You never know what you don’t know until you know it*

So one of my puzzlements when I applied for the position in Rwanda was why there were multiple institutions of higher learning in such a small country, which is just slightly bigger than the state of Vermont.   My only point of comparison were the two other East African countries at whose universities I had studied in my youth:  University of Nairobi in Kenya and the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.   My reasons for questioning the presence of multiple universities was because II thought it must be expensive to have to invest in so many different institutions of higher learning since each ran independently, increasing (I thought) costs of administrative infrastructure.  That is, stupid me, I thought it was inefficient!   Furthermore, I thought it was an artifact of colonialism, something that the Belgians set up.  Not so at all.  It is new since 1994, and is part of the national agenda for development.  The goal is to invest in Rwanda’s greatest asset – its people – and bring education to everyone.

The decentralization of higher education is occurring alongside of Rwanda’s commitment to decentralizing government so that everyone, even at the level of umudugudu (village– I love this word, it is pronounced just as it is spelled) can participate in self-governance.  Certainly, decentralizing education ensures that everyone participating in governance has access to all the skills and knowledge they need to make informed decisions and achieve their mutually-defined goals for their communities.

The reality is that the illiteracy rate prior to 1994 was around 50%; and there was only one university.   By 2012, Rwanda had a net enrollment of 95% in primary schools, with boys and girls attending equally, and more than 20 institutions of higher learning. With more institutions of higher learning scattered throughout the country, such as the one here where I am in Ruhango, there is more access to higher education.   Higher education is no longer limited to an elite who can travel to the capital city or abroad.  In fact, the Rwandan government is so committed to education that it has made education the largest area of federal spending, more than 25% of its budget goes to education, spending more on developing the next generation of Rwandans than any other area, including defense.

Now, here is perhaps an even more interesting fact about Rwanda:  its commitment to gender equality, even at the highest levels of government.  The constitution of Rwanda requires that at least 30 percent of positions in decision-making governmental bodies be occupied by women!

In 2012, 56 percent of the Rwandan parliament was women, which made it the highest female representation in parliament in the world. Compare to the U.S. where, including delegates from DC, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, only 17 percent of Congress were women.  I am quite certain that the U.S. would not be facing some of its current political challenges if our Congress were 56% women.

I question the concept of “developed” and “underdeveloped” to refer to different economies around the world.  Certainly, with regards to women wielding power in government power, Rwanda is far more “developed” than the U.S. And now, with its new universal health care system, Rwanda is also more developed in the U.S. and, interestingly enough, the Clinton Foundation helped them design their new health care system. What could not be achieved in the U.S. due to partisan bickering has been achieved here.  So really, when we talk about “development”, what do we really mean?

What if the U.S. spend more on education than on defense?  What if Congress was more women than men?  What if we had universal health care?  What if more than 25% of our budget was spent on education?  What if our orienting principles were reconciliation and unification, instead of partisanship and factionalism?   What if, what if….?.  On the spectrum of gender equality in government and access to health care, Rwanda is hands down “more developed” than the U.S.  They took their history of devastating conflict and turned it into a new vision of what life can be.  As far as I can see, there is nothing stopping them from achieving their every dream and, at this point in time at least, judging from the news that I peruse on a daily basis here, I am sad to admit that I cannot say this about my own country.

As a postscript: For those of you coffee and tea drinkers, considering checking where you can buy Rwandan coffee and tea.  I understand that Rwandan coffee is even available at Walmart as well as under a private label through Sam’s Club.  It is delicious and since nearly 50% of the country’s export earnings come from coffee and tea, buying Rwandan coffee or tea is a very easy way to do your part in helping this very tiny country achieving its very big aspirations.

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.