Our tour only included two and a half days in Rwanda, but it was enough time to convince me that it is my favorite country that I’ve visited in this continent. Rwanda was surprising and refreshing in many different ways. From how it’s people have miraculously healed from the horrific genocide they experienced in 1994 to become the happiest and friendliest of people I’d encountered on the trip, to the stunning mountainous scenery, to the biodiversity, to the top-notch, impressive infrastructure that the government has substantially invested in – all this created my impression of Rwanda as the jewel of Africa.
Of course, most tourists’ impressions of the country when they arrive are the same as mine were. I feared what had happened here only 21 short years ago. I had seen “Hotel Rwanda” and remembered hearing about the atrocities committed here on the news when I was 18 years old living in England. That type of ethnic hatred couldn’t possibly have been removed from the national psyche to any measurable extent in such a short period of time? Surely there would still be palpable tension between people? Surely people wouldn’t be that friendly?
Well, the people I met were incredibly genuine, kind, smiling and caring. I felt nothing but love, hospitality and a warm welcome.
On arrival at the border, I will never forget seeing signs offering $5,000,000 for information that would lead to the capture and arrest of certain Rwandan citizens who are being sought for inciting the genocide and who have since fled the country and are believed to be residing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our first stop on our entering the capital, Kigali, was the Genocide Memorial Museum. It was a sobering three hour visit – but I have to say that overall, it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The displays were vivid, clear, and easy to follow. The most impressive detail, however, was the second floor of the memorial where they had dedicated “rooms” to each of the mass genocides of human history – and compared each to what happened in Rwanda. I found this to be one of the more fascinating and educational components to the museum.
I won’t go into the entire history of the genocide, nor will I recite too much of what I learned. I will, however, tell you that I discovered I was sorely misinformed prior to my visit, and I had a lot of false assumptions about why the genocide happened in the first place.
What I didn’t realize, for example, was that the ethnic and physical distinctions between the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa people of Rwanda were largely created and propagandized by the Belgian Colonial powers. They introduced an ID card in 1933 that differentiated people based on these “classifications” but in reality, a Tutsi simply meant a person who herded cattle, and a Hutu was a farmer. These groups lived in harmony for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.
This quote is from Wikipedia and you can read more here:
“Belgian social scientists declared that the Tutsis, who wielded political control in Rwanda, must be descendants of the Hamites, who shared a purported closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians concluded that the Tutsis and Hutus composed two fundamentally different ethno-racial groups. Thus, the Belgians viewed the Tutsis as more civilized, superior, but most importantly, more European than the Hutus. This perspective justified placing societal control in the hands of the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Moreover, this Belgian affirmation of the Hamitic theory provided a conceptual foundation for Tutsis and Hutus to start identifying themselves as different ethnic groups. The Belgians established a comprehensive race theory that was to dictate Rwandan society until independence: Tutsi racial superiority and Hutu oppression. The institutionalization of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic divergence was accomplished through administrative, political economic, and educational means.”
Many years later, after colonial powers had left, a Hutu majority took control of the government in the country. This division that was created by the Belgians became a systematic belief system that was propagandized through radio and print – all Hutu people were systematically encouraged to oust, bully, ignore, not employ and generally terrorize Tutsi citizens until they felt compelled to leave the country.
Of course, this culminated in an all-out mass genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus on April 6 of 1994. An estimated 2 million Rwandans were slaughtered.
Incidentally, I remember walking through the museum and kept wondering why 1994 seemed so significant to me. And then it hit me. I had just spent a month in South Africa and I realized that Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected president of South Africa on the 27th of April that same year. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around something so positive occurring simultaneously as something so heinous on the same continent.
The reality of what happened here was extremely disturbing. I have included a few photos here of some of the more alarming facts I read that truly put the international community to shame for standing by and doing nothing when they had had adequate warning this was going to happen. A few things that stand out to me:
- Most killings were vicious and carried out by machetes. People were forced to rape and kill their own family members and neighbors.
- The number of troops that were sent to Rwanda to remove foreign nationals to safety would have been adequate to prevent the genocide – had they been allowed to stay.
