    I do share your concern over high broadband charges as well as lack of freedom of speech. It's a general concern right across Africa. However these are early days. Besides economies of scale are not yet in place in Rwanda to bring down broadband prices, compared to Europe.

    You need to keep in mind that, while your President may not be the most democratic, he's certainly been praised by the international community for actually attempting to use technology uplift his people out of poverty. In some other countries in Africa, no such programmes are in existence. That's the comparison.

    As an ICT analyst myself, I do think that new media such as blogs and all, which by their nature are difficult to clamp down on, will inevitably lead to more people expressing their free minds. And the more people get online, the better and faster that change will come! I strongly believe that ICT will enhance democracy in Africa.

  • Comment number 7.

    @gurubear

    I understand your concern but I hope my experiences in London will offer some reassurances. There are tennis courts very close to where I live. They are almost always busy, and while they get used by people of all ages, from children to the elderly, a very large number of the users are young adults - exactly the group who you might expect to be more interested in Facebook than in physical exercise. In the local park, the playground is always busy (barring very bad weather) and there's often a ball game or three going on. And I remember exactly the same concerns, that new technology would make us all into couch potatoes, when I was growing up and we wondered how we'd deal with a choice of three TV channels (I'm just fifty). So I don't expect to see Ruandan give up kicking a ball in the dust right now. Who knows, once one kid gets ten friends he can send text messages to, he'll get together a football team...

  • Comment number 8.

    MrFaulty, you really have seriously misunderstood my post.

    This is not about keeping Rwanda stuck as a third world country, it is about making sure than in their headlong rush to distance themselves from a terrible part in their history, they do not lose some of their own precious culture. Just because we dispose of our culture so easily, it does not mean that in selling them the technology that may (or may not) help their development, we make their society as equally shallow and throw-away.

    Kicking a football around in the dust is important.

    ####

    Martin50

    Yeah, I am probably being a bit cynical - but I am somewhat of a specialist in one regard in that I am both an advertising producer and work on an online game. I see the ridiculous amount of hours spent by people (young and old) on games, and I know how easy it is to persuade them to do it.

    If old idiots like me spend too much time, well, that is probably our look out - but when young people think that everything they will ever need to know can be gleaned from an LED screen, then I think we have a problem.

  • Comment number 9.

    "We saw what appeared to be a steely determination on the part of President Paul Kagame's administration to use technology to transform an agrarian economy into one based on the knowledge industries - in other words to move from the 18th century to the 21st century in a couple of decades."

    Call me cynical but isn't that so the workers can be exploited in the ICT industry, you know, call centres and all that...

    "8. At 00:20am on 22 Sep 2009, Gurubear wrote:

    This is not about keeping Rwanda stuck as a third world country, it is about making sure than in their headlong rush to distance themselves from a terrible part in their history, they do not lose some of their own precious culture. Just because we dispose of our culture so easily, it does not mean that in selling them the technology that may (or may not) help their development, we make their society as equally shallow and throw-away."

    I completely agree with your point here, we in the UK tend to act like Americans now, and the popularity of the internet has made that worse and as such we have lost a lot of what made us English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish etc.

    One would not wish the Africans to travel the same path, but in subscribing to the "the internet is essential" idea I fear they have already started to.

  • Comment number 10.

    Three cheers for Rwandans trying to take control of their own destiny, but they must be sure they are not just embracing new technology for the sake of it. There must be some clear and precise reason for choosing this path and they must be aware that there will be many pitfalls along the way as technology continues to change their investment may be shortlived.

  • Comment number 11.

    Kigaliwire’s skepticism is spot on as to whether most Rwandans will benefit, particularly the non-anglophone, non-politically connected, non-descendants of those who were in exile, who make up the enormous percentage of the population.

    I might also add that although technological and economic growth is certainly a good thing, there is no reason to assume that it will help Rwandans resolve some of the deeper issues. One needn’t go far to find an example.

    Here is an article that the Washington Post ran a few weeks before the election in Kenya last year, East Africa’s most developed and most tech-savvy country, under the title “Kenya Tests New Style of Politicking: Campaigns Reflect Effects of Technology, Increased Openness”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/21/AR2007122102136.html?sid=ST2007122102800

    Within a few weeks the WaPo’s hyperbole swung the other way, back to writing about “tribal rage” and “gruesome ethnic killings.” Clearly it isn’t possible to have development without technology, but there is a lot of other things that need to happen.

    And sadly “not waiting for everyone to get on the ladder” might make laying fiber optic cable easier, but it makes that approach makes reconciliation a whole lot harder.

  • Comment number 12.

    @Goldenbeans,

    That's the spirit! Encouragement and advice to those at the bottom of the pile who're actually doing something about their situation. It's sometimes too easy for those who have it all to be cynical.

    Technology is improving lives in 3rd world countries in more ways than one. Elderly villagers can now communicate quite easily via mobile phones with their beloved sons and daughters working in the cities. Some can even receive financial help via mobile banking applications such as the 'revolutionay' M-Pesa! We don't even have that in the UK. We've also heard real stories of doctors in theatre being assisted by specialists 1000s of miles away by SMS. Yes, the humble SMS has saved lives in Africa!!

    The least we should be worrying about is Rwandan household members texting each other in the same house for dinner...

  • Comment number 13.

    You are right as to state the facts as u have seen them, but let me remind you that you only a small sample……..

    Yes the connection in places is not worth calling it a connection because u may spend forever trying to get connected. However other places are connected and you can watch your youtube videos or Clickon on BBC.

    We are way behind if you compare us to the UK, but compare us to Rwanda 10years ago- or the countries in the region and you will see we are not hopeless.

    Rwanda knows where she wants to be and we are working to getting there….. as to our unrealistic goals- only time will tell- 15 years ago we were called a failed state- today we are among countries with the highest growth rates, let’s wait and see… God Bless Rwanda

  • Comment number 14.

    You are right as to state the facts as u have seen them, but let me remind you that you only a small sample……..

    Yes the connection in places is not worth calling it a connection because u may spend forever trying to get connected. However other places are connected and you can watch your youtube videos or Clickon on BBC.

    We are way behind if you compare us to the UK, but compare us to Rwanda 10years ago- or the countries in the region and you will see we are not hopeless.

    Rwanda knows where she wants to be and we are working to getting there….. as to our unrealistic goals- only time will tell- 15 years ago we were called a failed state- today we are among countries with the highest growth rates, let’s wait and see… God Bless Rwanda

 

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

BBC.co.uk