Prior to 1994, it would have been inconceivable to see the president of Rwanda accept a meeting with Rwandans who live outside the country, let alone organize a public gathering of his government and the diaspora. President Habyarimana was petrified of the diaspora, because he had deliberately kept thousands of Rwandans in political exile.
Thirty-seven years later, Rwandan refugees returned home. They returned to the country known as the land of a thousand hills. Rwanda was liberated by its sons and daughters, not by foreign forces. That’s why Rwandans will always be grateful for the Rwandan Patriotic Army.
The new leadership in Kigali took the opposite position. It invited Rwandans from the diaspora to work with the government; they helped facilitate knowledge transfer to Rwanda, opened doors for new investment, and continued to build trust and develop a relationship with Rwandans who live outside its borders. Even the skeptics who had fled to DRC and engaged is sporadic attacks to destabilize the country are slowly returning home, choosing to atone for their terrorist acts and resettle back in Rwanda.
The idea to organize Rwanda Day was the result of patriotism and the desire to share the story of Rwanda’s accomplishments with the outside world. It’s a unique opportunity to engage the diaspora in asking questions they have and the willingness to share the story of Rwanda’s achievements. Rwandans and friends of Rwanda form the hosting region, come to the event to celebrate and network. The Rwandan delegation is headed by the president; he brings with him cabinet ministers, artists, business and civil society representatives.
The long road to freedom
As political refugees, we endured hardship, untold obstacles and humiliation for being stateless, or wakimbizi. We adapted to each situation we faced and learned how to navigate it. Most people changed their identity, they worked hard to master local languages in order to fit in. They changed their names, they married into the local cultures, to deepen their roots and provide for their families.
In Burundi, Zaire, Uganda, we were tolerated, not fully accepted as citizens even though the countries where we lived were the only places we knew. In earlier days, President Nyerere of Tanzania welcomed Rwandan refugees with open arms; he gave them land and full citizenship. However, in 2013, xenophobia against Tutsis brought President Kikwete to strip their citizenship away and ordered all Tanzanians of Rwandan origin, or anyone who looked like a Tutsi, to go back to Rwanda. They did not speak a word of Kinyarwanda, nor did they know people in Rwanda. They were forbidden to take any property they had acquired while living in Tanzania. In Uganda, President Obote did the unthinkable. He returned refugees back to Rwanda, thus violating the 1951 Geneva Convention of non- refoulment: “… the protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution”.
The suffering we endured as stateless strengthened our character and love of country. We dreamed that someday, we will return to the country of our ancestors and never again become refugees. Several times, we tried and failed. Younger generations brought a new perspective to the struggle. At the same time, we implored the Kigali regime to find a lasting solution to the refugee problem. Kigali’s response was consistent:
“Rwanda is small and over populated. There is no room for you. Stay where you are.”
Refuges argued that the issue was not that Rwanda had the highest density in Africa, or that the land was too small and the population too large. They problem was the absence of land use planning and a long-term vision for the country’s development. As soon as it was safe to return, refugees began to make the trek back home. They traveled by buses, trucks, family vehicles, some even walked part way. That’s how they were excited to go back home.
Building a new society
The desire to build a new Rwanda after the horror of 1994 was the result of laborious observation and assessment of lessons learned in mistakes made by other African countries, post-independence. We took note of their shortcomings and vowed not to duplicate them. Rwandans from the diaspora went to work and made invaluable contribution.
In search for a model, we looked to the East and studied countries like South Korea and Singapore. Countries that had transformed their economies over a fifty-year span by leapfrogging mistakes made in industrialized countries. Rwandans adapted to a development model that was mindful of the importance balance between what we do in development, and how we protect the environment. The type of development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
From the beginning, Rwandans in the diaspora were encouraged to return home and contribute to Rwanda’s development. Some chose to repatriate and open businesses in the country, others took their time and continued to visit, see and learn. The majority were born in exile and had never set foot in Rwanda. They grew up hearing stories about Rwanda as the land of milk and honey. The nostalgia that was built over years as stateless in exile made Rwandans in the diaspora cherish their country. It is like children who are separated from their parents and are finally reunited. They cling to them, tightly and never want to let them go.
