Rwanda: The Basics
- Rwanda is a very small, landlocked country (about the size of Maryland) located in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Rwanda straddles several important regions of Africa, and is variously considered to be a part of East Africa, Central Africa, the Great Lakes region, and the Great Rift Valley region.
- As you can see, in addition to being minuscule, Rwanda is also very close to the equator. However, Rwanda–known as “the land of a thousand hills”–is blessed by a high elevation (the lowest point is 3,117 feet above sea level), which gives it a surprisingly mild climate. Temperatures in Kigali average about 71 degrees (pretty ideal, in my opinion).
- Rwanda also happens to be the most densely populated country in Africa, with about 12 million people inside its tiny borders.
- Rwanda is a poor rural country, with about 90% of its people engaged in agriculture. Its major industries are coffee, tea, and tourism. The country’s major tourist attraction are its mountain gorillas in the northwest corner of Rwanda, made famous by the brilliant and eccentric primatologist Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist, anyone?).
- The local language is a Bantu language called Kinyarwanda which I will be attempting to learn. As a result of Rwanda’s Belgian colonial past, many people also speak French. In a mixed effort to both move closer to its Anglophone East African neighbors while moving away from colonial legacies (not to mention the role of the French during the genocide), the Rwandan government has recently replaced French with English as the language in schools. (As you might have already guessed, that’s where I come in.)
- Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, has been in power since 2000. Kagame achieved prominence as commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the highly disciplined rebel militia that is credited with ending the 1994 genocide. While some of Kagame’s policies and use of power have been somewhat controversial, he remains firmly committed to the country’s development and is determined that Rwanda continue on a course toward higher regional and international prominence.
Peace Corps in Rwanda
Peace Corps first began work in Rwanda in 1975 but, along with most other government agencies and development organizations, evacuated the country during the genocide. In 2009, upon the invitation of President Kagame, the Peace Corps returned, and now works in the areas of English education and public health. I will be part of the sixth group of Education volunteers since the Peace Corps returned. (For more information, here is an editorial written by Kagame featured in the Huffington Post)
Why I’m optimistic about Rwanda’s future, despite its harrowing past:
As you all probably know–it might have even been your first association with Rwanda–in 1994, Rwanda suffered an absolutely horrific genocide. Hutu extremists brutally massacred between 800,000-1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in just a three-month period.
“Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda… Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” -Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Though it has now been 20 years, the genocide’s aftershocks are still rippling through the country. Furthermore, Rwanda also faces additional challenges, including a lack of natural resources, low levels of human capital, human rights issues, etc. However, since the genocide, the country has made what can only be described as remarkable progress in a number of areas, in large part due to an influx of foreign aid and a determined and powerful leader. If you’ll allow me to get a little nerdy and technical, here are just a few of the reasons why I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be placed in Rwanda during such an exciting time in the country’s development:
- Rwanda’s economic growth rate between 2006 and 2012 averaged at 8.2% and rates of inflation, poverty and inequality have been steadily declining.
- In a region generally plagued with high levels of corruption, Rwanda is doing surprisingly well in its transparency efforts. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, Rwanda ranked 49th out of 177 countries, and 4th among African nations.
- The World Bank declared Rwanda one of the most improved countries for ease of doing business in 2013, and in the 2014 report, Rwanda is ranked 32nd out of all countries and 2nd in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Rwanda’s parliamentarians are 52% female, the highest proportion of female lawmakers in the world. Though this does not mean that gender relations are perfectly equal, it’s important for girls to have intelligent and capable women to look up to.
- Rwanda has ranked 1st among 48 African countries in its progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a series of ambitious development benchmarks set out by the United Nations.
- Rwanda has also designed its own plan for the future, Vision 2020, a detailed set of objectives to reduce dependency on foreign aid, transition to a knowledge-based economy, create a strong middle class, and foster entrepreneurship. Kagame has said that he hopes that Rwanda will emerge as the Singapore or Switzerland of Africa.