My recent trip to Africa took me to Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, and the Seychelles islands. While it was business as usual on behalf of Water For People, the international development organization that I work for, this time I made a conscious effort to pay attention to everything around me.
Although I have been to Rwanda before, this trip let me absorb a bit of the Rwandan culture that might have gone unnoticed. It started at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on my way to Kigali. Traveling light, all I had was a backpack and a small carry-on bag.
During this trip, I took special notice of a family around me as they shifted things in their suitcase in an effort to meet the weight requirements. When the lady noticed that I was traveling light, she asked if I would be willing to check-in one of her suitcases as my own.
I was shocked by the request, but before I had an opportunity to respond, a man behind me scolded her, in Kinyarwanda, for asking. The tone in his voice scared me and apparently her too because she apologized shyly. The man proceeded to tell me that such behavior was unacceptable in Rwanda; she was taking advantage of me because I was a foreigner and besides, it was considered corruption.
That pronouncement struck me. The point here is that it is well-known that Africa is usually associated with images of poverty, strife, and corruption. The idea that an ordinary citizen was holding another accountable goes against that stereotype and was worth discussion.
As I shared my experience with my Rwandan colleagues and friends I found out about a cultural practice called Imihigo that they believe keeps everyone accountable.
Imihigo is a pre-colonial tradition in which two people or groups make a public pledge to achieve a particular goal or task. When the task is achieved the community celebrates and if not achieved, it brings dishonor to the community or people.
In an effort to promote good governance and citizen participation, the Government of Rwanda has adopted this practice. Elected officials, who run on a particular platform, sign a performance contract with the people, promising to achieve certain goals within a set period of time. The contracts are publicized in the local newspaper and once a year, the officials appear before the President, governing authorities and the people to explain how they kept their promises.