Paul Kagame is the last person you would expect to see at a science meeting. Eighteen years ago he returned to his native Rwanda after 30 years of exile. In 1994, as the genocide against his people climaxed, he led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to overthrow the incumbent government. Nine years later he became Rwanda’s first democratically elected president.
This evening I listened with hundreds of the public, scientists and fellow journalists as Kagame — the last keynote speaker at the AAAS president’s address — voiced his vision of using scientific education to help rebuild his torn country. “There can be no better inspiration than the United States of America,” he said. “What we seek to achieve in Rwanda and Africa is taken for granted here.”
Kagame proceeded to explain how he wants to shift the source of Rwanda’s economy from raw-material exports, such as coffee, towards knowledge. To do this, he is almost doubling the funding for scientific research from 1.6% of the gross domestic product to 3% (incidentally, more than the US). “We must keep the steady track of using the powerful tools of science and technology,” he continued. “We have made a good start in Rwanda, but challenges still remain.” Those challenges include building relationships between the government, businesses and universities.
I can only describe it as inspiring to see a man for whom the ravages of war must surely be a raw memory speak with such prudence about science. And clearly this sentiment was shared by everyone, because he finished his talk to a standing ovation.