On September 23, 2016 in San Francisco, California, Rwandans and friends of Rwanda celebrated the first Rwanda Cultural Day, an opportunistic conference to celebrate Rwanda’s unique culture and its role in transforming Rwanda. 2500 people attended the event, including those coming from Europe, Asia, Africa, as well as from many corners of the United States of America. Through various activities organized during the day, participants learned about the values that unite Rwandans and the home-grown solutions inspired by Rwanda’s culture that have become an integral part of solving the country’s post-Genocide challenges, ranging from justice and reconciliation, to poverty reduction and accountable governance. Pastor Rick Warren, whose PEACE Mission is active in Rwanda, endorsed Rwandan leadership. Speaking at the Rwanda Cultural Day event in San Francisco, California on last Saturday night, I quoted him as saying “in every public success there is a private pain.”
Why talking about our culture?
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation
I think besides the fact that we are in California and in San Francisco, where there is a lot of value in culture, we thought that we need to explore ourselves for ourselves and our friends, and those who know us as a people and as a country. Who we are, what we think, why we think the way we think, our language, why we say certain things, and why do we say certain things a certain way. What is it in us that defines us? What are the traits that Rwandans can be identified by and identified with? So, we are looking at culture as more than the dance, the song, the poetry, the important rituals of life that we just witnessed here (the whole ceremony of marriage, the dispute resolution that we saw amongst the community members, the life that we see in our dancers, the choreography). What are our values? Where do we come from? Why are we where we are today and why are we so ambitious to go even further?”
It was a very honest ‘introspection’, an exchange of trying to understand what our culture is. The whole definition of culture itself is something I heard the experts talking about. Is it just cultural performance? Is it just the way we gesture? Many people say that we Rwandans are very discrete. Sometimes too discrete for our own good. Sometimes people even mistake that for hypocrisy. We look like we are too quiet and therefore we are hiding something. So, who really are we? And what is it that we share? What is it that we don’t share with others?
Culture is something really important. And what the panelists tried to examine is how ‘who we are’ influences how we advance ourselves, our country, how we move together as a nation and how we relate with others.
What’s the role of culture for sustainable development?
Mike Fairbanks, American entrepreneurial philanthropist
Culture has three levels. The first level is the explicit articulation of culture. It’s the food we eat, the language we hear and speak, it’s the fashion of beautiful women of Rwanda. How many times have, I said to a Rwandan woman ‘you look so beautiful this evening. And they say ‘of course I am Rwandan, right?’ So there is the explicit articulation of culture in Rwanda. The music, the place, the language, the dancing. That’s the culture you see. But then, there is another type of culture. The norms of behavior. What is good and what is bad. Sigaho (this is not acceptable). Rwandans know what it means to be Rwandan. You don’t eat the food on the street or the sidewalk because another Rwandan may go hungry. Rwandans are punctual people. ‘Rwandans show up on time.’ And the secret to economic growth is punctuality, not because showing on time is important but because punctuality is a proxy for self-respect, respect for other people, respect for the time and future and because it shows you got brain. But there is another type of culture. There is culture you experience. There are norms of behavior and there is your mindset. And I know what it takes for Rwanda to succeed. You have to believe in competition. You must have a high amount of trust for your fellow citizens. Mistrust is the greatest tax on the nation. There is no mistrust in Rwanda. We trust our fellow citizens. We socialize with Rwandans just because they are Rwandans. We are optimistic about the future. We are tolerant of new ideas. That’s the mindset part of culture that supports innovation. The president says, and I think that’s the secret of Rwanda success, “Umuganda. Gira Inka, Umuhigo.” We have found a new way to build home institutions on our traditional values, and our language is the portal into our history and our heritage. The secret of Rwanda’s success is to listen to our past. When we have a problem we say ‘this must have been solved before. And we go into our past and the answer to our justice problem is in a single blade of grass called ‘gacaca.’ And then we take those ancient time tasted institutions and we make them modern. And the Rwandan people understand these institutions, and the institutions are cheap to administer, and they work. And that’s the secret of Rwanda’s success. And if we could teach the rest of the world, it would be to listen to their their Soul and to realize that they have confidence to solve the problems they face now and another time in the past. And if they could understand how they did it then and have the ability to modernize those institutions they can solve anything together, and that’s the secret of the Rwandan success story.”
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation
We do know that Rwanda’s progress however modest is a result of us saying and expressing what we want and seeking ideas from all those institutions (World Bank, African Development Bank, African Union,…). Let me take an angle to culture that I think, in my view, is part of the advancement of us as a country and as a people, and that is, first of all, Self-definition. We, Rwandans, I think, like to define ourselves. Who we are, what we want, where we come from, where we are trying to go. It is very important for development. But, there is also the aspect of the quest for excellence; wanting to achieve, wanting to go further than where we are and as the language is the portal of our history and I guess our future, you will find in our language so many words that point to the desire for excellence in the names of people. We have this aspiration of wanting to do better than what we are doing and than many are doing. You will find it in many of the daily lifestyle experiences as well where healthy competition wanting to be the first, trying to reach heights that are beyond what is normally expected is also, I think, part of why we want to be even better than who we are. So, I wanted to point out those two: being clear about who we are and where we are trying to go, and also the desire for excellence and moving beyond mediocracy.”
Culture is neutral. It is a common thread that runs through a society and brings people together. What I am looking for is modern africanization. I am an African that can relate well and meaningfully to the rest of the world. I am not an African lost in the jungle looking for magnanimous people to give me a sense of direction. We are expected to swallow what we are told without chewing. In our culture, we chew before swallowing. To the youth studying here, be mindful to not pick things that are not suitable to you. Know how to choose best. Consider our values as guiding principles to go out there, learn and pick those things that are suitable to your country. There is no nation that is an island, we must work together. But you must start from an identity you call yours, you should be proud of, that will endure and stay with us for generations. You can choose to waste your time or live on borrowed time, but I want us to choose believing it is our time. We do not want to live on borrowed time. It is our time. There is no reason we can’t catch up to the rest of the world. We belong up there. It will come from every one of you. Injustice, prejudice will be history and we will be where we want to be.”