Sunday, January 23, 2011


Rwanda’s biggest selling point is the absence of corruption. Last week, I discovered a corrupt plot by at least 300 of my dear Rwandan friends. I am embarrassed to tell the story as it shows both my own naivety and ethical uncertainty. However, if I ignore this conspiracy I have absolutely no business as a Kigali pastor or professor.

Rwanda has a rampant problem with ghost university students. The time to speak and act is now. The only dilemma is that this form of corruption is practiced by our future. A caning will break their spirit of hope. Yet forgiving them without accountability will teach their young minds that truth can be negotiated. For this season the only appropriate principles are the oldest ones of time. We must seek both justice and mercy.

Academic policy at our government sponsored universities requires for students to attend 85% of lectures in order to sit their final exams. Many classes have 100 to 200 students. Many lecturers do not take roll call. Besides the loss of lecture time some students are notorious late comers. Sometimes one lectures for 45 minutes in a two hour class before the full class arrives. Thus many professors pass a sheet of paper for students to list their name, student registration number, and signature.

Last week I followed protocol, but decided to count students at the end of the lecture. My first class had 95 signatures, 47 students, and 48 ghosts. My second class had 120 signatures, 71 students, and 49 ghosts. My third class started with 3 ghosts and grew to 10. My fourth class had 9 ghosts when I interrupted the passing of the list to count students.

My fifth class surprised me. They had 51 signatures, 51 students, and no ghosts. They are the KIST Fourth Year Mechanical, Civil, and Water Engineers. In January 2012 they will be the first ones I recommend to potential employers. Parents of this group you should be proud.
I only discovered the ghosts as my first two classes were dismissed. However, my third, fourth, and fifth classes heard me teach ethics with all my might. They claimed that in their four year academic career the ghosts had only been caught once before. God help us if they are telling the truth on that matter. In my class the ghosts are busted.

A caning is for children. These young people are adults. They vote. In a year many will be laboring to build our nation. I chose to ask the question of why before I administrated discipline.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail wrote, “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” This great teacher of ethics guided our discussion. Why did many choose to lie for a friend? Was their love and loyalty to be commended? Or was their corporate deception the substance of Rwanda’s next historic tragedy?

Several common answers arose. Ghost students learned their trade from ghost lecturers. If the teacher chooses not to come to class, his students will follow the same practice. Hypocrisy is hereditary in academia. Others remarked that ghost students thrive in an academic climate that only teaches rote memory, but ignores the development of critical and creative thinking. A class led by lecturer who thrives on debate dare not be missed by the inquisitive mind. In a class led by video tape masquerading as a teacher all one needs to survive is a friend’s notes. Honest academia is a great equalizer. The students are the true masters of the class. The professor is accountable to them before all others. All I could offer these complaints were my repentance for those who practice my trade with sloth and a commitment that I would never bore them with a rote lecture.

However, another answer common arose. MINEDUC cancelled the bursary. Many students are struggling to find the resources to survive. Their comrades with the resources to attend lectures are lying to protect the poor. Yet, there are holes in the argument. By my student’s admission ghost students did not begin in 2011, but in 2006 and 2007. Ghost students are a long standing bad habit. A great Jewish ethicist named Moses affirmed that it was right to lie to protect life. Minister Murigande is not Pharaoh, King of Egypt. Nor are my lying friends, Hebrew mid-wives saving children.

Martin Luther King Jr. further wrote, “There are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” Thus we will journey together. My students may be adults in Rwanda’s legal framework. However, they have shown themselves adolescents in the practice of democracy. Adulthood is about responsibility. Adulthood refuses to blame another for one’s own choices. When adults find a problem they reason in community to find an answer. Thus the cost of my forgiveness is that my class will debate, find consensus, and put their thoughts in writing. MINEDUC and KIST you will hear from my students. If you make a choice that is not palatable to my students we will seek purity of thought and action. Rwanda has no future with ghosts. With real students acting as adults in community Rwanda has a great future. I refuse to compromise Rwanda’s future for ghosts.


  1. Interesting read, Dave.

    I too am proud of these 51 Civil/Mech/Water Engineers. It's not a profession that is glamorised, nor are the salaries glittering (despite the enormous responsibility and work load).

    Many will be called to deal with massively costly projects with whole economies relying on their infrastructure - water supplies, roads, dams, buildings, bridges, waste water management, airports, transport, etc. Their contribution to the well being of our societies is enormous. They must be meticulous in their work at all stages, errors could be disatrous.

    This might seem like fair play because they were blessed with the brains and logic to complete the degree. However, there is another face to it all. They must be ethically sound considering the enormous sums involved and different interests (from the voiceless to the all powerful) at stake whilst not holding a position that "protects" them. To list just some; prioritising projects, sound design, land aquisition, contracting work, quality control, environmental issues, maintenance - not one stage will be free of external unethical pressures for these future engineers.

    Too many of these things are being decided by self interests of economists, people with money or the ones in power. I hope that these young students will work in an environment where their professional opinions are heard and be able to carry out their work without menace.

    Do hydroelectric power stations in a country where drought is frequent sound like a bank's idea or an engineer's (especially when this country, which the Great Rift valley cuts across, is bubbling for geothermal)? This happened not so far away from here - instead of clean reliable power, they got corruption and debt.

    I'm glad that you have brought to our attention this small group of Rwanda's future engineers. In their quiet way, they have shown that there is hope for Rwanda. Teach them well, Dave!

  2. Dave,
    Your observation of and intolerance of ghost students is indeed a battle worth fighting.
    Interestingly enough the engineering students by their own interest have already concluded your battle is worth fighting, as they have already joined in. These engineers likely will be entrusted with providing a worthwhile and lasting infrastructure for their country to build their future upon. If the foundation is not worthwhile, it is a waste of resources to try and put anything worthwhile on top of it! The same is true of their education. The very foundation of education must rest on solid ethical bedrock.
    Memorizing textbook solutions only works if textbook problems come your way.
    Challenge and debate is a great way to approach this battle. May the best men and women win!