Changing perceptions

Our view of Africa is all wrong. While a two week visit to Rwanda is far too short to claim any significant insights into such a complex and different culture to our own, it is sufficient to realise one key shortcoming of our own culture: its failure to understand Africa as anything other than a continent beset by intractable problems, such as famine, civil war, dictatorship, AIDS and genocide. As such, it is a continent worthy only of our charity.

Africa is indeed faced with acute challenges and problems, but it possesses such strengths as well, in terms of the will of the people to confront them, their talents and determination, and the dreams they have for their future. You don’t have a huge amount of coverage of this in the Daily Mail, or indeed in any of our other media. Africa does not need our charity – it needs our respect, and on the basis of this we can work in partnership, solving problems north and south together.

So challenging and changing the west’s prejudices of Africa is a priority. We have tried to do this with our blog, to show something of the courage and vision  of those we have met there. From government ministers to women running their own co-operatives, academics to entrepreneurs, we have met some truly remarkable people. But while we hope that we have represented them fairly, we are not storytellers: our representation of Rwanda can at best inform and raise interest. It takes the real artists of storytelling to replace the west’s flawed views of Africa with something more accurate and respectful.

On the day I returned, I tried to share with my wife and son my feelings and thoughts of my incredible two weeks away. Perhaps the problem was that I should have edited my 500 photos down to 100 or so, or perhaps I was just tired – but I really wasn’t convinced that I’d got the message over that I had intended.

So, this Sunday morning (24 hours after returning) we all went off to Dundee’s Odeon to watch Africa United. Filmed in Rwanda, and describing the story of a group of children who make the journey from there to the World Cup in South Africa, it has gained some good reviews. Indeed, in some of our presentations in Rwanda we had referred to the film as evidence of a shift in Rwanda’s profile in the west. Without having seen it, the film seemed to us like “a good idea”. Now I have seen it.

Africa United is a remarkable film: just see it. My son, who is as obsessed with football as much as the similarly aged characters in the film (but who was at best curious at his father’s passion for Africa) loved it. While the film presents Africa respectfully, it does not shy away from its problems – indeed its strength is that it shows how its children deal with those problems and rise above them. Debs Gardner-Paterson has directed a hugely entertaining film that presents a very different and positive view of Africa.

Our view of Africa must be challenged and shifted. Africa United does this. If you have any interest in what this blog has been discussing, please watch this film.

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Out of Africa

Dundee is cold. Very cold. It feels strange being home after such an intense period away where we were both thrown into a totally different situation, meeting such inspiring people, seeking to understand some very particular and different problems, and being continually challenged in terms of our perspectives, prejudices and assumptions. We have learned so much in such a short time.

One important thing we have learned is the value of staying connected with friends, colleagues and students while conducting such a project. Through this blog, twitter and facebook we have been continually encouraged by many of you in our work – and that has been such a vital support to us. So to those who have been following this blog (and giving it fairly high ‘hit rates’) we give you our thanks.

We may be back in Dundee, but – in the inimitable words of Karen Carpenter – we’ve only just begun. This project has started to sketch out some possibilities about how design can contribute to the development of Rwanda. Some of these possibilities are well developed, while others need more research and creative thinking applied to them. And as this process continues we will need people to work with us.

Design can make a positive difference to Rwanda: of this, we are convinced. It is the people of that country who will make that difference, and who have the talent, insights and potential to ensure that Rwanda achieves its ambitions, and in so doing helps to build a new future for the whole of Africa.

For those of us living in cold countries far away, we can play a useful role in helping to develop the design skills, knowledge and research that are needed. In the immediate term, Kigali Institute of Science and Technology’s Department of Creative Design is looking to appoint design lecturers. Please let us know, if you are interested in this opportunity.

This blog may have now served its purpose. We hope it has raised interest and awareness of Rwanda and its design opportunity. In the weeks ahead we will consider what other information exchange and forum is most appropriate to take the ideas forward.

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Taking off

We are nearing the end of our last whole day in Rwanda, as we prepare to fly home tomorrow evening. Friday morning will be spent writing up a summary report of our conclusions and future actions, while the afternoon will see us conducting a Design Thinking workshop for staff at the Rwanda Development Board.

