It is a strange thing, being an expat. Or an immigrant, as some people prefer me labelled. A country you live in becomes a part of you, will never leave you.
And after over 20 years in Croatia, I have never lived longer anywhere else. And I am very happy here.
But there is one other country I lived in for almost a year that refuses to leave me.
1994 in Rwanda was among the biggest hellholes of the 20th century. Arriving just a week after a genocide which killed 800,000 people in 100 days (almost 12% of the population) is an experience I wiill never forget. Nor those intense months afterwards, working 20 hours a day to provide food security for the survivors to start again. Rwanda – much like Dalmatia – is my blood, but for very different reasons. She made me cry as a 53-year-old when I finally went for my first counselling at the tender age of 53 last year.
I have followed the journey of that tortured Central African countries for the last 30 years, a journey of dictatorial democracy, reconciliation, and tentative steps of hope for the future.
It is a country that I have allocated more than my fair share of my emotional well-being to over the years, as well as my tears. I will never forget the face of my 4-year-old daughter on April 6, 2014 – the 20th anniversary of the genocide.
It was 6 am on the idyllic island of Hvar when my youngest woke and came to say hi to her blogger father on the couch, who was in tears. A combination of memories and this excellent article in the New York Times, called Portraits of Reconciliation.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” asked the confused child, who had never seen a grown man – let alone her father – cry.
“Nothing,” I answered, holding her tighter than I have ever held a human in my life.
“It was just something bad that happened in Africa a long, long time ago.” And then I strengthened my grip.
Comparison is the thief of joy, and no two countries are alike. It would also be wrong to claim that ‘democratic’ Rwanda is a true democracy, as the experiences of my Rwandese friends will testify. And yet…
One of the poorest countries in the world, which lost an eighth of its population in 100 days, the latest – but certainly not the first – genocide. Some 30 years later, it has emeged a lot brighter than many might have predicted. And when I look at my adopted homeland of Croatia, I see parallels, and I see lessons to be learned. Here are 5 things that I think Rwanda is doing better than Croatia – all of which would be very welcome for Croatia to emulate – which it can.
1. A ban on plastic bags in the whole country since 2009
I have lost count of the number of articles I have read – and written – about hotels which are proving their environmental credentials by banning the use of things such as plastic straws. Rwanda banned plastic bags in the whole country back in 2009. The whole country, enforced with fines and even the threat of imprisonment.
2. Emergency blood delivered by drone within 30 minutes all over the country
Medical emergency? How to get that emergency blood? For more than 6 years now in Rwanda, a doctor names his requirements, and within 90 seconds, a drone is on its way with a life-saving package – ETA maximum 30 minutes.
As a Brit, with no experience of civil war in my country, it is hard for me to comment with authority on the effects of civil war. Having lived in both Rwanda and Croatia, however, I can see the healthier way forward – reconciliation. And while my 7-year-old child got her first nightmare with her homework in school (Read more in Is it Really Necessary to Poison the Minds of the Next Generation?), the comprehensive rehabilitation process performed in Rwanda has gone a long way towards healing. No longer Tutsis and Hutus, we are all Rwandan now.
Contrast that with the ongoing torment of Vukovar, a city not reconquered, but handed back, where schools are still divided, those who perpetrated horrific crimes encounter their victims on a daily basis, and where politicians stoke the hatred for politcal gain a generation on.
The land of 1000 islands had been usurped by the land of 1000 hills. On the face of it, Rwanda doesn’t have that much going for it regarding tourism, apart from a few mountain gorillas, but man, have they done an amazing job with what they have. So much so that in 2019, Bloomberg named Rwanda as one of the top 10 destinations in the world for billionaires. And they had plenty more to say on the subject in How Rwanda Became the Unlikeliest Tourism Destination in Africa. And not just Bloomberg, here is the Robb Report – Rwanda Is Building a Low-Footprint, Luxury Tourism Industry From Scratch—and Succeeding.
An intresting strategy – building a tourism industry rather than just waiting for tourists to arrive as in Croatia…
5. Tourism Promotion
And perhaps my favourite of the five – tourism promotion. In 2018 Croatia was one of the most-searched countries on the planet, its players and fans adored all over the world for their World Cup heroics in Russia. If ever any country had the moral high ground to claim to be the tiny country that dared to dream, and to cash in commercially on that footballing success, it was Croatia.
And yet, with the Kings of Accidental Tourism congratulated themselves on a job well done (not by them, but by others, as usual), tiny Rwanda, a country that had never been to the World Cup, never had a player in the Premier League, stole the show with a sponsorship deal with Arsenal – the first sponsorship deal between a tourism country and a Premier League team – which saw Visit Rwanda seen on Arsenal shirts around the world 35 million times a day. You can read more in my article a few years ago in Lessons from Rwanda: Promoting Tourism Through Football, African-Style.
Croatia, a Survival Kit for Foreigners is now available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.