Rwanda: the colour of hope

Gerard J DeGroot
30 April 2008

On a hill overlooking Kigali, there's a modern, gleamingly white building that could easily be mistaken for the home of a wealthy entrepreneur. It doesn't look like a genocide memorial, but that's what it is. The building is a contradiction constructed of brick and mortar. Its subject is tragedy, yet its design - sharp lines, thrusting gables - suggests hope. That contradiction is, it seems, intentional, and perfectly encapsulates today's Rwanda.Gerard J DeGroot is a professor in the department of modern history at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Among his books are Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (New York University Press, 2006) and The Bomb: A Life (Harvard University Press, 2004).

His latest book is The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Also by Gerard de Groot in openDemocracy:

"US space policy: big universe, small planet" (15 January 2007)

In front of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre lies an achingly beautiful garden where huge plinths cover the mass graves of 237,000 victims. The humid equatorial air is thick with the scent of mourners' flowers - the odour of grief. Those graves hold just one-sixth of the number of Rwandans killed in the genocide that began on 7 April 1994.

Over the next one hundred days, at least 800,000 people - and perhaps well over one million - were killed. 85% of the Tutsi population of Rwanda was eliminated in the Hutu version of the "final solution". The survivors carry terrible scars - missing limbs, ravaged faces, crutches everywhere. The mental scars are, one suspects, even more profound. Thousands of women still cope with the trauma of rape. Many were intentionally infected with HIV, itself a weapon of genocide.

To those unfamiliar with Rwanda, the country remains synonymous with genocide. Though the killings occurred fourteen years ago, ethnic slaughter still dominates many people's impressions. That is a shame, since Rwanda - as I discovered in March 2008 during a visit to attend a conference in Kigali, the country's capital - is a proud nation that seeks admiration, not pity. The people want to be seen as an example of the resilience of the human spirit, not of the despair that so often is allowed to define Africa to the world beyond the continent.

A new-old narrative

But how does a nation come to terms with slaughter on such a scale? The answer lies within that strange building in Kigali, a memorial that looks forward as much as it looks back. The displays construct a narrative of the genocide that facilitates reconciliation. The narrative goes like this: there has only ever been one Rwandan people. They share a common language and culture. Unlike so much of the rest of Africa, people and nation are one.

The narrative continues: Hutu and Tutsi are not ethnic divisions, but social classes - "Tutsi" once defined the number of cows a family owned. Social mobility was accepted; Hutu could become Tutsi. Intermarriage was common. During the colonial period, however, the Belgians turned those otherwise fluid divisions into rigid ethnic identities as part of a strategy of divide and rule. Hasty decolonisation then left the country prey to demagogues who manipulated the divisions further, eventually resulting in the genocide of 1994. One message figures prominently: blame the Belgians.Also in openDemocracy on Rwanda and its neighbours:

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (7 April 2004)

Alfredo Jaar, "The Rwanda project, 1994-2000" (3 April 2006)

Duncan Woodside, "Shooting Dogs: Rwanda's genocide through European eyes" (7 April 2006)

Andrew Wallis, "Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique" (14 December 2006)

David Mugnier, ""North Kivu: how to end a war" (3 December 2007)

Rwanda's future is built on faith: the people have convinced themselves that their country was once harmonious and can be so again. Those I met were never reluctant to talk about the past, but the story they tell follows closely the narrative conveyed at the genocide memorial. That narrative evades some painful details, but what nation isn't guilty of constructing a past to suit its present? What matters now is that Rwanda believes itself to be a pioneer in Africa and a country that can lead by example. Instead of despair, one encounters a people walking on the balls of their feet.

The Rwandan people, one resident told me, are lovers of revolution. Instead of inching forward, they prefer to leap ahead. After the genocide, they equipped themselves with a brand new apparatus of government capable of sustaining their hunger for revival. One prominent component of reform was the share of authority given to women - by law 30% of all candidates in any election must be female. At present, women constitute 47% of the legislature - the highest proportion of any country in the world. When I asked an army colonel how he had adjusted to surrendering such a large share of power to women, he replied: "What's the problem? Rwanda has always been a matriarchal society. We've just given legal recognition to that fact."

A woman-centred model

Rwanda wants to be a model for the rest of Africa. It has already made huge strides toward that goal. Kigali, for instance, is the safest capital city on the continent. The safety and immense beauty of the country make it the perfect destination for tourists keen to try Africa. The government also hopes that stability will attract foreign investment.

The desire to be a model is not confined to matters economic. One noble goal of the nation is to provide an example to the rest of Africa in terms of the professionalism of its military. This is particularly important in the peacekeeping context, since it is imperative that peacekeeping forces sent to trouble-spots in Africa contain a high percentage of African soldiers. In common with stable, peace-loving countries like Norway, Sweden and Canada, Rwanda has recently decided that the primary purpose of its military forces will henceforth be peacekeeping, and has invested an immense amount of effort in training soldiers for that responsibility. Rwandans recognise that the best way to ensure the stability of their own country is to export professionalism and peace to their neighbours.

Toward this end, the Rwandan Defence Forces have launched a programme of gender-training for soldiers, in cooperation with the regional office of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem); it was these two bodies who organised the conference on "gender issues in peacekeeping missions" on 28-29 March 2008 in which I participated. The aim is not just to eradicate the scourge of gender-based violence, but also to recognise the centrality of women to the peacekeeping process.

What struck me at the conference in Kigali was how receptive male officers in the Rwandan army were to the importance of gender issues. The army chief of the general staff, General James Kabarebe, has publicly stated that violence against women "is ... a security threat ... that ... breeds a severely negative impact on socio-economic development in general, and human rights in particular." As he recognises, this is not simply a matter of being nice to women. It is a matter of ensuring a more effective peace.

Kigali's message

As I waited to board my plane at Kigali airport, my friend the colonel told me: "When I was young I foolishly thought that the world would never see genocide again. But then I had to experience genocide at first hand. Now all I'm certain of is that Rwanda will never see it again."

Africa is often depicted by and to outsiders as a long-running tale of tragedy, to which new chapters periodically get added. People living in the rich north are primed by media and aid agencies alike to expect disaster, and to react by reaching for our credit-card details (or by switching off). Rwanda, however, is a story of success that deserves greater attention.

True, optimism can also be a trap. Africa is full of success-stories gone sour. It would be amazing if no demons still lurked under Rwanda's surface. At the same time, cynicism seems churlish in a country where dynamism and pride inform a palpable sense of hope. If there is a bright future for Africa, it lies in the direction Rwanda points.

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