Today has been spent presenting our key findings and ideas in two meeting. At the first we were invited to meet with Rwanda’s Minister of Education who provided us with forty minutes of his time to discuss our proposals. These he received most positively, and opened up the prospect of further discussions and ideas on some broader issues within education. This provided us with valuable confidence that we were heading in the right direction, and have thoughts that are consistent with the ambitions and priorities of the country.

During the afternoon we made a more formal presentation and had discussions with a larger group that included representatives of manufacturers, NGOs, consultants, university deans and rectors. Again, this was hugely positive, providing new insights and ideas, and presenting us with a clear programme of actions. So, what are we proposing?

We view design as the process that implements innovation – that harnesses the resources, strengths and creative potential of Rwanda to generate new products and services for new markets, that creates employment and stimulates new business development. Furthermore, it has the potential to make visible the distinctive identity and culture of Rwanda, and to develop the skills, knowledge and tools to solve problems in the commercial and social spheres. Economic development and social innovation need to go hand-in-hand through a considered design strategy.

So, our first proposal is the need to define a strategic policy for design in Rwanda that integrates four issues: (1) the need for industry to recognise and use design to add value, identify niche opportunities and progress the ambitions and objectives of manufacturers and service providers (of various sizes); (2) to fully exploit new technologies, innovations and areas of potential productive growth that are distinctive to Rwanda – such as some of the research we have seen on new textile materials; (3) to rapidly build the skills and knowledge needed to apply design through new education initiatives and programmes; (4) to ensure that design education and practice reflects and reinforces the entrepreneurial ethos that the country recognises as essential to its future development.

Next, we are proposing the establishment of a Design Innovation Centre that can act as a resource for new businesses, a consultancy function for industry, a prototyping facility for designers, co-ops and manufacturers, and a teaching centre for short courses, professional development and degree students. Essentially its a physical space where clothing co-ops could go for design advice, where manufacturers and others would have access to digital printing facilities, where design workshops would be run, and where design students would be tutored in certain processes, and where student design interns from Dundee (and elsewhere) would work on particular projects. At the start it would focus on textiles, but we envisage its development into other design areas once the Centre had been established. Of course, to work it needs a building. It’s useful that we’ve just been offered one!

Third, we are working with two higher education institutions in developing helping to develop degree programmes in design. In one case we have begun work on planning a four year degree course in textile design. Now clearly a key issue here is that of a shortage of expertise to deliver design courses, so on our return we will be looking for recent graduates and others with the skills, the energy and the ambition to help propel Rwanda’s design onto another level.

Fourth, we are investigating a Design Connection initiative. This involves identifying design mentors in Europe and elsewhere who would be prepared to be partnered with co-operatives and others to help them develop and refine new products and services. It would also involve student projects and competitions that address design challenges in Rwanda.

The task ahead of us involves adding all the detail to these broad aims, gaining the funding and finding individuals with the commitment to work with us on aspects of it. So, if you have the skills, the energy and the courage to make a real design difference in a country that still dares to dream – then we’d like to hear from you.

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…to draw or not to draw….

There are 8 professional Designers in Rwanda, and none of them are from Rwanda, said Arthur, a Nairobi trained Graphic Designer and Head of the Creative Art course at KIST. The need for Rwanda to ‘grow it’s own’ is vital and Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) is making a start in its first year of the Creative Arts course which currently has 24 students. This course will produce the first Art and Design Students grown in Rwanda in 3 years time.

Throughout our time here many conversations have taken place around many things to do with education, all of them absolutely positive and heartening. However one topic remains a bit of a hot potato and that is the role of drawing and the value placed on it within the school system here in Rwanda. Design and Art are not currently taught in schools and this inevitably has a knock on effect within degree courses that use drawing such as the Creative Arts and Architecture course at KIST. It is difficult for students to suddenly become engaged with the visual and to use tools for visualisation.  Part of our job has been to discuss the value of Art and Design, in particular the value of Drawing within a school Education system.

