I’ve wanted to write about Rwanda since the moment we set foot in the country. It is nothing like I imagined it to be. This may be because I was 12 when the genocide happened, and in the back of my growing mind I filed Rwanda away as a war-torn African country with starving people and useless government. It is a poor excuse, and I feel embarrassed to admit it, but I knew little of the area, what it had to offer, and the history of what happened 24 years ago. It is going to be difficult to give you a full run down of events here, but I will try my best, because to understand the country now, you must know where it has been, and what it has overcome. So for those of you, who like me, did not know, here is a summary…
Rwanda is a melting pot of Southern and Northern Africans. There is no ‘typical’ look to these people, as they have a mix of both the Bantu Africans from the South, and the Sudanese from the North. Some are wider in the nose, others higher in the cheekbones. They have always spoken the same language. After first German, and then Belgian rule, Rwandans were studied and given identity cards. These classified them into racial groups based on their features. Either you were Tutsi (more North African looking and generally cattle herders) or Hutu (more Southern African looking and crop growers). These racial divides were highlighted and encouraged by the Europeans. It drove a wedge into a previously undivided society. By the time the Europeans gave the country back to the Rwandans, the Tutsi and the Hutu did not see eye to eye. The Tutsi minority had been favoured by the Europeans, but the Hutu majority were now rising in power and striking back. A Hutu president was voted into power in 1961 after the abolition of the monarchy. There was a lot of conflict between these 2 groups, and by 1994, his successor had laid out a plan that would rid Rwanda of the Tutsi people forever. What he didn’t know was that his death was the catalyst his people were waiting for – it is believed this was the planned trigger. Within hours of the president’s death, the Hutu army, by this point well trained in hand to hand combat, was set loose on the Rwandan population. The Hutu’s also made use of a child army, trained by French forces, and well fed with anti-Tutsi propaganda, as was the rest of the country. It was a perfect storm.
This is obviously a gross simplification of events, but it gives you an idea of the lead up. The genocide memorial in Kigali is one of many monuments in the country, built to remind people of the atrocities, with the idea that through knowledge, comes the power to avoid this in the future.
Remember, so it won’t happen again.
Forgive, so the country can move forward.
It is the most moving, heart wrenching memorial I have been to, filled with photos, and first person accounts. As difficult as it was to see, it was an important passage in understanding the true atrocities, and the full extent of them. What it has meant for the country, and what it left them with; like hundreds of thousands of orphaned children, and many more thousands of woman who had purposefully been given AIDS. The genocide didn’t end when the fighting stopped, ‘measures’ had been put in place to prolong the suffering. It wasn’t only the Tutsi’s who were targeted, anyone seen sympathising with them was either taken out or tortured, or both. You couldn’t have a friend on the ‘wrong’ side, God forbid be married to one.
Lola and Lincoln didn’t come into the memorial, they stayed in the beautiful gardens outside, but told us people left in tears after only moments of being inside. The atrocities are that hard to comprehend.
The genocide lasted 100 days. More than 1 million Tutsi were tortured and killed, out of a population of only 8 million. That was 1/8th of their population – gone – in less than 4 months!
The Tutsi that remain either fled the country (if they could make it to a border), hid in the mountains, or were secretly given shelter by Hutus. Some of these stories of survival are heart warming; a little sparkle where a dark hole resides.
The fighting finally ended when an army headed by a Tutsi man, current President Kagama, chased the Hutu army; fleeing for their lives, across the border. That ended the senseless murder, and brought around a sort of ground zero for Rwanda. The fleeing generals had taken most of the money out of the country as they fled, and Rwanda was left in ruins – with a crippled economy. Thus the hard work began.
I won’t go into how President Kagame did it, but his policies and reform were remarkable, albeit sometimes questionable, but I’m not sure this kind of reform could have been done any differently. Every person accused of an act of violence during the genocide was tried and brought to justice. The grossly overpopulated prisons were given work, like building roads, in order to free up space and direct energy. This helped the country in many ways. Juvenile convicts were rehabilitated and taught trade skills like tailoring, farming and building. Between 2010 and 2014 more than 1 million people were lifted out of poverty. That is an incredible statistic. But more importantly than all of that, is what Kagame managed to do to the people.
He recognised the need to unify the people of the country, and give them something to strive for – together. He rid the country of all Hutu and Tutsi classifications, and made it an offence for anyone to classify themselves as either. The people of Rwanda, are Rwandans. That’s it.
He implemented a mandatory ‘last Saturday of the month’ clean up. 3 hours where every adult in the country has to go into their community and do whatever it is that needs doing. They clean the streets, they build houses for the needy, they fix schools, or help in whatever way is required of them. The result is a country so ‘un-African’ in its cleanliness, it’s a complete eye-opener. You have to really search before finding any kind of litter. Single use plastics have been banned. There are no packets blowing around on the side of the roads. Soft drinks are mostly sold in bottles. Vegetables are bought fresh in markets along the side of the road. Solar power is being implemented throughout the country. Street signs, traffic lights and other tech in the city is of a standard higher than I have seen in many first world countries. Almost all the roads are perfectly smooth tar, and those that aren’t are currently being worked on. It is a shining beacon of what Africa could become.
When a group of Hutu fundamentalists got into the country a few years ago and raided a school, demanding that all Tutsi’s be turned over, not one student turned over a fellow student. They stood together and replied only, ‘We are all Rwandans”.
There must obviously still be a lot of hurt, but the country seems to have dealt with the events so openly, and so well, that you would never have any idea walking around that 24 years ago there was so much hatred.
After hearing the genocide atrocities above, you will find it incredibly incongruent to hear that Rwanda felt like the safest place I have ever been. The people are soft spoken and kind. Helpful beyond anything you would expect, without expecting anything in return. It was an absolute pleasure being in the country, but almost hard for us to take things at face value, being from the society we are from. We always expected a catch, but were never given one. Maybe we weren’t in the country long enough to see the under belly, but the optimist in me would like to believe that there isn’t one, that everyone can get along.
That said, the police presence is everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There are soldiers on street corners, and unlike South Africa, none seem to be napping on the job. They are without a doubt the most vigilant security force we have seen in any country. We were told this is partly because of the unrest in Burundi (on their Southern border), and of course the Congo on their West, but also simply a deterrent to anyone even contemplating breaking the law. It is also the only African country that has you on camera from the moment you step foot into the border office; face recognition, voice scans, you name it. In many ways, it is a very European country.
That is true in every way except the driving. The driving is as African as you can imagine, with motorbike taxis being the primary form of transport for average citizens. I’m not sure how anyone stays on the back. Passengers don’t seem to hold on, preferring to be on their phones, yet the drivers corner and dodge between traffic with wild abandon. It is terrifying just to watch. Luckily they all carry spare helmets for their passengers, so at least there’s that.
It felt like Rwanda was another planet, not just another country, and everyday we learned something new. I have equal parts respect and awe, enamoured by its beauty and completely taken in by its kindness. It is a country I would go back to in a heartbeat, and one I hope manages to carry on its impressive advance and peaceful ways.
I am going to have to write a follow up piece with the details of what we actually got up to, because I have jabbered on for long enough. The beauty in this country is off the charts, and I am looking forward to showering you with pics and travel tips soon. Xx