You cannot tell people to forget who they are.

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Africa » Rwanda » Province de L'Ouest » Gisenyi
June 17th 2009
Published: July 6th 2009
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Settled into my old room at Auberge la Caverne, sipping cappuccino at the Bourbon Coffee - Kigali, green and rolling, brushed by plump tufts of cumulus, receding like waves in the distance - I feel buoyed, at peace. New York is a memory, Vermont is a memory, the great emotional upheaval I’d dreaded these past few weeks little more than a slight murmur of unease. The apartment hunt is on, and the thought of making a home of this small, energetic city for the next few months is already growing on me.

You feel something in Kigali these days. You see it in the blue-glass towers and the luxury sedans, the garish compounds with their reflective windows and Doric columns and million-dollar views. This is a city on the move, a proud showpiece for the Kagame vision of The New Rwanda. I have spotted Hummers and stretch limousines idling on the street, and well-fed men sealing deals with big, meaty handshakes. When I meet Sarah Lacy, an American business reporter, for dinner one night in the suburbs, her very presence seems like an affirmation: Rwanda, long a tiny, destitute, land-locked nation in Africa’s war-torn heart, is now the darling of investors and venture capitalists the world over, a place where your hard-earned forex won’t just disappear down a black hole of charity and aid and opaque foreign bank accounts, but might actually turn a profit.

At least, such is the view from Kigali. Swept away these first few days by all the changes around the capital, it seems like a good time to head into the country with the Hillywood crew, to see whether Vision 2020 doesn’t get a bit more muddled once you’ve traded the Kagame Kool-Aid for a bottle of banana beer.

Leaving the city, the country seems even more beautiful than I remember: the green cropped fields of tea leaves, the silver flash of eucalyptus trees, the terraced hillsides, the banana plants scattered across the valley like jacks. The road hugs the hills and bends and switches back, and everywhere there seems to be a view that stretches clear across Rwanda. And people, too: on the roads and in the villages, and tilling the fields, and marching down solitary paths toward some distant home of a cousin or family friend. For all the ambitious plans being pushed by the Kagame administration, you’re quickly reminded of certain demographic realities as you travel around rural Rwanda: that one of the most densely populated countries on the planet is growing at a rate it can’t sustain, and that a people whose recent history of violence was often tied to the scarcity of available land are popping out babies with nowhere to put them.

For the time being, at least, they’re being put to work. With plans for Rwanda to connect to the broadband network that has, just this week, arrived in Kenya via an undersea cable, fiber optic lines are being unspooled all across the country. It is a massive mobilization effort, and all of rural Rwanda seems to be pitching in: women in colorful headwraps with babies bundled to their backs; old men in sportcoats worn thin at the elbows; boys in football jerseys and rolled-up jeans. They’re thwacking away on the side of the road, swinging pick-axes and hoes and other garden tools as they dig the pipeline that will, ultimately, help Rwanda to leap into the digital age. Bald kid-sized heads periodically poke from the ditches. Miles of trenches dug from this country’s rich soil are providing endless entertainment for the children of the poor; their wealthier compatriots will soon reap the benefits, connecting to a world of salacious rap videos and amateur porn like their tech-savvy First-World counterparts.

(A few days later, driving to Ruhengere with my friend Pierre Kayitana, I’ll learn that just a single clever entrepreneur - a friend of Pierre’s - convinced the government that he should manage the entire physical operation on his own. He assumed sole responsibility for gathering, supervising, and paying the work crews - the magnitude of which job dawned on no one in the hallowed halls of government. Only later did they realize the deal was struck in exchange for what Pierre suggested was a small fortune. The sound you hear now is the sound of Rwandan ministers kicking themselves in the rear.)

We are passing through towns whose names I’ll never know, passing shops whose owners have decided to hitch their fortunes to hopes for a bright Rwandan future. There is a Vision 2020 salon de coiffure, and a Vision 2020 butcher’s shop, and more Vision 2020 bars than I can count. When it comes to branding, the current government cannot be faulted in the least. By the time we’ve sputtered to a stop in Gisenyi, huddled on the shores of Lake Kivu, the only thing that seems to be missing from that clear-eyed, long-term vision is a bit of short-term elbow grease. The tarmac has tapered off and the streets of Gisenyi are like a warzone, harried moto drivers puttering along and dodging massive craters that suggest a long, steady downpour of meteorites the size of VW bugs. Around the bus park the idle youths of Gisenyi mill, joke, engage in light-hearted fisticuffs. Many drive motos or operate push-bike taxis, but on a lazy June afternoon on the shores of Lake Kivu, there aren’t many takers for their services.

