The Color Purple

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Africa » Rwanda
April 18th 2012
Published: April 20th 2012
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I knew what I was getting into (sort of) when I planned a trip to Rwanda during the anniversary of the 1994 genocide. I knew that the country would be observing a week of official mourning and remembrance – which would mean I would not experience the more typical rhythm of the country. But, truth be told, that was one of the reasons I wanted to visit at this time. However, I must also admit that I was startled by the extent to which the memorial activities affected the daily routine.

The first thing one notices during the genocide memorial week is the abundance of purple. Purple signs, purple clothes, purple wristbands… Rwanda has adopted the color purple as the official color of mourning, apparently in reference to Lent (since the genocide began on April 7, thus Easter season); the color is splashed liberally across the country and its people. Shortly after I crossed the Rwandan border from Burundi, I encountered a large purple billboard stating: “Learning from Our History to Build a Bright Future!” It was a sentiment I would see displayed in various forms throughout the country.

On television, too, it seemed as though 90% of the programming was devoted to reminding citizens of the genocide and the progress made since. There were frequent talk shows and more fascinatingly – at least to me – music videos. Actually, the only musical performances allowed on the small screen during the week were elegiac pieces on the genocide. Although I couldn’t understand the Kinyarwanda lyrics (except the frequent use of “jenocide”), I was surprised to hear so many different songs on such a grim theme.

One song did include some English lyrics, most notably the refrain “never again” (a deliberate attempt to connect the 1994 events to the horrors of the Holocaust – see below for more on this topic). Occasionally, there would be English subtitles, giving me some insight into the types of issues being addressed; some topics struck me as bizarre subject matter for songs. For example, a quite pretty sounding piece – set to a slow, sad, but catchy beat – turned out to be essentially propaganda about journalists: “Many journalists were killed trying to tell the truth…. May the media sow the truth that will reap peace and prosperity among Rwandans. The media sector is….a catalyst of unity for Rwandans.” After a time, I began to find the bombardment of genocide themed music more than a little morbid – and creepy.*

Of more direct impact on one's daily plans during the memorial week is the required closing of business around lunchtime. While some shops seemed to brave the law by staying open, most places shuttered by 2pm; if they reopened at all it wasn’t until evening. Also, dancing and similar pleasurable activities are forbidden; people drink behind closed doors. You are not supposed to be enjoying yourself while grieving.

This enforced period of mourning made for a somber introduction to Rwanda. And got me thinking about the efficacy of such an approach. Would mandated grief really prevent future bloodshed? Or might it backfire? Might it not cause resentment? Do Rwandans really want to be shackled to, or even simply identified with, the story of events that took place nearly two decades ago? Again, there are no easy answers….


Shortly after I settled in Kigali, my host, Toru, took me for a long walk around town. Our first stop was the Hotel des Mille Collines. It looks like any other bland, international standard hotel. It has a nice pool with a view over the thousand hills of its name. Kids were splashing around in the water; their parents ordered fruity drinks from the poolside bar. You could be forgiven for not making the connection: this is the hotel of “Hotel Rwanda” fame. Its current state of utter innocuousness sent a shiver down my spine…

Due to the movie, many non-Rwandans associate the Hotel des Mille Collines with the heroism of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who the movie portrayed as rescuing many Tutsis (and Hutus) who sought refuge in Des Mille Collines while the bloodbath unfolded just outside its walls. As with so much in the history of Rwanda, the story seems to be a lot murkier than first appearances indicate. There are now serious allegations, including from people who were supposedly saved by him, that Rusesabagina might have actually extorted his “guests”, that he might have actually been a collaborator with the genocidaires. These are allegations that he seriously denies, of course. It will take some disentangling of the conflicting stories to get at a closer approximation of the “truth”.

Perhaps an even greater degree of controversy follows Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. He is seen by many as a hero for helping to end the genocide, when he led the RPF (the Rwandan Patriotic Front; initially a militia composed largely of Tutsis, now the ruling political party) forces into Kigali in 1994, and for being the architect of Rwanda’s remarkable political and economic transformation since. Indeed, even for an outside observer, such as myself, who was not around in 1994, it is more than impressive to see what has been done in the country. Plastic bags are banned, contributing to a very clean environment; roads are wide and smooth (better by far than most US roads, let alone the ones I’ve become quite familiar with in other parts of Africa!); the economy is bustling.

Yet there are others who accuse Kagame of being the one who ordered the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane – the “trigger” to the genocide - and of conducting some shady politics behind the smokescreen of Rwanda’s success. For one, there are those who level the accusation that the current law forbidding people to publicly identify their ethnicity is actually a means for Kagame, a Tutsi, to secretly favor his Tutsi compatriots. There are also serious concerns about the impact of Rwandan armed forces Kagame has sent into the eastern Congo, particularly in regards to their contributions to continued ethnic conflict and the extraction of Congolese resources for Rwanda’s benefit. Moreover, while Kagame vehemently denounces African leaders who overstay their term limits, he has been in power for nearly two decades himself. What price is being paid – will be paid – for his heavy-handed approach to bringing peace, order, and prosperity to Rwanda? Again, it is hard to predict.


