One day Mason, the Rector, and I were having a meeting regarding equipment that was needed to build a computer lab at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. It was actually not my meeting; I was just there while Mason and the Rector hashed it out. Money from US AID had already been obtained to facilitate the effort and thus this was not a problem. All they had to do was come up with the list. Mason outlined the options.
The facility could go for a large number of slightly used computers (an opportunity facilitated by some computer company in the States who could no longer sell them to the crowd who wanted next year’s technology). Alternatively, the facility could go for a smaller number of new machines: flat screens with rewritable dvds, crazy ram, video-conferencing and the whole shabangabang. The choice to me seemed obvious but the Rector was clear: “I want the newest ones.”
On the one hand, I understood his point – let’s get up to speed with the commonly identified best technology of the day. They did not want to be further behind than they already were. On the other hand, this made no sense at all. The effort they put forward was amazing but limited. The best of the best that the government put forward were wonderful kids, bright, dedicated and with life experiences that put most humans to shame. However, the majority of the students at the school were barely logging in and when they did get on they spent most of their time looking at porn (like the rest of the world). These kids did not need the newest version of Word or Photoshop. Naively, I thought the best move would have been to go for more bang for the buck but I was not aware of the target, the size of the unit or the overall objective of the banging. If the used-computer route were taken, almost everyone at the school would have gotten access. If they went with the new computers, then there would be a line around the campus as people waited their turn. It was not desired that all the students have access, however. Just some.
A similar strategy was taken by the Rector personally. When asked what type of palm pilot he would like (the local tech craze – remember those), he asked me what I had. At that time, I had just acquired the Palm VII with wireless. I reminded him there was no wireless connection in Rwanda (thus rendering the system inoperative) and none seemed to be coming any time soon. I also mentioned that I found the older Palm V battery, charger and size superior but, again, he replied: “no, I want the newest one.”
Now, once you understood a bit more about Rwandan society, post-genocide-civil war-regime change, The Rector’s strategy made sense. It wasn’t just anyone who was going to lead this society, it was only a few. So you didn’t need a huge number of computers – just enough for the best of the best.
The ability to pull off growth was clearly within the government’s grasp. I had never seen a country as well organized; it was a little Germany in East Africa but without trains to be kept on time. For every 10 households, there was a representative of the government – a Nyumba Kumi. This individual collected/distributed information, gave out work as well as political assignments and most importantly informed on individuals for the state. Above them, for every 100 households there was another leader. Above them, at the commune (approximately 1000 households), was someone else. It went on like this until the president. The country was hardwired with a million different rules, customs and officials to follow but with one aspiration – recovery and advancement “by any means necessary” (said as ominously as Malcolm X ever said it or, in this context, Innocent X).
The idea of giving everyone a pc, pda or cell phone was about as insane as giving Rwandan citizens the right to bear arms or blacks the right to vote in the 1920s. It just wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t see this at first. I thought that Rwandan growth meant improving the lives of the most people. I was so young then. This was never the point.
That anything could be even attempted was a miracle. How could the country develop soon when the civil war and genocide blew them back to the stone age? They had two roads (built by foreigners), no records (they were destroyed by the outgoing mass-murderers), no administration (no government), no legal system (lawyers and judges are dead or in exile), no politicians, no journalists, no police, no mail, no taxes, no telephone, no hospitals. It was like Lord of the Flies with no Lord, just flies.
In this context, a limited, focused and fast-track approach to change made sense, I guess. This would leave the majority of Rwandans at home with a mud hut, wooden mugs and a machete, but this was actually part of the government’s plan. It was the plan of their predecessors and those before them as well. Aid money was still rolling in at the time and everyone struggled to figure out how to get more of it: Quality pcs, pants, pens, penicillin, parachutes, palm pilots, paper, pampers – all flew into the country with only a few knowing what to do with it.
There were also diamonds and Coltan (the stuff of cell phones as well as computers) to be had in the Congo. Initially, Rwanda went in to get those responsible for the genocide, but a funny thing happened on the way to retribution: the military overshot the genocidaires, found themselves further inland and near some rare valuables. While there they did the only reasonable thing: they removed them. Again, the masses of Rwandans would not see these activities nor the goodies they generated. Later on, I’m sure the rifles, hummers, helicopters and tear gas provided by these activities and goodies will be familiar.
The strategy of acquisition and extraction was probably as old as anything else in Rwanda. The tribal battles of the ancient kingdom were fought like this. The Germans and later the Belgiums acted in the same way. This time was slightly different though. This time, the acquiring and extracting was done with the whole world watching (kinda, it was more like we had our hands over our eyes, which were already partially closed).