25th February 2011
…..And shames the naysayers!
When I returned from exile in August 1994, Kigali streets were chocking on heaps of garbage, piles of rotting corpses and hordes of homeless street urchins. The central Kigali market of Nyarugenge was a no-go area, what with the mountains of rubbish, chocking stench and violent, practically-nude young ruffians.
The market seemed to be in the vicious stranglehold of these rogues, who roamed the city freely carrying all sorts of torture implements, as they sniffed glue and smoked unknown substances. I remember one such hooligan attempting to rape a smartly dressed lady in the market square, to the horror of the women present. It took some brave men to stop the brute and haul him to police.
By the time the new government came round to bringing order in the city, all activities in the market had almost ceased and hardly anybody dared venture there. When you see a clean and orderly Kigali sans delinquents, remember that it has come a long, long way.
I was prompted to remember the state of Kigali those days by a news item in ‘The New Times’ of last Wednesday, February 23rd. Its title was ‘Iwawa students to graduate’ and it quoted the Minister of Youth saying the former street children enrolled at Iwawa Rehabilitation and Development Skills Centre were set to graduate this April.
The centre was built to cater for these street kids who otherwise faced a future of petty and grave crimes and, subsequently, imprisonment, in turns. It offers a rich variety of vocational courses in entrepreneurship, masonry, carpentry, brick-laying, plumbing, commercial farming, bee-keeping, civic education, counselling, hygiene, Kiswahili, French, English and the list goes on.
The centre today has 115 trainees, all of them male. A female wing that will accommodate former street girls and female drug addicts will open in six months. The trainees range from ages 18 to 35 years. Street kids bellow the age of 18 are put in 8 Street Children Centres that are spread across the country….
All very well, but search the name ‘Iwawa’ in Google and see what pops up. It will not be this innovative centre and its happy occupants in gleaming uniforms. No, the internet will scream: “Iwawa Island – Prison Camp”, “Children held on Iwawa”, “Iwawa, the island of shame”, et al. It all arose out of an article that Mr. Geoffrey Gettleman wrote for ‘The New Times’ early last year.
In the article, “Rwanda Pursues Dissenters and the Homeless”, Gettleman hardly talked about the island but made sure to include a few words that expressed alarm at the situation of “underage children” held in an “Alcatraz”. He took glossy photos of the young men in uniform so that, to those unfamiliar with school uniform, it would look like prison uniform.
The rest of the article was the usual rambling of “no political space”, “autocratic leadership” and whatever it is they like conjuring up every after a period of lull. Still, Gettleman had got what he wanted and all the major and minor news-outlets seized upon it and churned out different versions of the “scoop”, quoting him as an authority on the “ruthlessness” of “the tiny central African country that had only just been engulfed in a horrendous genocide”.
Is he likely to come and witness the graduation ceremony of his “Gasigwa Gakunzi”, the “underage prisoner” who gave him a message that he never delivered to his “anxious parents”? But fool me, there is no scoop or fame to milk out of seeing happy faces that are clutching certificates, even if they are precious papers testifying to skills acquired – skills that will open doors to employment opportunities anywhere on the face of this globe.
No doubt, the story of homeless street children has been erased in all the towns of Rwanda and the Gettlemans (-men?) of the West have to look elsewhere for a scoop and a name. Talking of which, how come ‘Nyakatsi’ passed him by? ‘Nyakatsi’, meaning grass-thatched houses, in this case refers to ‘Bye Bye Nyakatsi’, the programme that aims at getting rid of ‘grass-thatches’ and settling poor families in more habitable dwellings.
The ridiculous stories manufactured on Rwanda are unrivalled in any other country on this unfortunate continent. Imagine, someone even tried to explain that programme off as a government ruse to dispossess poor Rwandans of their habitation and leave them at the mercy of the elements. The UN was so alarmed as to hastily dispatch an ‘ethnic minority expert’ to handle the crisis!
The praises she took back to her UN home must have confounded her colleagues because they’ve not said a thing to this moment. She did not only find the poor of Rwanda being helped to live in better conditions but also a country so advanced in unity and reconciliation that she wondered what all the fuss had been about.
All of which goes to show you that only Rwandans can understand their story and express it correctly. They alone are involved in writing it.
And they are anxious to write a story worth telling.