One boy, a gregarious 22-year-old named Moussa, complains to me about the bitter fortunes he faces in Gisenyi. There are no jobs, there is no business. It’s across the border, in Goma - he hitches a thumb over his shoulder - where there’s real money to be made. But Moussa can’t just pick up and start a new life; the Congolese soldiers will refuse him entry at the border. He has an 18-year-old girlfriend, a student from a neighboring village, who he hopes to marry soon. She is, he promises me, “tres beau.” (She even has a sister, he adds suggestively.) But it’s impossible to marry and start a home with his meager earnings as a push-bike operator. He’s applied for a moto license, but what he wants most is to drive long-haul trucks across the country. And what about me? What am I doing in Rwanda? Do I know anyone who might be looking for a domestic, or a watchman, or someone to help around the house?

At dusk the Hillywood crew has gathered in the bus park, and the great screen is inflated to the cheers of the crowd. A cold wind is blowing off the lake, and I spend a tortuous few hours stamping my feet and puffing into my hands and waiting for the damn show to be over. Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. Despite Pierre’s assurance that the crew would be heading back to Kigali after the screenings, it’s only now that I’ve learned we’ll be spending the night in Gisenyi. This shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Apart from the fact that I’ll be paying for two hotel rooms tonight, and that I’ll undoubtedly be waking with my contacts glued to my eyeballs, it’s hardly the end of the world. But I’m grumpy and put off all the same - indignant at the fact that Pierre, that someone, couldn’t warn me beforehand. Have I blown things out of proportion? I certainly have. And it’s only now, for the first time since returning to Rwanda, that I’m forced to ask myself an important question: has my extended stay in New York turned me into a total pussy?

The crowd is having no such moral quandaries. They laugh and hoot at this year’s crop of NGO propaganda - a series of public-service films, coinciding with a massive nationwide drive, to warn Rwandan youths about the perils of sugar daddies and mommas - and they’re in hysterics during a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. The stars are out, and a pale moon is shining, and despite my bitterness, even I can appreciate the spell that’s been cast. More than the rote screenings in Kigali, it’s Hillywood that is the star of the Rwanda Film Festival. While everyone seems to go through the motions of the ceremonies and low-rent pageantry in Kigali, it’s in Hillywood that most of the Cinema Centre crew seems to have its heart.

That night, at the Dian Fossey Hotel, we’re greedily wolfing down a dinner buffet of chicken and rice and beans and cassava. The crew is hungry and spent - it’s the fourth day of the Hillywood program - but they’ve settled into the camaraderie that comes with long days of hard labor with the same tight-knit crew. Ayuub Kasasa Mago, the Hillywood pointman, has promised them a late start in the morning, and the luxurious prospect of cold beers followed by warm beds has made the mood especially boisterous. At my table, having passed their verdict on the night’s turn-out - healthy, if not quite as spirited as the night before’s - the talk turns to politics, and the swift changes that have come to Kigali in just the year since my last visit. Someone, shaking his head bitterly, observes, “I would say all of the development, 80%!o(MISSING)f it is in Kigali. You have students who graduate from senior six, most of them cannot even write their names.” Gesturing to the window with his chin, he adds, “Nothing is being done for the rest of the country.”

Says another, his face heavy: “Five minutes from Kigali, you hear the poverty screaming.”

It’s hard to disagree with him, after my brief tour around town this afternoon. For all the spirited talk of reconciliation and healing in Kigali - of a Rwanda stepping boldly toward the promised land of 2020 - the mood in Gisenyi was somber, uncertain. No one seemed to have enough work, and more than a few people I spoke to felt that the government wasn’t doing enough to help them. But you didn’t get the sense there would be any public outcries, or a march on Kigali. “People here are afraid,” says a voice at the end of the table. “Everyone knows what they cannot say in public.”

“I do not want my children growing up here,” says someone else. “At least in Kampala they can be free, they do not have to worry about who is watching them.”