- There was simply not enough capacity in the justice system for every crime committed to be prosecuted by a court system in the years following the genocide. So, a community based “Truth and reconciliation” program was created that allowed neighbors, friends, strangers to face a local sentence if they were honest enough to admit to having killed someone. Often that sentence was simply labor that would be offered to the offended party, such as a wife who’s husband was murdered by her neighbor. The neighbor, upon admitting guilt, would be “sentenced” to help support the woman and her children for a number of years in order to be “forgiven”.
- The number of dead is purely an estimate as no accurate record of who died in the years following the genocide nor how many died in refugee camps of bordering countries has been kept
- There are startling similarities between the ethnic cleansing propaganda used by Hitler and those used by the Hutu army.
After a very sobering visit, it was refreshing to leave Kigali and head up into the hills towards a mountainous region of the country close to the border with the DRC. We stayed at Fatima guest house in Ruhengeri, a small town near Lake Kivu. The following day I joined two of the other passengers on what turned out to be a delightful and quite personal tour of Lake Kivu and the town of Gisenyi.
Our guide’s name was Didier and he was incredibly personable, funny, and professional. His English was also outstanding and his enthusiasm for his country and all the region had to offer was infectious. We headed out of Ruhengeri early in the morning and drove to Gisenyi where our first stop was a lookout over the city that sits on the shores of Lake Kivu. We also visited the local and international border crossings with the DRC and got to observe the crazy foot traffic of local artisans trading everything from cabbages to dresses with their less-governed neighbor.
I was reminded of Lake Como in northern Italy – this place was stunning. The beach on the lake was fringed with beautiful palm-like trees, the water was clean and turquoise and there was lots of infrastructure to suggest this was the premier vacation destination for wealthy Africans. I could easily have stayed for several weeks.
We visited “Honeymoon Island” which is self-explanatory and very romantic, a gushing hot spring where a group of village children descended upon Didier who obliged them all (and us!) with chunks of natural sugar cane to suck on. We had a delicious lunch and a locally brewed Rwandan beer and it was all so lovely that when Didier decided to tell us his experience of living through the genocide – we were all taken quite aback at his authenticity and apparent ease at relating such graphic details.
Didier told us that his father, a Tutsi, was murdered, his mother, a Hutu, and sister fled (and he presumed killed) He said his life had been very much in extreme danger because he represented one of the most hated groups of persons during the genocide – a child of a mixed marriage. Somehow, against the odds, at the age of seven, Didier lived a life on the street, scrounging for what food he could find and sleeping wherever he felt safe…for years. Eventually, a kind family took him in and he went to school and ate one meal of beans once per day for many years. He says that it was often really hard for him to concentrate on his studies because he was so hungry, but that he was determined to get a good job one day.
Ten years after the genocide, when he was 17, the UN performed a census of the refugee camps in the Congo and he found out that his mother and sister were alive! They had an emotional reunion in Kigali and now see each other regularly. There was not a dry eye at the table as he recited this happy conclusion to his story.
Didier assured us that the national identity, of being Rwandan, was very real now and that he was happy. He loved his work in tourism, he was close with his mom and sister, but he also asked, with a great beaming smile, how he could possibly not be happy when he knew each morning now that “I will eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner???!!!”
There are no words for how it felt to be in the presence of someone telling you such a vivid and personal story. This was no longer an exhibit at the museum. This was a small child, who survived against the odds through unimaginable horrors.
After lunch, we decided to visit one of the nice hotels on the lake and go for a swim. It was so beautiful and relaxing in the water, and after we all treated ourselves to a nice cocktail and shared more stories.
Later that evening, Didier was kind enough to invite us out to hear some live local music. None of my group wanted to go, but I was game – so I hopped onto a boda boda (motorcycle transport) and met up with him to grab some beers. We had a memorable evening sharing more stories, and then ended up at a karaoke club where I ran into an American from Seattle! Small world, eh? Apparently the karaoke is what Didier had meant by “local music” – and despite having only half a voice because of my horrible cough – I roused the crowd by belting out some Bonnie Tyler and Beyonce. It was a very fun evening and put the perfect happy ending onto my memorable few days here in Rwanda.