It is Christmas day and I am sitting in a modern coffee shop in the Union Trade Centre right in the centre of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.  Behind me sits a group of English/French expats introducing a new arrival to the cultural differences and subtleties he needs to be aware of.  To my side, are two sharply dressed young men speaking animatedly in a mix of Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French.   Two white travellers in baggy harem trousers are snapping photos of the incredible view of the sprawling city below. Across the room, a large family enjoy their Christmas meal from the traditional Rwandan buffet and the little girl is pointing across at me whispering “umuzungu” (white person) to her mama. This is my new home.

Seeing as I am to spend a year here, I thought it would be fitting to speak a little bit about the country Rwanda and its history and progress.  Rwanda has been on the international map for a variety of reasons, most start and end with the genocide in 1994.  Talking about the genocide is difficult; there are so many unanswered questions.  Who shot down the President’s plane? What were the real roles of the RPF, France and the CDR? There are so many ideas, thoughts and opinions – loaded, naturally, with a lot of emotions- it is hard to separate the truth from it all.  There are some things we may never know but the brief (generally) agreed on history is below.

The capital of Rwanda, Kigali.

The Genocide: Rwanda’s death:

This account is based on the information at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I am aware of other conflicting accounts but have chosen to use the national history that most Rwandans adhere to.

The infamous ethnic clash between the Hutus and the Tutsis is well-known in the public sphere; in fact before the arrival of the Belgian colonialists they were merely classist terms.  Tutsi literally means ‘owner of 10 cows or more’, and people could change from a Hutu to a Tutsi and vice versa depending on their economic status.  The colonial machine worked quickly to change this into an ethnic divide, meticulously justifying their approach by citing differences between skin tone, nose length and also intelligence.  They tended to place some Tutsis in higher positions and give them social preferences such as better access to education, although generally both Tutsis and Hutus did not benefit from the Belgian reign.  Colonial influence was enough that by the time independence arrived there were increasing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. By 1957, Rwandan themselves were beginning to cite the differences between Hutus and Tutsis.  Sporadic, periodical violence between Hutus and Tutsis blotted the pages of Rwanda’s newly found independence throughout the decades preceding 1994.  The Rwandan civil war, starting in 1991, between the Tutsi-sympathetic Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the government helped to strain relations and increase fears and hatred towards Tutsis.

It has become clearer that the genocide was planned systematically by the government’s leading party Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), although it is debated whether President Habyarimana was involved.  National radios and newspapers incited racial hatred towards Tutsis and in 1993 a list was drawn up of ‘traitors’ who were to be executed.  Reports of specialised camps equipping young men with weapons and training them to kill Tutsis reached even the UN, although no action was taken on this.  The French government, despite being aware of ethnic tensions, sold weapons to groups in Rwanda and many Rwandans today still believe the role France played in the genocide is larger than previously thought.   The spark finally arrived when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and he and the President of Burundi were killed in the crash.  Hours later, the genocide began.  People on the traitor list were hunted and killed in their own homes, and the violence quickly spread as groups of Interahamwe (following orders from government officials and the Presidential Guard) began killing in horrific and brutal ways.

The international community, rather than assisting, only came in to evacuate foreigners.   One of the most heart-breaking facts is that the number of UN troops used to evacuate westerners could have been enough to stop the genocide and preserve peace. The killing only stopped when Kagame’s RPF invaded Kigali and took over, placing Kagame as President. It is unclear how many were killed in the genocide; the number ranges between 800,000 and over 1 million depending on sources.  Many people were never able to find out what happened to friends or family, and to this day people are still searching for news of their loved ones.   As the beautiful and moving Gisozi Genocide Memorial puts it, ‘Rwanda was dead.’

The mass graves at the Genocide memorial in Kigali.

The mass graves at the Genocide memorial in Kigali.

The Rebirth:

Knowing the destruction and death that occurred only 20 years ago, it is amazing the steps that Rwanda has taken.  The Rwandan government is serious about development; they want to become a middle-income country by 2020 (a goal that could still be achievable) and it is on track to reach most of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.  Looking at the statistics, it is estimated that 97% of all children attend primary school and the GNI per capita has increased by 40% from 1980 to 2012.  Rwanda scores highly on gender equality; the cabinet is roughly 1/3 female, the percentage of boys and girls attending school is more or less equal and the government even funds entrepreneurial women without familial support.  Transparency International has rated Rwanda’s corruption level as negligible.

The development of a country is never a simple story but the quiet optimism of the Rwandan people is infectious.  What is most interesting is the idea of healing that seems to permeate the country.  People my age and over have in their memories some of the most horrific acts that have been known to humankind.  As Paul Collier has shown, it is easy for any country, especially a developing one, to slip back into a spiral of civil war, violence and destruction.  This has not happened in Rwanda, largely because of this emphasis on healing.  Everywhere there are memorials with the words etched upon them ‘Never again’.  Up to 2012, Locals tried genocidaires (people who committed genocide) in their own communities in grassroots people’s courts (Gacaca courts).  Genocidaires who are repentant can serve half their sentence doing community work in the very places they once slaughtered people.  This article even details stories of genocidaires working hand in hand with the very people whose families they killed. The country’s past is ever-prevalent, but the pull of the future is stronger.  There are no Hutus or Tutsis anymore; instead, there are Rwandans.

