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THE YEAR OF EAST AFRICA: Rwanda

One of an occasional series

Rwanda’s best known attraction may be its mountain gorillas, but seeing the country’s commitment to “green” urban practices and reconciliation from its 1994 genocide are two good reasons to visit.

Rwanda, one of East Africa’s landlocked nations, is known as “the Switzerland of Africa” — not because it’s mountainous, even though its name means “land of a thousand hills.”

Your first clue may come even before your feet hit the ground. Flying into the capital city, Kigali, don’t be surprised to hear a message warning you to leave any plastic bags you brought with you on the airplane.

Non-biodegradable plastic bags are banned in Rwanda, nationwide.

The official watchword for Rwanda in general and Kigali in particular is “clean and green,” and they’re serious about it. To see just how serious, hit the streets of Kigali on the last Saturday of any month.

That’s Cleaning Day in the capital, officially decreed by Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Everybody has to spend the day cleaning — their homes, the streets, themselves.

And don’t be surprised to see the mayor of Kigali and the president himself out on the streets, joining in.

This effort has turned Kigali into perhaps the most spotless capital in Africa, and one of the cleanest in the world. It’s all part of the city’s master plan, one of the most ambitious in Africa — or maybe anywhere.

On a continent whose communities are too often tortured by mountains of garbage, terrible roads and half-fast development in general, it’s a remarkable sight.

But there’s more going on here than just urban beautification, even more than the ultra-ambitious plans to turn Kigali into a world-class business and tourist destination on a par with Singapore.

Because among the people out there on the Kigali streets, cleaning up their city side-by-side, are orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide — and some of those who made them orphans.

Rwanda is relentlessly pursuing an official policy of national reconciliation. The drive to beautify the capital is part of a larger effort to foster a spirit of national unity.

Rwandans aren’t denying nor trying to bury their past. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is poignant proof of that and is a must-see for any visitor. But even as they acknowledge this awful legacy, they seem determined to move beyond it.

In today’s Rwanda, you’re neither Tutsi nor Hutu nor Twa. You’re Rwandan, period.

President Kagame is not without his critics. There are those who chafe at what they perceive as an undemocratic, steamroller-like approach to pushing the country’s ambitious drive toward modernization and development.

Mr. Kagame’s response: Judge me on my results.

If nothing else, the results so far look pretty clean and hopeful.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

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