It’s a subject that’s led to much debate about Rwanda - if not necessarily within Rwanda itself. For all the progress this country’s made under the current administration, Rwanda’s human-rights record - its shackling of the press; its stringent laws against a loosely defined “genocide ideology” - has made its leaders as much a target of Western critics, it seems, as the conspirators on trial in Arusha. President Kagame has not failed to grasp this irony. Like his friend Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan leader, the president has shown an allegiance to Western-style democracy that is tenuous at best. About this stance he is unrepentant. More than most other African leaders - with their knee-jerk platitudes of Us Against Them, cloaked in the threadbare mantle of neo-colonialism - P.K. has a very legitimate grievance against the countries that abandoned Rwanda to the genocidaires. Why, indeed, should the bureaucrats of New York and Geneva, the effete diplomats of the UN, dictate the terms by which Rwanda can enter the community of nations? Who are we to wag our fingers at another country’s misdeeds and excesses? Having turned our backs on Rwanda in its darkest hour, how can our word - our so-called values - ever be legitimate again?

Of course, if you get too caught up in the slippery ethics of it all, you find yourself paradoxically standing up for a poor country - i.e., an abstract entity, as embodied by His Excellency P.K. - at the expense of the very real, flesh-and-blood, poor people within it. You applaud the president for standing up to the West while insuring his own people can’t stand up to him. Which, as an amateur ethicist, is hard to either morally justify or philosophically unravel.

Around the dinner table at the Dian Fossey Hotel, the debate is a bit closer to terra firma. The fears are more concrete. “I am afraid to see all that anger in the countryside building,” says someone, pointing to the government’s ambitious strategy to eradicate ethnicity from the national debate. On Rwandan identity cards, there’s no longer a distinction between Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas - a distinction that, 15 years ago, could mean the difference between life and death. Now there was simply one people, a Rwandan people. But how do you explain the genocide to future generations, how do you teach its lessons, without the context of its ethnic roots? How do you explain to a Tutsi boy the death of a grandmother, a father, an aunt? Does it make the genocide seem even more like a collective madness - a slaughter that was arbitrary as opposed to systematic, an anarchic wave of violence that, having subsided, can never be repeated again?

There are grumbles of dissent around the table, a reluctance to believe in the post-ethnic utopia of The New Rwanda. “You cannot tell people to forget who they are,” someone says.


8th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009, for the Africa/writing cathegory
Check this out :)
15th January 2010

Simply one people
Just taking the ethnicity of a person from their passport or identity card will not change their feeling of belonging to that group or make them forget the history of that ethnicity. Even in the United Kingdom, despite our passports stating we are only that we are British citizens, people from each country that makes up the kingdom are very well aware of what country they come from. I don't think of myself, first and foremost, as British, but as English (although I am now also Australian and proud of that, too). And try telling a Scot or Welshman that they are English (a mistake made by many visitors) and see what it gets you! However, despite the bloody history and past hatreds, most of us who make up the UK are now content to be one nation (parts of Northern Ireland being the obvious exception), while still retaining our individual identities, and in some areas a language other than English, too. I think it highly unlikely that we will suddenly have a civil war that tear the UK asunder (again, with the possible exception of N Ireland). If the government in Rwanda starts to treat the people as equal, not just in their identity cards, so that the fear and anger are lessened, then maybe they, too, can stand some chance of becoming a single, peaceful entity while still keeping their own history and ethnicity.
22nd January 2010

The complicated ethnic question.
Thanks for responding, Kathy. I do hope you're right, but I think the particular case of Rwanda is different in some important ways (well, apart from the most obvious ones). For one, as you yourself say: foreigners in the UK (and certainly in the States as well) are expected to embrace a common national identity, but they're still allowed - and even encouraged - to celebrate their own personal heritage. It's why America is the land of hyphenations, and why everyone gets a parade. In Rwanda, you can't be a Rwandan who's also proud of his Hutu or Tutsi heritage. You can ONLY be Rwandan. And as you yourself say, that won't change the person's strong feelings for their ethnic group. (Never mind the very complicated discourse on how fluid those ethnic groupings actually are.) The other, more cynical, point one can make is that "banning" ethnicity is a convenient way to obscure the fact that most of the important decision-makers in Rwanda - i.e., those men and women controlling the security of the state, and those benefitting most from the economic resurgence - just happen to be Tutsi (and, more specifically, Tutsis from President Kagame's own clan). A similar thing happened here in Burundi in the 1980s, when President Bagaza "abolished" ethnicity. It was just a cover-up that allowed his own people to profit. Still, the jury is still out on Rwanda. I do hope the progress the country has made in the past decade has been genuine, and that the benefits will eventually be felt by everyone.

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