A Glimpse of the New Rwanda

Monday, November 29, 2010 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

The Centre Bethanie hotel sits on a peninsula which juts into Lake Kivu, on the Rwanda-Congo border.
Back in 2004, I spent several days in Rwanda on my way to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time—ten years after the genocide that left 800,000 dead and millions displaced—Rwanda was still very much a country on the mend, muddling forward with reconstruction.

Last month, the country I found when I arrived there for a three-week work trip, while recognizable, was clearly much evolved. This was The New Rwanda.

* * *

"Now as we begin our descent into Kigali I'd like to take the time to remind all passengers who will be disembarking here to remove any plastic bags from their luggage, to comply with Rwandan law."

Some tourists chuckled at the flight attendant's warning, disbelieving. But a friend had alerted me before my trip, and I knew it was no joke. In the environmentally conscious New Rwanda, plastic shopping bags are illegal.

Driving from the airport with my Rwandan colleagues, I could see that the level of development may not have jumped drastically, but Kigali nonetheless had a new air of dignity. The streets were paved smooth, swept immaculately free of leaves and litter, well lit, and lined with hibiscus and other flowering shrubs.

With its clean streets, smiling people, and booming economy, Rwanda seems a little African Pleasantville. In Kigali, as one Rwandan professor told me during my stay, "buildings are sprouting like mushrooms." Umuganda, the last Saturday of every month, is an obligatory day of community service for all citizens. Later in my trip, outside Kigali I would see crews of workers digging roadside trenches to lay the country's new nationwide high-speed fiberoptic network.

* * *

Yet reminders of The Old Rwanda are everywhere. In many idyllic Rwandan villages, with their terraced hillsides and quaint farmsteads, a concrete slab marks the site of a mass grave. Kigali's Genocide Memorial Centre holds cases full of human bones, and entire halls papered with victims' photos. The exterior of the parliament building is still pockmarked with bullet holes and the yawning gashes of mortar attacks.

In a bar on a Friday night, conversations can fall silent when they brush the genocide—it's often just better not to ask where someone's family lives, or where someone was during 1994.

Through a colleague's translation, however, our driver Sylvestre did recount one personal story. Sylvestre had spent the spring of 1994 in Kigali—the genocide's epicenter. He described the mobs that roved his neighborhood then, killing anyone who was tall—and therefore Tutsi, according to the popular local stereotype. After no tall people remained in the neighborhood, he said, the mobs swept through again, this time with a new test: They felt the palms of each man and woman, pressing with their fingers. Those whose hands were strong were Hutus. Those whose hands were soft were Tutsis; they were executed.

* * *

Sylvestre's story—like those of so many others in this place—shows a side of humanity that is hardly comprehensible, even for those who have witnessed its horrors. But what place do those memories hold in The New Rwanda?

Every Rwandan has these stories, of course, but today few tell them freely. The government of The New Rwanda would rather its citizens move forward than look back. It generally frowns upon discussion of ethnicity and of the crimes of 1994—the two topics that loom like an elephant in every room. The reasons are complex, and relate to the ruling party's founding narrative, and its birth in the conflicts of the early 1990s. Putting the politics aside though, it is hard to imagine that silence makes healing easy for the Rwandan people.

* * *

Work consumed most of my trip, but left me enough time to attend a soccer match (Rwanda's national team vs. Benin) at Amahoro Stadium, sample several of Kigali's generous lunch buffets, learn to play a little tennis at my hotel's courts, and catch some great performances in the capital's dance halls.

I managed to escape Kigali for 24 hours, during which Sylvestre and I hopped a bus down to the one-horse town of Kibuye, on the western shores of Lake Kivu. In Kibuye, we walked from the bus station to a peninsula on the lake, where we rented rooms with a view at the Centre Bethanie hotel. Over Mutzig beers and sambaza (fried minnows) by the water, Sylvestre and I continued our efforts to communicate. I spoke no Kinyarwanda and Sylvestre no French, so we relied on a mix of his limited English and my limited Swahili, augmented by extensive hand signals. (Ironically, the whole day Sylvestre wore a sassy American hand-me-down t-shirt that read, "This is where I nod and act like I'm listening".)

After lunch we grabbed our suits and headed for the lake, eager for a dip before an afternoon rainstorm rolled in. Thunderheads rumbled above, casting the turquoise waters in shadow. I jumped in. Behind me, Sylvestre peeled off his t-shirt, revealing a foot-long scar that arced across the top of his right shoulder blade. He dove in, and we paddled together away from shore.

I could never bring myself to ask him how he got the scar.

In The New Rwanda, The Old Rwanda has a way of appearing unexpectedly.

1 comment:

sarah fohl said...

It's pretty cool and rare to have the opportunity to revisit a country and notice so much change. Nice piece and very nice photos, Mr Farrand! :)

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