Rwanda: the Canada of East Africa

Faith and I just returned from a week in our neighbour to the south, Rwanda. Based on the stories I’d heard about Rwanda — its low corruption, its cleanliness and orderliness, its prohibition of plastic bags! — I half-expected that as our bus rolled up to the border, the dusty, pot-holed roads of Uganda would give way to smooth, white-lined roads on the Rwanda side.

In fact, there were still some rough stretches of road once we were in Rwanda, which led me to the the following SAT analogy: US:Canada::Uganda:Rwanda. You don’t see the differences between the two the moment you cross the border (except of course, for the flags), but if you go far enough into either country, the differences become clear (Also, there are signs in both French and English [and a pleasantly surprising number in Kinyrwanda] on the Rwanda side).

Perhaps the most striking contrast is between the two countries’ capitals — Kampala and Kigali.

Kampala is a lawless place where motorcycles fly up onto the sidewalks, traffic stalls for hours at a single intersection or roundabout, trash burns throughout the day, and at night, the city goes dark (except for the headlights of stalled automobiles).


In Kigali, they have streetlights —streetlights!— and not only do they have stoplights; they have  stoplights which show you how long you have until they change colour!

Not only do they have sidewalks; the sidewalks are only for pedestrians!

Not only do they have pedestrian crosswalks; cars often stop to let pedestrians cross!

Not only are all motorcycle drivers required to wear helmets; they also must provide you, the passenger, with a helmet!

And not only do they have such regulations for motorcycles and automobiles; they actually enforce those regulations!

Because of all the rules and the resulting orderliness, some visitors and expats find Kigali to be a little sterile and boring. While there are a lot of things whose absence from the streets of Kigali is welcome  –namely potholes and trash- the absence of others does leave a gap in the liveliness of the city: there are no street food vendors, for example, because they’re considered too unsanitary.

And here is where my SAT analogy comes in again. Rwanda and Canada both have more rules, but better public services, than their respective neighbours. Moreover, each country is so similar to its neighbour in a lot of significant ways, that it’s possible to focus on the differences concerning smaller things.

Perhaps the cleanliness of the streets, the amount of green space in the city, and the discipline of motorists are indeed small things that set Rwanda apart from Uganda (and Canada from the US, some might add). But they are connected, to varying degrees, to one major difference between Uganda and Rwanda: Corruption.

Sign as you enter Rwanda from the Congo

I once heard a Ugandan quote a strange saying that went something like “The head of the fish rots in order to spoil the whole body,” meaning, if leaders are corrupt, the whole society will be corrupted.

Indeed, in Uganda there is such rampant corruption at the highest levels of government and business (rigged elections, misappropriated funds, misuse of office) that it gives licence for petty corruption to everyone else (bribery, nepotism, etc.).

Rwanda, beginning with its President, Paul Kagame, have eschewed corruption from top to bottom. As a result, Rwanda is ranked by Transparency International as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, almost 100 places ahead of Uganda, and even ahead of many EU-member states.

This helps to explain why the infrastructure and public services are better in Rwanda. If the Rwandan government appropriates funds for a new road or hospital, the result will be the construction of a new road or hospital. If the Ugandan government appropriates funds for a new road or hospital, the result will be a new house for a Member of Parliament, or a donation to someone’s Swiss bank account.

I think the safer, more orderly traffic can also be traced back to lower corruption. In Uganda, a policeman will usually pull you over, not if you’ve done something wrong, but if they sense they can extract a bribe from you. In Rwanda, you will get pulled over if you’ve done something wrong (in our case, a bus we were riding in had too many passengers). And if you are pulled over, you will have to pay the price for your violation; a bribe won’t make it disappear. With conditions like these, there’s a much clearer incentive to obey traffic laws in Rwanda than Uganda.

It may seen I’ve painted an overly rosy picture of Rwanda. There are problems, of course: the country is still poor, the disparity between urban and rural is great, and the legacy of the 1994 genocide still lingers. But Rwanda’s path to prosperity seems much more straightforward than its neighbours’, and the roadblocks along that path seem more surmountable.


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