Faces of the Future.

Faces of the Future.


6 thoughts on “Rwanda

  1. That story of cow is a story that Rwanda politicians have adopted as a shortcut to bring unity and reconciliation but the truth is more complex and not limited to social classes only.

    ”Tutsis are typically thought of as lighter skinned than those of Hutu decent. Many descriptions of Tutsis include that they have light brown skin like Ethiopians, Eritreans and other ethnic groups from farther north in Africa. Many scholars believe Tutsis are a separate ethnic group that migrated to Rwanda, most likely from the North. Once they settled in Rwanda, however, Tutsis and Hutus regularly mixed, and the names “Hutu” and “Tutsi” became shorthand for social class as much as ethnic background. Hutus who moved into dominant positions in society (positions usually occupied by the Tutsi elite) were considered to be Tutsis, while Tutsis who settled down to farm were considered to be Hutus.” Read more :

    • “The development of a country is never a simple story but the quiet optimism of the Rwandan people is infectious. What is most interesting is the idea of healing that seems to permeate the country… As Paul Collier has shown, it is easy for any country, especially a developing one, to slip back into a spiral of civil war, violence and destruction. This has not happened in Rwanda, largely because of this emphasis on healing.”

      I don’t want to come across as too highly critical as I think some of your writings on this blog post are very well informed and researched, particularly your latest one on feminism and racism (I think you presented a very strong case and I admire your tenacity and the rigour you demonstrate in your writings on that topic. Your views have made me seriously reconsider my own since I made my comment and thanks to you I’m reading a whole lot more on feminism, White privilege, and racism etc). But I have to ask, how long have you been in Rwanda? Who is your source for the information in your posts, particularly this one? Or is it anecdotal, based on your observations, and if so, for how many months have you been observing (or been a participant-observer)? There are, what, more than 11 million people in Rwanda, how do you know that no more wars or genocides have occurred “largely because of this emphasis on healing”? You said “this idea of healing…seems to permeate the country”. Again, has a survey or study of some sort confirmed this, if so you really should cite it; or have your travelled to every region in the country to get a real sense of this, and to make this claim? Do you speak fluent Kinyarwanda? Have you spoken to hundreds or thousands of Rwandans to know this for certain?

      If there is one take-away lesson from my time in Rwanda and my on-going relationship with the country and Rwandan people it is that there is a whole lot more going on behind the scenes that an outsider can even begin to imagine. And that first impressions don’t count for much at all. Scratch the surface, and this takes years, or even a whole life-time, and only then can you really write with some kind of authority. Also, there’s a very big factor at play here that is so often not talked of. And I will say it only as this. Fear.

      The amount of blogs I have read written by White Western people who temporarily live in countries like Rwanda who make claims on the behalf of the people who live their own reality is astounding. Personally, I would take your blog more seriously should it include voices of the people you rightfully claim to be speaking on behalf of. I wonder, if a Rwandan who had been living in the UK for a period of a few months started to write about its history, and why things were the way they were simply based on participant observation, and not quote one single local person, and not draw on or cite any studies carried out by local scholars, would you take their views seriously? And how would it make you feel, if more Rwandans were speaking on behalf of English people than English people speaking for themselves.

      As I have heard time and time again, “what we need, and what we want is to be speaking about ourselves on our terms”.

      It’s not to say you shouldn’t write a blog on your experiences in Rwanda but they are are just that, personal experiences. When you start writing another’s history you claim to be an expert and colonise the space as so many historians, journalists, researchers have done and continue to do.

      • Thanks for your comment. As I wrote in my article, all of this is taken from the Gisozi Memorial Site; it’s not my own work but based on the research conducted by the memorial site. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of Rwandans, I’m giving a snapshot of the memorial’s history of Rwanda based on the accounts of the Gisozi museum. The healing comments were my own observations based on what is written in Gisozi, but I realise I didn’t make that clear in the article. Obviously, I definitely accept I don’t have the full picture, and I’m definitely biased as I work with young people in education so maybe I am only exposed to the more hopeful, healing side. In any way, this was a personal reflection based on what I read in the Gisozi museum and my experiences in my work.

  2. Implicitly, by the nature of this blog, you are speaking on behalf of another, unless you are writing purely from your own personal experience. And personally, I wouldn’t even try to give a snapshot of anything so inherently complex, even if it were coming from an authoritative source (having made this mistake myself years ago I speak from experience). My own personal learning is that the more I come to know the less I understand. But I do think that when you write from ‘feeling’ rather than ‘knowing’ I think it can help people see that you’re not coming across as an expert and you’re just trying to understand something that is important to you or has become so important to you. I cringe at the things I wrote and produced when I first went to Rwanda and other places. I do wonder why is it that when Westerners go to places in the world that are considered ‘undeveloped’ that they so easily write about them with authority when they don’t even try to write about their own countries with such authority. I would never write about Australia’s history or some complex contemporary issues, and yet I have gone to other countries and claimed to have some kind of authoritative voice. It’s bizarre.

  3. Hi, I thought You might like to check out this blog given your interests
    Neo-colonialism and its discontents by Sara Salem

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