The next morning I hopped on a motor-taxi (a motorcycle taxi!) and zipped down to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, nestled in the leafy district of Kisozi.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had the place all but to myself, at least at first. I had thought that perhaps with the intensity of genocide commemorations that there would be a big crowd; however, for nearly an hour I was able to wander among the eight mass graves – containing the unidentified remains of a staggering 250,000+ victims - and surrounding memorial gardens essentially alone. This was enough to make me choke up at times, but I still had the actual center to visit...

By the time I entered the Genocide Memorial museum, I was joined by a few more tourists and locals coming to pay their respects. Overall, the main exhibit is a well designed, informative endeavor that attempts to trace developments from the pre-colonial era, through colonialism, through independence, through the first signs of a “final solution”, up to and beyond the genocide itself. Early in the experience, the viewer learns of a theory that “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were originally designations more of economic standing than ethnicity before the Europeans arrived – that the racialization of the words occurred during the colonial era, leading to devastating effects at and after independence. The videos of survivors peppered throughout the exhibit were moving, but the final series of rooms – one full of photographic portraits, the next of skulls and bones, the last with clothes and other artifacts found in anonymous, mass graves – caused me to sit down and clutch my stomach.

But I must admit that despite the emotional and visceral impact of the exhibit, I found myself experiencing a creeping sense of uneasiness over how the story was being shaped. The overall narrative is of Tutsi victimization at the hands of radicalized Hutus, which is ultimately the case for the 100 days or so period in 1994 when the massacres occurred. That narrative is yoked, too, to a comparison with the Holocaust during World War II – with phrases such as “final solution” and “never again” used to describe the Rwandan genocide and the attempts to heal the country afterwards. However, based on what I’ve been learning about the bigger picture of the conflict – one that includes neighboring countries such as Burundi, Uganda, the DRC – the museum’s official version portrays things a little too simplistically. The good guys and the bad guys are too sharply defined.

If you read my blog entry on Burundi, you might remember that there the conflict between Tutsi and Hutu often had the Tutsi-led regime targeting Hutu civilians – resulting at times in Hutu refugees fleeing to Rwanda or the DRC, where they often contributed to anti-Tutsi movements. Then there were the Tutsi refugees from Rwanda (escaping from a Hutu dominated government) who fled into Uganda and became the core of the Rwandan Patriotic Front – the group that, advancing into Rwanda in 1994, brought an end to the genocide. But there are reports that the RPF pursued their mission even into Hutu refugee camps in the DRC - where atrocities against Hutus occurred. Obviously, the vast majority of Rwandans, whether of Hutu or Tutsi stock, did not take part in these savage acts; however, throughout the troubled post-independence era – including 1994 - there was bloodshed perpetrated by both Hutus on Tutsis AND by Tutsis on Hutus. And that ethnic strife crossed and re-crossed national borders well before 1994.

So, while the Tutsis were the obvious victims in Rwanda in 1994, the lead up to, and the aftermath of, the genocide was much muddier than was the case during the Holocaust. I think for true healing to occur, the full complexity of Hutu and Tutsi relations, starting from the time the Belgians required them to carry ID cards identifying their ethnicity,** needs to be confronted head on. I fear a story that casts Hutus as only bad guys and Tutsis as only helpless victims will eventually lead to further trouble down the road… I can only hope that’s not the case.


After a couple days in Kigali, I ventured north and northwest. Watching the scenery unfold outside my bus window, I could easily see why Rwanda is called the Land of a Thousand Hills. It is a beautiful land of hills rising and falling in all directions, each draped with intensely green, cascading terraced fields. As we approached the town of Ruhengeri/Musanze, I strained for a peak of the magical Virunga volcanoes, with which I’d fallen in love back in November while traveling in southern Uganda; but alas it was a cloudy day. As if teasing me, they would make we wait to see their spectacular peaks.

From Ruhengeri, we climbed higher into the hills – and then came across the signs of a major flood that, as I would find out later, devastated the region that day. Apparently, torrential rains had hit the mountains in these parts, sending churning, chocolate colored water crashing through the valleys, sweeping away homes and fields, even entire villages. Strangely, in Gisenyi, my final destination, there was no evidence of flooding. The disaster turned out to be quite localized.

I felt guilty, then, walking on the sandy beach on Lake Kivu, enjoying the temperate – non-rainy! – weather and gearing myself up for my big trek up Mt. Nyiragongo just across the border in the DRC (see next entry). How could I be enjoying such a paradise, while so many were suffering just a 30-minute bus ride away?

Somehow, though, that juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy fits my experience of Rwanda (and Burundi) more than well.

As I left Gisenyi and prepared to leave Rwanda, the Virunga peaks unveiled themselves in all their majesty. And I felt a surge of hope for this wonderful country.

* I was happy to have a few days at the end of my trip that were outside the memorial week - I finally got to hear Rwandan music that did not mention genocide! I found Rwandan pop much to my liking, actually!

** Although the Belgian colonialists came to believe that the Tutsis had a different racial background to that of the Hutus (essentially, they cast them as “Hamites” who came down from Ethiopia or somewhere in the Middle East) and came up with a list of “typical” traits for the two groups (Tutsis were generally taller and slenderer, with thinner noses; the Hutus were shorter and squatter, with wider noses), the reality is that it was almost impossible to identify who was who. To solve this problem, guess what the Belgians did when creating the ID card? You became a Tutsi if you had more than 12 cows!

I should also mention that there is a third, often overlooked, group in Burundi and Rwanda – the Twa (“pygmies”). They were at the very bottom of the colonialists racial hierarchy.

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