Dispatch

The Cleanest Place in Africa

The Cleanest Place in Africa

KIGALI, Rwanda — The first greeting travelers encounter when they step off the plane at Kigali International Airport is a large sign declaring: "Non-biodegradable polythene bags are prohibited."

Welcome to the capital of Rwanda, where cleanliness and order prevail. Trash is hard to find, even on the dirt roads outside the main arteries. Vendors have been banished from the sidewalks. And plastic bags? Walking down the street with one could cost you more than $150, while store owners found stocking them face six to 12 months in prison.

All this housekeeping makes Rwanda a pleasant place to visit. But it also raises the question: Does such a poor country really need so much spit and polish? And why scrub with such a heavy hand?

Rwanda is landlocked, hilly, and crowded. The Massachusetts-sized country exports coffee and tea, but otherwise has few of the natural resources that have blessed — and more often cursed — some of its neighbors. Despite these obstacles, the government says it wants to lift Rwanda into middle-income range by 2020. The strategy is to skip over the industrialization stage and transform Rwanda into a service economy (Singapore is often cited as an example). Miles of fiber-optic cable have been laid throughout the country. The government has also invested heavily in its population. Virtually all Rwandans have health insurance, and the country has made remarkable progress in beating back malaria. This focus on people has captured the imagination of ordinary Rwandans. As one man told me, gesturing toward his children, their education is what will pull Rwanda out of poverty. "This is our vision," he said.

Cleanliness is no small part of that vision. Kigali Mayor Fidèle Ndayisaba ticked off the reasons why for me recently in his downtown office. Basic sanitation is obviously a prerequisite for public health. People working in a comfortable environment will also think better, Ndayisaba added, and an attractive Kigali is more likely to draw in foreign visitors and investors.

More generally, Rwandan leaders seem to clearly understand what many mayors of struggling American cities have also realized: Image matters in economic development. If Rwanda wants to become a modern center of IT and finance, it has to look like one. And in a continent plagued by corruption, leaders here see Kigali’s spotlessness as a symbol of their commitment to fighting graft.

"We want to be clean in everything," Ndayisaba said. "To have people clean in mind, clean just for sanitation, and … investors get clean money."

And so, Kigali is miles away from the chaos that envelops most developing-world metropoles. Motorcycle taxis are ubiquitous, but so are the extra helmets that drivers are required to have their passengers wear. Medians and parks along the main thoroughfares are beautifully manicured. Warning signals built into the sidewalks at bus stops blink like Christmas lights. The city center is mooned over by an army of broom-wielding street sweepers. More ominously, soldiers and policemen line the major streets at rush hour.

The centerpiece of the clean campaign is doubtless umuganda, a monthly day of mandatory community service. The tasks are varied, but often involve litter removal and other beautification projects. Politicians are not exempt: Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, recently labored with residents of a Kigali neighborhood to prepare construction of a school building. Rwandans must have their umuganda participation certified on a card by local officials. Without that document, they can be denied services at government offices.

Even in poor neighborhoods, which tend to lie at the bottom of Kigali’s many hills, the poverty appears less abject than in other African capitals. Streets are free of sewage, and the poor here live almost universally in mud-brick huts, which seem less haphazard than the shacks of other cities. Many households also make some effort to screen their property with plants or fencing.

Kigali, in other words, is upending the images that visitors from rich countries often associate with extreme poverty.

"We are convinced that cleanliness is not only for Western countries," Ndayisaba told me.

Everybody in Kigali seems to be on a mission, whether it’s the workers carting goods about in wheelbarrows or the uniformed schoolchildren heading to and from classes. Begging is extremely rare, and there are few signs of homelessness. This absence of explicit human misery may be a function of Rwanda’s emphasis on social services. But not only.

As Ndayisaba put it: "There are some who just are street people because they are irresponsible or because they are drug consumers. We take them; we bring them [into] re-education centers."

Kigali residents who are considered vagrants are subject to arrest and confinement in these centers, including one on a remote island in Lake Kivu. The conditions of their detention are unclear: A New York Times reporter visiting the island in 2010 described a grim camp whose residents included children under 18, but the Rwandan government angrily denounced his story.

Residents are sent to the centers without trial; a spokesman for Ndayisaba said the decision to commit a detainee is made by a team of social workers as a last resort.

The mayor himself was unapologetic about the policy, which he said applies to those considered irresponsible, but not to the sick. "When you can’t take decisions for your [own] good," he said, "we take it for you."

The questions raised by Rwanda’s push for pleasant streets mirror the larger debate about the country’s development path.

On the one hand, Rwanda is a shining success story in the world of international development. Real GDP more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 (to a nominal value of $5.6 billion), according to World Bank data; aid from foreign governments shot up almost as quickly. The World Bank gives Rwanda high marks for making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop, and the country has won accolades for improvements to its health system. Corruption is relatively rare.

But on the other hand, politically, the country is on an autocratic slide. It is rated among the world’s least hospitable environments for journalists, and opposition politicians hardly have it better. Kagame, who has essentially run Rwanda since his forces won the civil war in 1994, was reelected president in 2010 with more than 90 percent of the vote.

Optimists can hope that the Kagame government’s progressive economic policies will end up providing essential fuel for a genuine democracy movement — an educated populace, a solid middle class, and a society that has healed the social rifts of the 1994 genocide. Pessimists may wonder whether economic success will instead legitimate the continuation of one-party rule that glosses over divisions rather than repairing them.

Meanwhile, Kigali’s streets will remain spic and span. Rwanda will continue wooing foreign capital. And leaders will do their best to ensure visitors get the message that this is a place where things work. Step out of the airport — perhaps having left your plastic bags with a friendly but firm customs official — and one of the first signs you’ll see declares: "Investment Yes. Corruption No."