May/June 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 5

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Is Rwanda a Success Story?
A Sociologist’s View

Jeanne Ballantine, Wright State University

My Fulbright in Rwanda tasks were to teach university students, provide faculty development seminars and consult on curriculum design. Enrolled in my Global Social Issues class were students who had been in prison for 15 years as punishment for participating in the genocide and others who lost loved ones, even witnessing their killing. What they had in common was that they all wanted security and viewed education as their ticket to success in the new Rwanda. Most have only recently been able to pursue higher education because of the cost and interrupted high school educations. Of particular concern to these mostly Catholic students were population control, infant and maternal mortality rates, and the effect of globalization on Rwanda’s future. Religious leaders have played a part in the recovery of the nation, with 65 percent of the population Catholic, 9 percent Protestant, and 1 percent Muslim.

On first entering the stark university classroom, I found 17 adult students laughing and chatting in Kinyarwandan, the language of Rwanda. All had lived through the genocide 17 years earlier, and everyone in this small country was affected—but the genocide was a taboo subject for class discussion and beyond. Rwandans have been ordered by the government to not discuss that nightmare lest they be deemed traitors to the new Rwanda, and live in peace with neighbors despite past atrocities. At least in public arenas Rwandans were obeying. So far, that tenuous peace is holding up and the country is moving ahead politically and economically. Whether the people are moving ahead psychologically and collectively remains to be seen, although they welcome the relative safety. The following paragraphs include some of my observations about Rwandan institutions, from education and health to politics and the economy.

Faculty at the Catholic University of Kabgayi

Faculty at the Catholic University of Kabgayi

Education in Rwanda

The typical teaching style is rote memorization, using exams to assess progress. The Catholic University of Kabgayi asked me to conduct seminars using alternative instructional strategies with new ideas for preparing students for a future Rwanda. The curriculum design was to reflect the future needs of students: a combination of political and global sociology, economics and business. My job was to evaluate the content and organization of the curriculum based on goals we discussed, and suggest additional courses such as race, class, and gender and conflict resolution. My students seemed to appreciate the chance to discuss issues and solutions to problems as part of learning; some of these students are likely to be in influential decision-making positions in the future.

Education of Rwandans is top priority at both the individual level and the national level. Initiatives to build new primary and secondary schools, especially in rural areas, have resulted in education reaching many remote hillsides. At some time in their lives, 97 percent of primary school-aged girls and 95 percent of boys had been enrolled in primary school, and 34 percent in secondary school (UNESCO 2008). Many secondary school students are boarders because of the distances from their homes.

Only 6 percent of the population is college or technical-school educated. Tertiary-level education is not readily available but is expanding—there is an established national university in Butare (Huye); a teachers’ college and technical schools in Kigali, the capital; and a Catholic university in Gitarama. With government help, some students also travel to South Africa or India where they receive higher education more cheaply than in Europe or the United States.

A Language Hurdle

Consider the lingua franca, symbolic of the change taking place since the genocide. Formally the language learned in schools was French, resulting from the time of Belgian colonial control. However, current President Paul Kagame declared in 2008 that French was out and English was in—overnight! English was the way of the future, and would provide links with the East African community (rather than the poorer surrounding French-speaking countries) as a means of securing that future. My adult French-speaking students were dutifully and diligently struggling to make English work for them. Occasionally I would resort to my rusty French, but the class ended up being as much about language as global issues. Accustomed to lecture and rote memorization in classes, discussion in English was challenging for them, but rewarding. The few books in the university library were in French. Students had no textbooks and little access to online materials. The English textbooks in basic subjects that I brought were prized possessions!

Rwanda is a country of 1,000 stunning green hills and plentiful rainfall, yet farm families are isolated in their small valley communities, and use hoes on small farm plots (
). With a rise in the more educated population, much is changing. In a country that is more than 85 percent subsistence agriculture, Rwandans push for universal education is inspiring.

A Changing Economic and Political Culture

Jeanne Ballantine on a motorbike (the main means of transport!)
in Rwanda.

Jeanne Ballantine on a motorbike (the main means
of transport!) in Rwanda.

What will happen to these students when they achieve more education and consequently have higher hopes for new opportunities? As the economy expands and diversifies, the need for college-educated workers in health and education seems to be expanding. In addition, the rapid growth of industries and high-tech companies, with help from international investors and donors, may increase employment opportunities, although some will be left behind. To the international business community, Rwanda is now a model African country for efficiency and lack of corruption. The philosophy of the government leaders elected after the genocide is that Rwanda needs to develop an educated population, infrastructure (electricity, sanitation, health care), and foreign investment, in part due to the lack of corruption in Rwanda. And they are doing it!

In order to keep the population and opportunities dispersed throughout the country, the government is putting limits on the number of people moving to the major cities. Since the genocide, women make up 70 percent of the population. The parliament—comprised of more than 56 percent women and with many women in top cabinet posts—has made education and health care a priority. Rwandans seem to be grateful for the stability, cleanliness, education, health care, and anticipated opportunities—and most with whom I spoke seemed optimistic about their futures.

Health care, too, is spreading to isolated areas of Rwanda. In rural hilltop villages reached only by rutted lanes, health clinics have sprung up. Outreach workers treat residents for disease, provide prenatal care, and medicate infections. There has been a decrease in malaria, in infant and maternal mortality, and in major health problems, with widespread use of mosquito nets and involvement of health clinics in mother and infant care.
Rwanda seems on the brink of positive, significant change—rather like the transformation of some Asian tiger countries several decades ago.

Despite this relatively positive report, reflecting on my Fulbright experience, I am left with many questions: Can a country forget its past and move on in less than a generation? Does it take a crisis for a country to change its way of life and thought patterns? A genocide? An earthquake, volcanic eruption, or tsunami? A devastating war? A revolution? Is a benevolent dictator, albeit elected, necessary to move a country in shambles ahead? How does the recent cooperation and sharing of people interplay with underlying tensions, and still lead to social improvement? I was left with these and many other questions about this remarkable and beautiful country.


UNESCO 2008. Institute for Statistics. Statistics in Brief: Education in Rwanda. (

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