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Timothy Barnes: New (Ad)Ventures in Rwanda

Barnes_timothy Timothy Barnes reports from his recent trip to Rwanda.  Timothy is Executive Director of UCL Advances, the centre for entrepreneurship at University College London, and is also the National Chairman of the Tory Reform Group (blog here). He is writing in a personal capacity. Fiona Hodgson's report will be our final report and will be apprearing in the next few days.

This morning, I walked towards a waiting class of students with a slight drizzle coming down. It was a cool morning with jackets needed, if not quite jumper weather. At home in the UK, this would not be unusual, but it was not what I expected of Rwanda. As I neared the classroom in the middle of the university campus, some of my students rushed past to ensure that they arrived before me.

I have spent the last two weeks in Rwanda as part of the Conservative Party’s Project Umubano, organised by Andrew Mitchell MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. I am one of over 100 Members of Parliament, PPC’s and ordinary party members who are here to assist a wide-variety of development activities and have come here at their own expense. Some are working to teach English to primary school teachers, while others are working to help develop legal processes, healthcare, the travel industry and the financial markets. Tobias Ellwood MP is leading a team that are building and fitting out a community centre. All are volunteers who have taken up a large proportion of their annual leave to come here at their own, not inconsiderable, expense.

The project that I am working on is part of the largest initiative on the project, which is focussed on the private sector. My work is intended to boost entrepreneurship in the country. Last week I delivered a three-day workshop to students at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, known as KIST, and this week I am repeating the course in the southern city of Butare, at the National University of Rwanda (NUR). The climate here is cooler and wetter than in the capital and the pace of life is slower. This is a university town, as many in Britain would recognise it.

Indeed, the university shares all the hallmarks of its UK peers. Students walk around with the same mix you could see anywhere. Some are running to avoid being late for class, some look stressed as upcoming exams become paramount in their minds and some are more interested in just looking at each other. There are posters around campus detailing end of year results, adverts for summer job placements or the manifestos of candidates for upcoming student guild elections. The university buildings are a mix of end-of-colonial era and more recent offices. The library is a little short of books but there is a good-sized auditorium, sports grounds and the whole campus is surrounded by a woodland that has its own troop of monkeys.

But there is a building that no university in the UK needs to have. This is a memorial to the students of NUR that were murdered by their classmates as part of the 1994 genocide. At NUR, the memorial is a dignified single-storey structure, open on all sides. Under the cover of a low roof, a raised platform is covered in the dried flowers of previous remembrance ceremonies. In two narrow display cases are the photographs of just a few of the many who died at NUR, murdered by their own classmates.

There is no part of Rwanda that you can visit without being reminded of the mass killings nearly fifteen years ago. In Kigali, at the national genocide memorial site, there are vivid displays of what took place. The killing of nearly one million people in twelve weeks was the fastest mass extermination in history. This was not a random outbreak of ethnic violence, but an orchestrated attempt by the ruling government to exterminate a section of the population. The role of the French government, whose colonial influence remained extremely strong, should not be overlooked. Their officers had trained the army and they knew what was taking place in part of the world that they saw as being within their sphere of influence. They chose to mislead Britain, the USA and other members of the UN Security Council. The result was no action by the international community when it may have been possible to avert disaster. At Mirambi, a school that saw the massacre of 50,000 who had taken refuge there attests to what happened as a result. Bodies of some who died have been preserved in lime to serve as a reminder of what took place. There is nothing easy about visiting there.

Rwandanbodies It is very hard to detect any residual divisions, today. In villages, workplaces and universities, perpetrators and survivors live side-by-side and none seem to harbour the resentment that everyone might expect to see and none would begrudge them. It is quite simply one of the most miraculous things I have every seen and I do not pretend to understand. Removing the most obvious triggers to tension, such as banning use of the terms “Tutsi” and “Hutu” as President Kagame’s government has done, have helped to heal deep wounds. This is not a fully functioning, multi-party democracy, yet. But the unifying tendency has helped the country to heal and the press and other institutions are becoming freer with time. All of the trends seem to be the right ones and the people appear to support what is happening.

It is easy to say that there is a great deal still to be done in Rwanda to help develop the country and that while the contribution that 100 Conservatives can make in two weeks is small, it is still worthwhile. And it is also true. Hopefully there will be further benefit. Many of those who have come to Rwanda have a future in British politics that may see them become Members of Parliament or Ministers and others will have a role in developing party policy. There can be little doubt that every one of those individuals will be influenced by this trip. It will inform their future decisions on development aid, foreign politics and the results, in the most extreme cases, of not intervening overseas when the situation requires it.

> A five minute video that captures the Tory social action project in Rwanda


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