Culture saves lives
Unlike Canada where colonialism stripped First Nations of their languages and cultures, in Rwanda, the preservation of our culture became the impetus for our success and resilience. Maintaining our affinity with Kinyarwanda language was the glue that kept the diaspora together. From childhood, Rwandan refugees were immersed in their cultural tradition.
As a country, Rwanda never produced novelists, but its literature exudes with some of Africa’s best poets and playwrights. As children, we did not have television. Our history was taught through storytelling. We watched plays that told stories of a rich and proud people. We were immersed in traditional dancing and singing. The fact that Rwanda was less endowed with abundant natural resources in comparison to its giant neighbors; like Tanzania or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reminded us that the wealth of our country lied in the creativity of its people. Poverty taught us to do more with less. Along the way, we learned to turn challenges into opportunities. Refugees learned to be self-reliant and find solutions to their problems before they sought help from outside.
In the years leading to the formation of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, refugees created a political school, in Uganda. They wanted to ensure that every son and daughter who heeded the call to join the struggle for the liberation of their country, understood why they were fighting, and what victory looked like? Rebuilding a prosperous Rwanda called for discipline and long-term planning.
On April 7, 1994 the genocide perpetrated against the minority Tutsis erupted. Expatriates who lived in Rwanda left the country and refused to save Tutsis who had worked with them for years. Instead, they chose to rescue their cats and dogs, leaving vulnerable Tutsis to fend for themselves. At the UN, the five permanent members of the security council: US, UK, Russia, China and France turned a blind eye. Their lack of action allowed the slaughter to run its course. In 100 days more than a million people were killed because they were born Tutsis, or because they refused to buy into the ethnic cleansing ideology. At the end of June, the Rwandan Patriotic Front put an end to the genocide and liberated the country.
The victory of RPA in 1994 has created a new identity; national pride and the determination for self-reliance. In 1994, foreign aid to Rwanda made up 100% of our national budget. Today, we only use approximately 40%. The goal is to substantially reduce foreign aid and replace it with foreign trade. Twenty-five years ago, Rwanda was written-off as a failed state. Today, it has become a model that other African countries emulate. This achievement was done largely due to the contribution from the diaspora. Rwandans who become citizens of their adoptive countries are allowed to keep their citizenships, they are given new Rwandan identity cards and passports.
Size does not define us: We Think Big!
Rwanda is a small landlocked country, tacked between DRC to the West, Uganda to the North and Tanzania and Burundi to the East. We knew from the beginning that in order to reach our development goals, we had to punch above our weight. We decided to think big. Through Vision 2020, we aspired “to transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle-income country, thereby reducing poverty, health problems and making the nation united and democratic”.
In air travel, Rwanda Air now operates in more than 33 countries. Rwanda is building a modern airport that will bring more than 1.7 m travelers a year to Rwanda to attend conferences, visit and spend time in the region as a tourist. We attracted investors like Volkswagen to assemble cars in Rwanda. We turned methane gas from Lake Kivu into renewal energy. We continue to invest in capital projects, such as the construction of a railway link to the Indian ocean via the port of Dar-es-Salam, and continue to attract foreign investors who create jobs and raise the standard of living of Rwandans.
According to reports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2017, foreign remittances to Rwanda was a whopping $258 million dollars. This love of country and the thirst to contribute to Rwanda’s sustainable growth has led to the creation of events like Rwanda Day; a platform of national celebration that brings together the Government of Rwanda, business leaders, Rwandan artists to meet other Rwandans who live abroad.
This platform allows Rwandans who live abroad the opportunity to hear how their country is rebuilding and ask questions to President Paul Kagame.
Several mechanisms have been put in place to build the bridge between the diaspora and Rwandans inside the country. Come and See – Go and Tell, was launched to encourage Rwandans to remain informed about Rwanda’s progress. Upon their return to their home communities, they share what they have learned with local audiences.
 Wakimbizi: in Swahili it means refugees