The jumelage between Rhineland-Palatinate and Rwanda is based on many individual partnerships between schools, associations, institutions, companies and municipalities. The one between the Donnersberg district and the Rutare sector, which was founded as early as 1994 and later extended to the entire Gicumbi district, is particularly enduring. One of its strongest advocates is former senator Jean-Baptiste Bizimana, who as mayor of Rutare initiated and accompanied many partnership projects before he moved to the Rwandan Senate in 2003.
Senator, today we are looking back on 28 years of partnership between Rutare and Gicumbi and the Donnersberg district. How did the partnership come in place at the beginning?
Our common history began in 1994, shortly after the end of the genocide against tutsis. The destruction and displacement in my region was immense. The Jumelage Coordination Office was one of the first foreign Organisations to resume its work at that time. The director, Rudolf Fischer, asked me at this visit how the Jumelage could help us in this difficult situation. We asked first and foremost for support in rebuilding the local administration - with the help of a partnership with a Rhineland-Palatinate municipality. Two weeks later, Mr Fischer introduced us to the Donnersberg district. We got to know each other, shared our needs, and looked for solutions together. Over time the exchange developed into a close friendship. During the first delegation visit from the Donnersberg district in 1999, I met many partners who became close friends - such as Manfred Schäfer. That was a great experience for me.
How did the partnership shape life in your region during this time?
Our partner strongly supported us in the reconstruction: Together we built many classrooms and health centres and restored the local water infrastructure. In 1996, the schools in Rutare reopened and we pushed ahead with the establishment of school partnerships so that pupils could also participate in our friendship. The sponsorship program with the Donnersberg district, through which committed citizens from Rhineland-Palatinate have taken over individual school fees, has also enabled many particularly vulnerable children to gain access to education.
How would you describe your own role in the partnership?
I was the mayor of my municipality after the genocide and I saw my responsibility in taking the partnership forward. I kept in touch with all my friends and shared information with them throughout. I could identify well with the philosophy of the Jumelage - this made my work much easier.
What do you think characterizes the philosophy of the Jumelage?
Mutual respect, correspondence and friendship. First of all, you need to understand that we have to talk to each other. A partnership can only develop through getting to know each other - by participating in each other's lives. We talk to each other, observe, exchange. When we get to know each other, our prejudices also disappear, because from then on we see each other as individual persons. Developing a real partnership is much more important than financial support. In my view, material help should always go hand in hand with friendship and mutual exchange. That's is also the reason why we are like twins today and if one suffers, the other suffers too.
How has the partnership developed over the years?
Well, the philosophy has remained the same, but the actors and the joint actions are changing. The constant change of officials, such as local governments and school headmasters, has a negative impact on the partnership: Many equate jumelage with financial aid and thus ignore our philosophy, for which personal exchange is so important. Therefore they are often disappointed when they do not receive immediate material support and do not engage further in the partnership. Thus, the enthusiasm that sustained us at the beginning of our cooperation has unfortunately diminished considerably.
Now we are all going through COVID-19 together - the economic situation is tight in many places and projects are harder to finance. Those who do not understand the philosophy will resign in the face of "lack of help". But in fact, all participants need to understand that we are here to support each other despite all difficulties.
How could this development be countered? What do you recommend to the new generation?
First and foremost, the coordination office can contribute to a better understanding of the partnership by raising awareness and presenting the philosophy well during visits. All participants must understand it primarily as an opportunity for friendship, not for material help. The re-establishment of partnership-committees could contribute to this. The partnership must be integrated into everyday life and administrative processes. At schools and parent representatives can be more involved in the partnership, as they exist for a longer period of time than the school management. We all, especially the next generation, need to understand that the partnership is our initiative: it is our actions that matter - the coordination office only supports us in implementing our ideas. To effectively strengthen the partnership, the local government should set up an action plan and budget a small amount of money for joint activities and projects.
What would you like to see in terms of interpersonal exchange?
Sometimes we wish for more emotional participation. Many Rwandans write personal letters to their partners, but they don't always receive a direct answer. Rhineland-Palatinate often responds in an active way - through actions that respond to the partner's needs. We appreciate that very much. At the same time, however, we write from the heart and would be happy to receive just such personal words. In addition, the pupils themselves should be more involved in the exchange; after all, they are the partners and should therefore also be the leaders of the partnership themselves.
What special experiences do you personally associate with your municipal partnership?
I have visited Rhineland-Palatinate many times, but I have very special memories of my first visit: The people of the Donnersberg district welcomed us with incredible warmth, hospitality and curiosity. Despite the different language, I feel at home there - and we are trying to give our visitors from Rhineland-Palatinate the same feeling. I was particularly touched during my last visit to Göllheim in 2012 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the jumelage. There, young people gave a concert for us in which they not only played the drums but also sang the Rwandan national anthem. But I also have very fond memories of the meeting with Prime Minister Kurt Beck in 2002 on the Rhine, when I contributed to strengthening our common philosophy as a member of the presidential delegation.