A Week in Rwanda

August 5th 2015

Until recently, I knew Rwanda only as a country that had suffered a brutal genocide. During my degree I learned about the Belgian occupation of Rwanda, the practically indistinguishable Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the hundred days of conflict in 1994. In International Development Studies classes the Rwandan genocide is used as a prime example of the harm caused by colonialism. Meanwhile, in Political Science classes professors describe the genocide as a failure on the part of the international community. They talk about the limited definition of genocide under the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. With all this emphasis throughout my degree, I felt like I knew a lot about Rwanda. But after visiting the country I realized that my education had taught me about Rwanda as if it was frozen in time.

Our trip to Rwanda was a bit like a tour we went on on our third day there. The tour was of the home of President Habyarimana. For those of you who haven’t taken a social science degree, President Habyarimana ran the country in the time leading up to the genocide. He was responsible for creating Hutu youth militias. While he was in power Tutsis were routinely killed, although not on a grand enough scale to be termed a genocide. Instead, “genocide was being rehearsed” (to quote a haunting panel at the genocide memorial in Kigali). On top of that, President Habyarimana condoned the making of a ‘Death List’ naming all the Tutsi’s he and his followers wanted to kill. This was later used to target people during the genocide.

Needless to say, President Habyarimana was a pretty horrible guy. Interestingly though his house was presented completely devoid of his history. There was no mention of his crimes. Other than a few photos from the genocide, during the tour we were given only facts about each room and what it was used for. For example, we saw President Haryarimana’s staircase with the built-in alarm system, the shelf for guns hidden in his sons’ bedroom, the secret escape route, the safe full of money in his bathroom, and the room he kept for his witch doctor. Outside his house, we saw the pool reserved for President Habyarimana`s 19 meter long, albino python. Clearly President Habyarimana was a paranoid, superstitious dude.

Most interestingly, in the president`s complex there were the remains of an airplane. This was the plane that he died in after it was shot down by a still unknown person. Chunks of the plane’s broken carcass are scattered in the president’s yard, where it landed after being shot. The whole thing was eerie in its entire decomposing splendor.

As usual I’ve gotten carried away telling a story and have lost the main point. What I`m trying to say is that Rwanda is much like the president`s house (minus the albino snake). Like the tour of his house, many things in Rwanda aren`t talked about. If you didn’t know its history, modern day Rwanda would seem like any other up and coming middle income country. Our experience was full of clean streets, cute cafes, and sunshine.

Kigame is Rwanda`s current president, and at the time of the genocide he was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He has officially been president of the country since 2000, and is currently in the process of amending the constitution so he can remain in office. Many outside of the country refer to him as a ‘benevolent dictator’, although few inside would dare. It is under his rule that the word `genocide` is not used, and mourning is restricted to April through June each year.

I’ve heard many opinions on whether Kigame’s strategy of sweeping everything under the rug is good for the country or not. On the one hand, it won’t do to dwell on events of the past. Rwanda has to look forward and focus on where it is going rather than where it has been. And under Kigame, the country has become a model for the rest of East Africa. The streets are clean, people obey the laws, and Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. Corruption is none existent. Kigame successfully took a country that was crippled by colonialism, torn apart by ethnic divides, with 2/3 of the population displaced, and turned it into a peaceful, functioning society. Obviously he didn’t do this single handedly, but still, kudos to him.

On the other hand, Rwandan society seems repressed. Like a pot about to boil over, the events of 1994 can’t be forgotten – and nor should they be. Kigame’s strategy of keeping the genocide quiet may have helped the country move forward, but it also may have prevented the citizens from grieving properly. In his rush to build a better country, did Kigame fail to respect the needs of the population? One of Erica and William’s friends put it well: he said that Kigame was the right person at the right time. Rwanda needed leadership like his in the post-genocide period to help get through it. But now, 20 years later, his style isn’t what the country needs. Kind of like how some leaders are only good in times of war, Kigame was only good in a time of crisis. Now however it seems as if new leadership is needed.

At President Habyarimana’s house his history almost became more obvious by its absence. Similarly, while we were in Rwanda the genocide felt like the elephant in the room (I say that quite literally, since in President Habyarimana`s bedroom there was a coffee table made of elephant skin, held up by stuffed elephant feet). Although the genocide isn’t discussed in Rwanda, evidence of it can`t fully be hidden. For example, there are still visible bullet holes in the sides of the Rwandan parliament buildings. They eerily stare at you as you whiz by on a moto. There are also interesting laws, clearly meant to combat any residual divisions between people.

The best example of these laws is something called Umuganda. Umuganda is essentially a 1984 style community work day that happens on the last Saturday of every month. Each community comes together to work on a project to better their area – be it picking up trash or paving a road. Sometimes the work day is concluded with a community meeting, where information is disseminated, community issues are addressed, etc. During Umuganda people are not allowed to use cars or motos, and if they are not participating in the work day they must stay inside.

In theory I’m all for community work days. The community gets a face lift, important issues are discussed, and you get to know your neighbors. So I’m not totally against Umuganda. But I don’t like the idea of it being enforced by law – in an ideal world, people would show up for a community work day because they want to, not because they have to. Also, apparently only one member of each household has to attend, so often people will send their guards or housekeepers. It seems to defeat the purpose of community building if the whole community doesn’t attend.

But before I go off on a tangent let me wrap this post up: I was comparing our trip to Rwanda with our visit to President Habyarimana’s house. What I remember from his house is all the interesting things in it, set against the backdrop of his notorious life. Similarly, our trip to Rwanda will be remembered not for the country’s turbulent history, but as a holiday from our normal lives. For me, the word ‘Rwanda’ no longer conjures images of machetes, mass graves, and Romeo Dallaire, but rather memories of clean streets, friendly people, and delicious pancakes (thanks Erica and William!).

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