Friday, February 05, 2010

Rwanda=Africa Lite (For a reality check, visit Burundi)

I’ve devoted a lot of thought to this, and I have come to the conclusion that Rwanda is wholly unlike any other country in Africa. I say this out of nothing but pure love for Rwanda, but I have to admit that I am ruffled when people go to Rwanda and marvel at how “everything in Africa works,” or “everything in Africa is clean,” or “everywhere in Africa is safe.” No. Things in Rwanda work, streets in Rwanda are clean, and Rwanda is safe enough that you could walk naked down the street at 4 a.m. without a problem (although I wouldn’t advise it). These are all great things, but they are Rwanda-specific. It’s a great strategy. When a country is safe and things work, you’re more likely to attract investors and tourists. And that’s what has happened. So many Americans (in particular) have flocked to Rwanda that I refer to it as “Little America.”

There is probably no better way to illustrate this than to describe my recent experience at Bourbon Coffee in Washington, D.C. I have spent hours at Bourbon Coffee in Kigali, enjoying their coffee while choking on their Starbucks-like prices. When I heard that the Rwandese-American owner had opened a store on L Street (where a Starbucks used to be…go figure), I had to see it for myself.

It looked exactly like a Bourbon Coffee in Kigali. My chin was on the floor. I cautiously approached the register and ordered a black coffee—from the Kivu Region. My region. It was almost too much to bear. I told the barista.

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” she responded dully.

Really? A lot? I was surprised for a moment, but then realized that a) aid workers, students, missionaries, and others have been flocking to Rwanda, and b) all those same people would probably go out of their way to come to this one coffeeshop.

To return to this idea of Rwanda being Africa Lite, or as my coworker in Burundi called it—“Disneyland Africa”—it became clear to me during my summer in Burundi just how different Rwanda is from its sister country to the south.

Burundi, on its surface, is the same as Rwanda. The ethnic make-up is the same. The terrain is basically the same (mostly hilly, but Burundi doesn’t have volcanoes). Burundi’s population is a little smaller (about 7 million to Rwanda’s estimated 10 million+) but still ranks as one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Rwanda and Burundi even used to be the same country (Ruanda-Urundi), speak basically the same language, and have both known political turmoil since independence in 1962 (they share the same independence day from Belgium). In April 1994, both the Rwandan and Burundian presidents perished in a plane shot down over Kigali—the event viewed as the trigger for the Rwandan genocide.

There were massacres of Tutsi in Burundi in 1994, but not to the same degree. One critical difference was that the Burundian military was majority-Tutsi, which meant that the military could not be mobilized to kill Tutsi as it did in Rwanda. Another critical difference was that the Burundian population was more ethnically mixed. While there were certainly ethnic mixes in Rwanda, this occurred with greater frequency in Burundi. Divisive rhetoric is more effective when a population can be divided.

This is not to say that there was peace. Burundi’s short post-independence history is fraught with ethnic pogroms, coups d’etat, assassinations, rebel activity, and peace agreements. The rebel group Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL) finally agreed to lay down arms and became a political party in 2009; the disarmament process continues. Violence in Burundi since independence has cost an estimated 200,000 lives, but there is now peace.

What is interesting is how Rwanda and Burundi diverged in development. In 2006, before I left for Rwanda, people asked me where it was. “East Africa,” I would say. Now, when people ask me where Burundi is, I say, “south of Rwanda.” The attention of the world community is very different toward these two countries. Burundi, in many ways, is Rwanda minus 20 years of development. The roads are pretty rough-and-tumble. Industries are not very developed. The health care system is weak. The UN has a huge civilian presence there in the form of BINUB, the UN Mission to Burundi. Policemen pull over expatriates, expecting a bribe.

It’s sad to think that Rwanda has received so much attention because of the extent of the tragedy it suffered. It says a lot about the international community, and (sadly) what it takes to get noticed. To its credit, Rwanda has managed the “guilt aid” (my term for the money that the international community has collectively given because it feels guilty for doing so little for Rwanda during the genocide) it has received very well. Anti-corruption measures are largely effective, and the Rwandan government demands accountability from all donors and organizations on the ground. This has created a dream environment in which donors can work.

Flip the coin, and you have Burundi. The 200,000 dead from years of violence did not grab headlines. Some NGOs work there (with small staffs), but certainly not the panoply that dominate Rwanda, planting their logo signs across the countryside. In comparison, it was hard not to think that the international community had forgotten Burundi.

This made me think about the possible ripple effects. Could aid-drenched Rwanda have positive spillover into Burundi? I think it can, but it must start with the infrastructure that exists. Burundi has real potential for growth, especially in the tourism industry, among regional aid workers. While it doesn’t have the starpower that Rwanda’s gorillas carry, Burundi does have a stunning lake so large that it has tides, waves, and real sand. Bujumbura has a number of nice hotels, and luxury resorts are popping up along the length of the lake shore. Food is inexpensive and there are great choices. The nightlife is bustling. And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s also nice to have a reality check. For someone who has spent a lot of time in Rwanda, experiencing a moderately more gritty and more real country was refreshing. Aid workers (and students, missionaries, and others) in Rwanda would benefit from spending some time in Burundi. Not only would they be providing needed investment in the local economy, but they would get a reality check. It is also close—any easy drive or a cheap flight. Over time, money and capital flowing into the country from increased interest in the tourism industry could fuel investor confidence (we’ll also have to wait to see what happens with the elections later this year) and lead to increased development. It’s a small starting point, but an important one nevertheless. Burundi may not land on the East Africa Tourism Circuit anytime soon, but it could certainly benefit from the ripple effects of aid in Rwanda.