The argument around why we need drawing for Design, (a huge question which we at Duncan of Jordanstone enjoy debating, and inevitably unite in agreeing is vital) is that drawing asks the student to first of all engage with their environment through the visual. It encourages them to think at a much deeper level about what they are seeing, using and living with and to ask questions and analyse this. Drawing requires that students record what they are seeing and what they are thinking and use visualisation tools to do it.  The recording process ensures that reflection can take place within a design context and that ideas can be re thought, adapted, examined, shared. Drawing is a means of gathering and analysing information and a form of communication to express an idea or a system in a visual way that words just simply cannot do.  Drawing is used in different ways for different purposes, but it is always a visual interpretation of the social world in which we live.


Our discussions about drawing here in Rwanda have been extremely positive and Rwanda may yet see Art and Design introduced into the curriculum.



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Stories and dreams

Every person in Rwanda has their story. They do not need to tell you, for you to know that they have one. In 1994, virtually every child witnessed something unimaginable, and many of them lost their families. The people here experienced trauma on a scale that those of us in the west simply cannot comprehend. And yet it falls to the young in Rwanda to move forward this youthful country and create for it a new future. This morning we met those young people who are using art to transform not only their own lives, but those of the communities they are part of. Theirs is a vision of art that is transformative and empowering; they were truly remarkable young artists.

On a warm Kigali morning we talked to three of the artists who are involved in Uburanga Arts Studio. Their studios are based in an old building fronted by a large garden that is scattered with their sculptures and art works. The studios themselves are full of canvases that are joyful, moving, but always celebrating the essential joy and love of life. These positive, vibrant artists are self-taught: there is no art school in Rwanda, and indeed art is not taught in primary or secondary schools. “Here we believe that art heals people physically, mentally, and emotionally. With this belief, we’ve created a centre that welcomes all members of the Kigali community.” In the absence of formal art education they open their doors to children and others to come and create art with them.

They spoke of their hopes for their country and city, in which art can be both a symbol and process of renewal; to create a culture that is theirs: unifying but open, creative and inclusive. Yes, they said, they would love to exhibit their work in Scotland and elsewhere, to show the world that there is another Rwanda. Their Rwanda.

When they showed me their canvas of Bob Marley, I casually mentioned that I had seen him play many years ago at the Rainbow in London, which propelled our conversation into an enthusiastic exchange about music, art, and the politics of hope. Bob was a prophet, said one. Well, he might have been, I thought to myself, but these young men do not need prophets: their own energy and vision will suffice.

The artist community in Kigali is small, but hugely committed. Our next visit took us to Ivuka Arts Centre, where a flight of steep steps took us down to a studio outside of which a large group of local people were sitting, talking and laughing. In Rwanda, art is socially-engaged by definition. The artists’ studio is the place where local kids can play with paint, mothers can stop off for a chat: it is a focus for the whole community.

As everywhere else in Rwanda, we were welcomed warmly and introduced to the artists, the work, and the ethos of the studio. A tall young man shook our hands and ushered us into a room overflowing with canvases. He was a big man, with a quiet voice. “I have my story, and I am sorry, but I don’t choose to tell it. All of us here, we were damaged, we were disadvantaged, but it is art that helps us find our place, our peace.” He spoke softly, but with an immense depth that kept you hung upon each word that he spoke.

He showed us his colleagues’ work, and described how the artists connect with their community. “Twice a month my brother and others go to the orphanage. Because they’re orphans there is no school for them, so we teach them how to paint. Who knows, one day one of them may become a great artist! They love to paint, to show their lives and dreams.”

In the corner was a pile of small canvases, about eight inches square. The one I bought showed a little house on a hill, next to which was a vase of flowers, a fruit tree and a pig – a home and a garden: a beautifully painted little dream. I will never meet the artist whose work I have bought, and they will never know that their little dream will by this time next week hang on a wall in a cold country far far away. I am still wrestling over the ethical dilemmas of buying the dreams of Rwandan orphans, but I hope that she or he will know that their dream is safe and respected with me.

