The Country That Bans Plastic Bags

When you suffer a genocide as a people or a nation it can empower you to achieve extraordinary things. It gives you a rare, not to say unique, opportunity to start again.
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When you suffer a genocide as a people or a nation it can empower you to achieve extraordinary things. It gives you a rare, not to say unique, opportunity to start again. A few weeks ago, I returned to Rwanda for the first time since I covered the genocide as a BBC journalist in 1994. I went as a member of the Board of an international NGO called VSO which has worked there for many years. What struck me, more than the strides in intertribal reconciliation or the government's impressive social safety net or all the new buildings in Kigali was the orderliness of the country. Of course, my only previous experience of Rwanda had been somewhat extreme so one might expect the place to be more peaceful and ordered today, but Rwanda has gone well beyond the appearance of an average African country. In some cases, it is closer in atmosphere to those meticulous routine-obsessed cities of the Deutschschweiz like Basel or Zurich.

On roads that once harboured gangs of Interahamwe killers, I encountered policemen dressed in smart luminous jackets holding up speed guns. It is a rarity in Africa to see a policeman with technology of any kind and engaged in something as mundane as issuing speeding tickets, yet these Rwandan cops would not have been out of place on the Swiss autobahn. Electricity is a much prized commodity in Rwanda -- only about 10 percent of the population has access to it -- and the temptation to steal it is understandably enormous. In most African countries, electricity poles become festooned with homemade wires which people put there to download the electricity for free. Yet in the remote villages up by the Ugandan border, I was surprised to see electricity poles (installed by a Tunisian company) with a single neat line going off to each house, and no sign of illicit wiring. As anyone who has traveled in Africa will know, that is a rare sight indeed.

Eighteen years on, Rwanda has raised itself from the bottom of the well to the level of not just an average African country (which would have been quite an achievement in itself) but to the top of many of its peer groups. According to the World Bank, Rwanda has seen thesecond biggest decline in infant mortality of any African country, and only six African countries have averaged a higher GDP per capita growth rate in the last five years -- all the more remarkable when you consider that all the others have benefitted from considerable natural resources which Rwanda has none of. Much of the credit for this economic progress usually goes to Paul Kigame, who ended the genocide in 1994 and has been president ever since. There's no question that he has done several things right: his government spent the large amounts of aid it received from a guilt-stricken West in a judicious manner and with remarkably little corruption. He abolished all tribally based government while at the same time setting up a form of transitional justice known as Gacaca which has provided some level of atonement. But there's only so much one man can control, even one as energetic and authoritarian as Paul Kigame.

Take the issue of litter for example. Africa is drowning in garbage at the moment; living standards have risen enough for millions to be able to afford to shop in supermarkets and buy plastic-wrapped foods, but governments still lack the capacity or inclination to hire people to pick up the mess. In Rwanda however, there is very little sign of the tsunami of detritus that is overwhelming the rest of the continent.

When you arrive at Kigali airport you are greeted by a large sign that says, "the use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited." It takes a certain chutzpah to attempt to impose a nationwide ban on such a ubiquitous household product as the plastic bag, and in any other African country such a ban would not survive beyond the poster at the border; as far as I can find out, only one other country in the world -- Bangladesh -- is currently attempting such a thing, with limited results. But in Rwanda it is working. It is rare to see any plastic littering the verges, and I never saw any of the impromptu landfills that are so common in informal settlements.

In April 1994, Rwanda suffered what amounted to a nuclear meltdown. All forms of government -- tribal, local, national -- ceased to exist, but despite the bands of roaming interahamwe high on khat, it did not feel like anarchy. I had experienced anarchy in Somalia as a journalist and this was very different. In fact as we now know, most of the killings were carried out with great precision and organization. How else do you manage to murder 800,000 souls in a hundred days, using only basic tools like machetes, knives and fire? There were no aerial bombardments or gas chambers or machine guns.

Could it be that the same obedience to the law which has enabled Rwanda to recover so fast, that holds people back from stealing electricity or littering the roads might be the same chromosome that allowed the genocide to unfold in such an orderly and horrific manner? Certainly, Rwanda seems to me to occupy a different psychic space to other African countries, much closer to the German mindset of hard work, self-discipline, orderliness. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both countries have experienced similar depths of genocidal depravity and remarkable economic success subsequently. I asked a Ugandan journalist living in Kigali what he thought of Rwanda. I prefer working in Rwanda, he told me: everything works, there's no corruption, people turn up to interviews on time. But if I want to have fun and feel free, I go back to Uganda.

Tom Carver is a vice president at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the non-fiction book, "Where the Hell Have You Been?"

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