Over breakfast this morning the waiter peered out the restaurant window to the border crossing into the DR Congo and shook his head. Even so early in the day, streams of people crossed the tiny metal bridge from Cyangugu in Rwanda to Bukavu in the DRC, their heads piled high with stacks of eggs and synthetic sacks of carrots, and back the other way again with trolleys and cloth. ‘There, they have no taxes,’ Gabrielle, the waiter, said tutting.
He explained that Rwandans routinely crossed the border to buy goods imported by the DRC that were on sale for half the price that they were available for in Rwanda: clothes, electronic goods, all kinds of manufactured consumer goods. ‘Here, it might be thirty dollars. There, only fifteen.’ He went on to explain that the trade going the other was agricultural. He shook his head again. He said that for a country with so many natural riches, they couldn’t even grow their own food.
As Rwanda drives its way into the developed modern, it is understandable that people on the borders might be frustrated by how differently their neighbours operate.
‘In 2007, I had a passport, a very expensive international passport, it cost me one hundred dollars,’ Gabrielle said, holding up one finger. ‘One day, I crossed the border, and the guard put my passport in his pocket and said if I wanted it back, I would have to give him twenty dollars.’ Gabrielle negotiated down to ten and paid the man his bribe, but the experience clearly still aggravated him. ‘It will take hundreds of years before the corrupt minds of the Congolese will change,’ he said.
It’s hard to know how long it will take, but it’s hardly a surprise that corruption exists at the borders. Not knowing much about the present day politics of the Congo, I’m reluctant to hypothesise too much. But I will say that the situation Gabrielle described seems unsurprising for a nation of people who have very recent memories of absolute corruption at the very top.
Former President Mobutu emptied the public coffers in order to build luxury mansions in Europe while at the same time suspending the pay cheques of public servants for months and months on end because of ‘emergency economic measures’. The famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali cost around the country around US$20 million at a time when there were no passable roads outside the capital Kinshasa and a barely functional hospital system. And so, for a long time in the DRC, survival came through bribery and negotiation.
In Rwanda, there are rules. Rules banning plastic bags. Rules outlining the fees you must pay if you choose to have more than four children. Rules about seatbelts for bus drivers and life jackets in charter boats. Rules for ensuring that the car that you’ve purchased has come through proper channels and had its excises properly paid.
For Gabrielle, looking out the window of his workplace everyday and seeing houses being built on unstable Congolese land proves a chaos that Rwanda is trying to move away from. ‘One day, the children will be fighting and then they will just fall down the hill, into the river,’ he said.
Rwanda’s rules don’t appear to be arbitrary: they all seem to make sense, which probably helps the Rwandese accept them so readily. They are directed at building a safer, cleaner, smarter country. And where there is an absence of rules, it also seems to make sense. I’m told that setting up a business here is remarkably easy; the paperwork is minimal and, as a result, international investment in the country is impressive.
Rwanda has announced that it wants to be a middle-income country by 2014. The papers have talked about its desire to be the Singapore of Africa; like Singapore it is geographically small and resource poor, but Rwanda sees a clever, resourceful, business-savvy future. It has already cornered the high-end tourist market. As I write this, fellow travellers are paying around a thousand dollars for the chance of a one-hour visit with the endangered gorillas in the national parks of the north.
So perhaps for Rwandans, in the shadow of the genocide when survival itself was often the only aim, the desire now is not for survival but for betterment, and the Congo represents something in its past.