As the world braces for the surprising twists and turns of the highly anticipated final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the show’s star and United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador Nikolaj Coster-Waldau had an unexpected revelation of his own.
Coster-Waldau traveled to Rwanda in mid-March, where he was taken by surprise by what he saw.
“All I knew of Rwanda was that it was the scene of one of the worst tragedies in modern history: The genocide against the Tutsi people. Almost a million people killed,” said Coster-Waldau, who visited the East African nation for the first time just weeks before the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi on April 7.
“I expected to find a country in despair,” Coster-Waldau continued. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Coster-Waldau traveled to Rwanda with colleagues from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to shine a spotlight on the progress the country has made over the past two-and-a-half decades. UNDP partners with the Rwandan government and its people through programs and initiatives focused on issues such as gender equality, poverty and climate change.
“From the moment I arrived in Kigali to the moment I left, I was constantly impressed by what I experienced,” said Coster-Waldau. “By how rapidly change can happen if there is connection between the people and the political will of the government. And how the power of forgiveness is much stronger than the power of hate.”
“Rwanda is one of the most impressive stories of transformation not only in Africa, but anywhere in the world,” said Stephen Rodriques, UNDP Rwanda Resident Representative. “We are grateful to Nikolaj for shining a spotlight on Rwanda and showing the world how a lesser developed country can lift itself up largely through its own resources and initiatives.”
Following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Rwandan government revised its constitution to remove all barriers to equal human rights and include the rights of women as full partners in nation-building. Today, the country holds a world record in female representation in parliament at 61 percent. In addition, 50 percent of cabinet positions in the Rwandan government are held by women.
Coster-Waldau spoke with Rwanda’s Minister for Gender and Family Promotion, Honorable Solina Nyirahabimana, who explained that Rwanda is not only implementing laws to ensure gender equality but is also building the structures necessary to promote women in every aspect of society.
“We need everyone in our society to be contributing towards the rebuilding of Rwanda. Not just 50 percent of society. And we need to include everyone in the opportunities.” Nyirahabimana said. “It’s just common sense.”
Fighting inequality in all its forms and dimensions and creating a culture of inclusion is at the heart of Rwanda’s national healing and rebuilding process. This kind of inclusive thinking extends to the way in which Rwanda is tackling its fight against climate change, the effects of which take their biggest toll on poverty-stricken communities.
Rwanda’s innovative approach addresses the issue of poverty and economic development while protecting the environment through the creation of so-called green villages. Coster-Waldau visited one such village, named Rweru, in the Bugesera district in the eastern part of the country. Established in 2015 with support from UNDP, the village was created to relocate people from two islands on Lake Rweru, where they lived without access to basic infrastructure like schools, hospitals, electricity or clean water, and were at high risk of landslides during the rainy season.
Today, the Rweru green village is a safe haven for 144 families with 140 more houses nearly completed. The villagers have achieved energy and water self-sufficiency by generating biogas for cooking from consolidated human and livestock waste and harvesting rainwater for domestic use.
“Coming from Denmark — one of the world’s wealthiest countries that takes pride in being at the forefront of innovation and a green, sustainable future — it was refreshing for me to see that it’s possible to make the future better without it instantly being qualified by a price tag,” said Coster-Waldau who was surprised to learn that Rwanda is ahead of many Western nations when it comes to climate action, having abandoned the use of plastic bags ten years ago and with plans underway to stop the use of single-use plastics.
Coster-Waldau recognizes that there is still a lot more work to be done in Rwanda and more challenges to overcome, such as the country’s limited natural resources and a high rate of poverty.
“But Rwanda has shown a commitment towards positive change and, on their terms, has been willing to accept help from, among others, UNDP, which has partnered with the government and its people to help them in the transition process.”