The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) finally takes place in Kigali. For Rwanda’s hospitality industry, this is a big deal as business will be booming. More than 100 hotels opened their doors wide, ready to welcome the expected 5,000 delegates.
For the Government of Rwanda, CHOGM is a big deal because it will show Rwanda’s ability to effectively host the world. For the Heads of State who will walk the red carpet of the event, CHOGM is a big deal as it will give them the opportunity to fraternize, network and make major decisions that touch on the theme of the event,” Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”.
What about ordinary Rwandans, East Africans and citizens of the 54 Commonwealth member states? How important is this year’s CHOGM to them?
How will the trader from Remera, one of the suburbs of Kigali, or the small farmer from Ngoma, in eastern Rwanda, benefit from CHOGM? Along the same lines, how will CHOGM benefit students at the University of Nairobi in Kenya or Matoke vendors at Owino Market in Kampala? These everyday people are often so removed from the big conferences that many are not even aware of the conferences.
In order to answer this critical question about the benefits of CHOGM for ordinary people, allow me to press the rewind button and take you back to sixteen years ago.
In November 2006, I participated in the twelfth Conference of the Parties (COP 12) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Nairobi, Kenya. I was working at the time with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). I was also one of the founders of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC), which we officially launched at a side event at this UN conference.
I suspect that, like me, most of the thousands of delegates attending this COP 12 do not remember the Conference resolutions. But I vividly remember how we mobilized other young people from dozens of countries to take full advantage of the event to launch an African youth initiative that is still going strong today. The lesson learned back then was that it often falls to “ordinary” people to leverage these big events to advance their lofty agendas.
Fortunately, CHOGM has built-in platforms to facilitate citizen participation. The Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) will bring together civil society representatives from Commonwealth countries. Throughout the Forum, they will debate at length the title of the event, “Delivering a common future: our health, our planet, our future”. This will give them the opportunity to address common citizen challenges and come up with unique solutions. Equally important, their mere presence at the event will provide them with invaluable networking opportunities.
The Commonwealth Women’s Forum and the Commonwealth Youth Forum are also official CHOGM events. They will provide youth and women with invaluable networking opportunities. In order to attract the participation of thousands of young people who will not be physically present at the events, simultaneous interpretation by telephone and simultaneous remote interpretation of the proceedings in Kinyarwanda, Swahili and other African languages of the Commonwealth countries can be of great help! As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you speak to him in his own language, it touches his heart. I am sure that major language service providers such as Languages Africa Rwanda, www.languagesafrica.com, can rise to this challenge and work hand in hand with the CHOGM Secretariat to make this happen at all times!
However, Heads of State must also live up to the theme of CHOGM and innovate new ways to ensure the relevance of CHOGM in this third decade of the 21st century. They can do this by taking the example of Rwanda, the host country. Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa; Despite the immense odds against it after the Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda has become a pioneer of development in Africa. This was achieved in part through a laser focus on action, not just empty rhetoric.
This action-oriented approach is exactly what CHOGM needs. It must ensure concrete action on a key issue like trade. CHOGM member states should engage in more robust exchanges among themselves. In particular, the 19 African CHOGM members should be able to export significantly more to the UK and other wealthier CHOGM members. If this happens, ordinary Africans will begin to feel the tangible benefits of CHOGM.
David Bwakali is creative and strategic director of Languages Africa Rwanda. He is also the founder and captain of Africa Creative Action, an organization that employs the full range of creativity to achieve sustainability.