Forgive like Rwandan

In all my travels, I’ve never seen a country’s population more determined to forgive, and to build and succeed than in Rwanda.” – Rick Warren

At Johannesburg airport, the airline staff lady asked me to repeat my final destination twice as if there was something wrong with travelling to Rwanda. Kigali, I replicated with confidence.

As all passengers were rushing to the plane exit, I saw a Rwandan woman struggling with her carry-on bags. After giving her a helping hand, I glanced at the baby she was tirelessly carrying on her back: “you travel with your little boy and so much luggage, you are a superwoman”. “Me, superwoman?,” I could read on her lips as if she needed time to process my statement. In fact, all Rwandans are superheroes for surviving the most savage mass killing in modern history.

By many, Rwanda is only known for its genocide. On April 7th 1994, a well-organized campaign of slaughter against the Tutsi ethnic group began. The Hutu militias brainwashed people of their own ethnicity into fear and hatred against the Tutsi minority and enticed them to denounce and kill their Tutsi neighbors, friends, and even family members. Hutu civilians who refused to participate in the killings were slaughtered. In around 100 days, over 500,000 people were savagely beheaded or dismembered with machetes whilst some, including newborns, were thrown alive in pit latrines. The scale of the brutality was appalling. According to Rwandan sources, the number of deaths is close to one million, 60% of the Tutsi population or one Rwandan out of seven.

Kigali airport staff did not give me a very welcoming first impression. They have plenty of reasons to resent Europeans after all, I thought. The key role played by France in the mass killing is highlighted in the genocide memorial center. Whilst the international community allegedly turned a blind eye to the genocide, the French government is accused of having provided the Hutu militias with weapons and military training. Even if it acknowledged its mistakes, France never truly apologized.

After being dropped at the bus station by a random guy I had met near Kigali airport, I recalled the statement I had made to my South African host the previous night: ‘at least there, they will know I am not a local.’ Unsurprisingly, I was the only white person around.

Nyabugogo bus station was bustling and the crowd rapidly caught me off guard. I was feeling overwhelmed when out of nowhere, a Rwandan man dragged me out of the throng: ‘come with me, I will help you.’ After taking me to the right bus ticket counter, the man showed me the location where the bus had to depart from and introduced me to an employee of the bus company. The latter, a man in his fifties, glanced at me and expressed himself in Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s official language). While buckling under the weight of my backpack, I was tensed and confused at the same time, worried about what he was going to do. A young woman then got closer to me: ‘you know, he said you look beautiful’. While people standing next to me were giggling, I was stunned by the outpouring of kindness from a population long traumatized by the violent conflict.

As I hopped on the bus and observed the lively bus station, Rwanda looked like an ordinary country. But mutilated beggars meandering through the stopped vehicles stood as a reminder of the past.  

The country smelled of the stench of death. Rwanda was dead,’ these are some of the words that one can read at Kigali Genocide Memorial next to bloodcurdling photographs displaying lifeless bodies in schools, churches, yards, and roadways. For me, they were horrifying photographs; for many Rwandans, they are frightful flashbacks. At least one adult survivor of the genocide out of four lives with posttraumatic stress disorder. As soon as I stepped out of the memorial, my heart became softer, and I began to acknowledge random passers-by with a smile.

After the end of the genocide in July 1994, ethnic identity cards – which were initially implemented by Belgian colonizers to give more power to the Tutsi – were abolished, and talking about ethnicity was banned. Survivors of the genocide returned to their life, sometimes finding themselves living alongside the murderer of their loved ones. And yet, today Rwanda is one of the safest countries and most promising economies in Africa.

In spite of being surrounded by politically unstable and overly-corrupted countries – namely the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda, the land of a thousand hills shines like no other. In the 2000s, the 13-million-people nation began an ambitious quest to become the Singapore of Africa.

In today’s Rwanda, order, cleanliness, and safety are the order of the day. Kigali prides itself on being Africa’s cleanest city with hardly any litter in sight. Among other policies, the country issued a law banning the use of all plastic bags in 2008. Unlike other developing countries that have introduced a punitive levy on the use of plastic bags, Rwanda has zero tolerance for waste dumping.

One of the other main measures that explain Rwanda’s tidiness is Umuganda. On the last Saturday morning of every month, all healthy Rwandans are compelled to gather and participate in community improvement projects that include building health centers and schools and cleaning roads. Failure to participate in Umuganda can result in a fine.  

Masako Kato | Wikimedia Commons

On a continent where corruption is ubiquitous, Rwanda appears like an exception. Even if the nature of the Rwandan political system is debatable, the zero-tolerance motto of the government has been instrumental in moving the country forward.

Rwanda also enjoys a reputation for low corruption. Several multinational companies and foreign investors have been betting on the tiny country as an emerging business hub for East Africa. In 2018, Volkswagen announced the installation of a car assembly plant near Kigali. Other multinational companies willing to tap the neighboring markets have since then followed.

It was 6:00 pm and the sun was about to set over Central Africa. The receptionist opened the gate with his usual gentleness and let me enjoy my privilege to venture freely into Kigali streets. Rwanda is one of the few African countries where one, including women, can walk around after dark. For that matter, the country has for many years been a world leader in terms of gender equality and stands out globally for its efforts in advancing women’s empowerment, particularly in politics. Rwanda was the first nation in the world with a female majority in parliament and ranks among the top 10 most equal-gender countries according to the World Economic Forum.

Stuart Isaac Harrier | Unsplash

Rwanda’s accomplishments are remarkable. But what amazed me, even more, is how Rwandans have been carrying on with life. And whenever I will reminisce about Rwanda, I will recall Rwandans joyfully eating corncobs by the roadside, children laughing uproariously while playing hide and seek in Kigali’s hilly streets, and people singing gospel to celebrate life in all its fullness.

Lucile Guéguen

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