Almost an entire generation of Rwandans is confronting the prospect that they are going to be failed adults, said Marc Sommers, a fellow with Woodrow Wilson Center’s Africa Program and visiting researcher at Boston University’s African Studies Center.
Sommers explains in this interview how, almost two decades after garnering attention for the international failure to intervene in one of modern history’s greatest human tragedies, the Great Lakes state is the site of two competing narratives: Rwanda as a model of success, in classical development terms, and Rwandan government policies as controlling and constraining its young people.
“There has been some really innovative development work that has been…spearheaded by the President of Rwanda and by his government,” said Sommers. Government efforts to limit corruption, ensure efficiency in governance, and attract private investment suggest, at one level, a bright future for the state. But the government has also instituted restrictions that limit the social and economic options of a wide swath of the country’s youth.
The regime in Rwanda before the genocide was also seen as a model of development, said Sommers. Clearly, “we know that assessment was not accurate,” and it’s troubling that we have to make a human rights qualification about the progress made today as well, he said.
“The prerequisite for a male youth to become a man is…to build a house,” Sommers explained. But, “there is a housing emergency and it’s fueled, it’s exacerbated, by the policies of the government.” All new houses are required to be built on specific plots of land – “imidugudu” – which specify a minimum size requirement.
The impact of these restrictions is not limited to men either. In Rwanda, “a female youth can’t become a woman unless she has someone to marry, and if a male youth can’t finish his house, who’s she going to marry?” Sommers said. To further complicate matters, those young people who attempt to escape traditional prerequisites for adulthood by migrating to the rapidly growing capital of Kigali face “very severe constraints” on informal market activities such as street vending.
Sommers suggested that government restraints on the construction of housing and on informal economic activities need to be reformed and loosened if Rwanda’s young men and women are to have a chance to become full, socially accepted, and economically productive members of society.