Art tells our stories and reveals our dreams. A home, a garden, a vase of flowers, a fruit tree and a pig. Rwandan dreams are made of this. And it’s not much to ask for, really, is it?

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Getting up to speed

Rwanda moves fast: this has been our main lesson today. As a former Belgian colony, many people here speak French alongside their own Kinyarwanda language, and until recently French was the language used in formal education. Then, last year, the government decided that English would become the official language used in schools, colleges and universities. It is a big ask to expect teachers and pupils to change their language. Imagine how we would do this in Europe: consultants would be brought in, there would be a Royal Commission set up, and a phased implementation plan introduced to achieve this over a generation. Here, teachers were given the school holiday to freshen up their English, and when the new school year started, all teaching was conducted in English. That’s fast.

In Rwanda, medium to long-term solutions are at best a luxury. Problems here need urgent solutions – and these are introduced quickly. This necessitates a different culture to our own. The negativity that infuses our own attitudes in Europe has no place in an Africa that seeks rapid change. The people of Rwanda (well, all the ones we’ve met anyway) are positive and enthusiastic about change. That is not to say they are uncritical; criticism finds its place in conversation after acknowledging the positive. Now that makes a very pleasant change.

We have enjoyed another very full, challenging but insightful day. This involved meetings at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), where a Department of Creative Design has been established, and whose staff we met. Very productive.

Then we visited KIST’s Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer who were very receptive to our ideas for a Textiles Hothouse for rapid prototyping and design development. Then the afternoon took us to the Rwanda Development Board for two meetings with senior staff. We proudly set our our plans for a new four year degree programme in textile design with generic content that could lead to other courses to evolve from it in the years ahead.

“Very good, very interesting…” came the response. Good, we thought, job done. “…and I can see how we will benefit considerably in four years time. But how will this help our artisans who need export markets right now?” Um… Well, it’s not that we hadn’t thought of that, but our ideas were at best marginal add-ons. It’s how British academics think – long-term. Or to use the Rwandan term: slowly.

Don’t get me wrong, the discussions were hugely positive, but they have highlighted the urgency of change. We have good ideas (I think) but the timeframes for them are European rather than African. An evening of design thinking lies ahead of us. Fast design thinking.

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The vision thing

If you owned a restaurant, then it is unlikely that you’d choose to name it after your government’s economic strategy. Back in the land of the four C’s (Cameron Clegg’s Coalition Country) you would really only have the option of The Austerity Grill – prime cuts a speciality. This would not prove a great lure for the passing punter. In Rwanda things are just a little different.

Vision 2020 is a national strategy for economic and social development that arose from a country-wide process of consultation. As a developing country in a global economic downturn, Rwanda is reducing its state expenditure proportionately more than the UK. Along with us in Britain, Rwandan children who have no alternative but to work the fields and fetch water, have to tighten their belts to help pay for the reckless risk taking of our well-heeled bankers. However, where we and Rwanda differ, is that Rwanda has a very clear vision of where it wants to be in the future – and the people appear to support that. Its all about means and ends. In the UK we focus exclusively on means, and have forgotten ends almost entirely. Here it’s ends that matter: because that gives the country a sense of hope and future.

By 2020 Rwanda aims to become a middle-income country with an emphasis on a fast developing knowledge economy. As such, it aims to leapfrog over other stages of development, and looks to countries such as Singapore as role models. As a land-locked country with limited transport infrastructure, this makes sense. The focus is on accelerating the development of those sectors that can add the most value to production, concentrating public education expenditure on science, technology and innovation, and rapidly building an IT infrastructure on a par with the best elsewhere.

And this is where design comes in. In our discussions, we are emphasising design as the process that implements and commercialises innovation, that connects the strengths and capabilities of Rwanda with the opportunities of international markets. We are also presenting design as thinking tools that can address some of the fundamental problems facing the country.

Last week represented our deep dive into Rwanda, learning as much as we could from the diverse people and organisations we visited. This week is our ideation week – developing, discussing and refining our ideas on how Rwanda can best develop design strategies and policies most appropriate to furthering Vision 2020. We don’t have a name for our design strategy yet, but once we do, we’ll name a restaurant after it.

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