The Royal Tour: The other side of President Kagame

The Royal Tour: The other side of President Kagame

It will, one suspects, be repeated several times over the coming months, and however many times it is repeated, it will still be the most watched programme on Rwanda’s national broadcaster, RBA.

This is of course, Peter Greenberg’s Royal Tour, Rwanda. A travel documentary which may set some kind of record, in that given the opportunity, every Rwandan household with a television set will want to watch it.

The Royal Tour which airs on American television, is a long running series fronted by journalist and television producer Peter Greenberg, who is both producer and reporter for the series.

The series has a simple format: get heads of state to give the viewer an insider’s view of their country.

It is one of those television ideas which leaves every programme maker ruefully asking themselves, why didn’t I think of that. It has featured among others, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon, King Abdullah 11 of Jordan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and now of course, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

As with the other cases, Rwandans got a whirlwind tour of their country’s best attractions. But, they also got something else in the bargain: through the magic of television, they saw, without leaving their sitting rooms, a side of their wildly popular head of state that one imagines only family, close friends, and acquaintances ever get to see.

There is a predictable pattern to descriptions of President Kagame. Those who have dealt closely with him, speak of his charm, friendliness, warmth.

To the former British politician Clare Short, he is “a sweetie”. To journalists, and others who observe him from a distance, he is “taciturn, stoic, the stern professor”.

In The Royal tour, we had a glimpse of the man, the individual who happens to be the leader, the President. As one woman put it, “it was nice to see our president just riding a bicycle”.

As a series, The Royal Tour is entertainment, it is not a current affairs show, but, it begins with a journalistic edge to set the context.

So Greenberg gave us a potted history of Rwanda in the last two decades, and could not resist questioning the validity of constitutional amendment to suspend term limits, or the high percentage of the vote for the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) candidate.

“If this happened in the America, the elections would be rerun…”; well, not to quibble, but, since he mentioned it, Al Gore may have something to say about a stolen election or two, and as for the obsession over 90% for a single candidate, as one Rwandan put at the time, “given what the man has done for the country, I really would not have been surprised if it had been 100%”.

The reality is that the only way Rwanda could have spared itself the tedious questioning of its election results, is to have deliberately spoiled thousands of ballots, a perverse notion.

Not that Kagame the tour guide in chief didn’t give as good as he got. There is a streak of mischievousness about President Kagame that is often lost in formal occasions, which is how most of us know him. Freed from the formality of his office, he could get his own back, whether on the tennis and basket ball courts, or most amusingly on the vertiginous canopy bridge in Nyungwe forest.

“Let’s see how you hold up”, he intoned, daring Greenberg to follow with equal comfort with heights. Spectacular the bridge may be, but, it’s not for the faint hearted, certainly not for anyone with a fear of heights, although worth braving it, if only just once, even for them.

As he surveyed the scenery before him, a fairly strong wind begun to blow over the canopy. Greenberg hang on for dear life. “See the wind blowing in the trees”, said the President with a smile, “it will be the same when it gets here.”

But, he was solicitous enough to hurry off the bridge before the approaching wind begun to buffet it.

Greenberg was confident he would get his own back on the court. After all he declared, he and the President shared a love of tennis, and as for basketball, well, he was American, and they do lead the world in that sport.

The President was prepared to part with one of his pampered cows, if he lost the tennis match. Greenberg seemed confident, and there seemed a real possibility that he would have the beginnings of a herd any moment. But, then the tide turned.

“Have you got your hiking boots ready Peter?” taunted the eventual winner who as a forfeit, had promised to make his opponent “suffer”, by taking him back on the hike to see the mountain gorillas.

We still do not know how good the President’s tennis game is. He was clearly making allowances for his opponent. Journalists are notoriously out of condition, preferring the bar to the gym, the best stories are after all to be found in the former, and Greenberg was finding the tennis match hard going.

Even though it has to be said, the President was much more sure footed on the basket ball court, fact Greenberg was damned if he would acknowledge, after he was bested on the tennis court.

As they hiked, cycled, jet skied, the President was clearly a man at ease with himself, relaxed, in his element. One imagined a deep exhalation of a breath with a thought, “I wish I could do this more often”.

Most politicians take the same view of ordinary people as actors take of working with children and animals. Never do it unless you absolutely have to.

For President Kagame, however, a most enjoyable moment in the filming was when he was mobbed by people who suddenly realised that he was in their midst. A spontaneous gathering is a nightmare for the security personnel, but, from the broad, relaxed grin on his face, the President was having fun.

Someday, Rwanda’s detractors will have to give up, and acknowledge the connection between the President Kagame and his voters. Then we can perhaps hear no more about how incredible 93% of the vote is.

The Rwanda tourist department’s slogan is Remarkable Rwanda, for the President, there seems to be a variation on the theme. To Greenberg’s statement about how far the country had come, the President accepted the compliment, but, added, “what is really remarkable is to see where we are going”.