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Why is Kigali so clean and orderly?

Jun 12, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

After years of procrastination, I finally made it to Kigali recently. I had, of course, heard what you have all heard: that it is an African city that is clean and orderly. I was, of course, sceptical.

Seeing is believing. Even so, the evidence of my own eyes was hard to believe. The roads and pavements of Kigali are spotless. Forget about plastic bags, which are banned: you would struggle even to find scraps of paper or food lying around.

How can this be, I asked myself? How can this city pull this off, this feat that most cities in Africa and Asia patently cannot? So I set off on foot around Kigali, to observe for myself, to talk to the ordinary people and not just the policy-makers.

Here’s what I saw: people simply do not litter. They don’t step out of their doorways and throw stuff out on the street. They don’t toss things out of their cars like imbeciles. Even children in schools seem to dispose of things properly.

So why don’t they? There are many reasons. First and foremost is the example from the top. President Paul Kagame places great emphasis on personal and community discipline. He leads by example, making it mandatory for all Rwandese to participate in a community clean-up day once a month. He comes out himself to do it with the people. He sets the standard.

Second reason: a sense of value has grown around personal hygiene at the ‘cellular’ level. The need for cleanliness has been taught in grassroots communities, in schools, in village barazas, in city districts. Community leaders have been selected to guide and enforce compliance. People who break the code feel a sense of shame and the weight of castigation by their local peers – not just law enforcers.

Third reason: all households are required to build waste disposal pits and basic hygiene facilities. Civic bodies organise larger waste disposal. Dustbins, latrines and other disposal facilities are everywhere. So you don’t have any real excuse to be a litterbug.

In short, Kigali is clean because that is the example its leaders set; because an effort has been made to ingrain the value of cleanliness at the grassroots level; because facilities are provided; and because enforcement is not compromised.

Why is this important? Rwanda is following the ‘broken windows’ theory: if you ensure that basic rules are followed, you have a better chance of enforcing higher-level behaviour as well. In Rwanda, people actually obey traffic rules. You can walk on the streets at midnight without fear. And senior officials are actually caught, shamed and jailed for corruption.

Now, whenever you write about Rwanda these days, a platoon of foreign journalists and human-rights activists will rise up to condemn your wilful blindness; to point out that this orderliness is superficial and that it comes at the cost of authoritarianism. Let us reserve that debate for another date on this page. Right now, I am confirming that the place is clean, and that intelligent thinking has gone into making it clean.

Let me end with a true story. A Kenyan hotelier decided to take accompany Rwandese peers to Mombasa for a familiarization trip, to promote our seaside city. As they left Mombasa airport in a coach and headed for the beach, our Kenyan friend began to wriggle uncomfortably in his seat. His Rwandese visitors looked on silently at the amazing filth and garbage on display in Mombasa’s main streets.

Eventually, they asked two questions: “Do your leaders drive past this every day and do nothing about it?” And, “Do the people themselves not care about this mess on their own doorsteps?”

Exactly the questions I asked in this column some weeks ago. We don’t really have any answers.

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