It is not possible to go to Africa without becoming immediately smitten with it. “Africa,” of course, is a bit overbroad — I speak more of what it means to visit any developing country, of which the African continent is teeming. Developing countries are such dynamic places; as they endeavor to grow into safe, stable, and successful communities, it’s impossible not to root for them.
But they do have so much to overcome. Though often blessed with an abundance of natural resources, many African countries have generations-long histories of exploitation and heartache, either from external colonization forces or internal ethnic tensions, or some combination of the two.
Rwanda is no exception to this. This small but verdant country sits tucked away near the geographic crossroads of this vast continent: just below the Equator and wedged in between the large English-speaking East African countries of Uganda to the north and Tanzania to the east, and the French-speaking tiny Burundi to the south and enormous Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. Rwanda has no oceanfront; all connections to the world need to pass through at least one of its neighbors.
The upside to this situation is that Rwanda’s geographic isolation protected it from some of the earlier ravages of colonization. But by the beginning of the 20th century colonization had begun to take hold, and by the end of World War I it was firmly under Belgian control.
Colonization can be something of a double-edged sword. While it often brings handy western technologies, it does so with the loss of local autonomy — or worse. In Rwanda’s case, what Belgium wrought was much worse, taking a largely stable society and turning its peoples against each other with the most catastrophic results. Thus Rwanda is not just a developing former colony struggling to attain its place among modern countries; it is also a young country struggling to heal a most grievous internal wound. By many accounts it has done remarkably well. But at the beginning of this decade Rwanda is at a crossroads: can it continue to progress towards prosperity and stability, or will it give in to the darker forces that have pulled it into pieces before?
Other countries have had poverty. Other counties have had power-mad dictators dispatching their militias to seize their countries’ resources for themselves. But Rwanda had something worse: Rwanda had genocide. And not “just” a genocide wrought by an invading force; it was a genocide wrought by its own people upon their fellow countrymen. Rwanda today isn’t just trying to overcome the loss of the 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans killed. No, Rwanda must deal with the reality that the killers of all those people are fellow Rwandans.
While being mindful that history is always told by those with the power to tell it, a common view of Rwanda’s past is that historically it has been populated primarily by two groups: the Hutus and Tutsis. These distinctions were generally economic, and intermarriage and the swapping of designations were common. The Belgian colonists, however, believed “Hutus” and “Tutsis” were physical, racial distinctions, and thus permanently divided Rwandans into these two groups, even issuing identity cards officially denoting which group people belonged to. The Belgians then played favorites, giving the minority Tutsis more privilege and power in this colonial society than the majority Hutus. As a result, when Rwanda finally gained its independence in the 1960s there wasn’t just resentment towards their colonial rulers but also towards the Tutsis who had reaped more of the economic benefit of the colonial system.
In the years after independence Rwanda saw periodic fighting among Rwandans as Hutu-Tutsi resentments often spilled over in ugly ways. But never as ugly as it did in 1994. Immediately following a plane crash that killed Rwanda’s then-leader, a group of xenophobically vicious Hutus took over and began their wholesale slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Over the next 100 days their Interahamwe militias committed acts of barbaric cruelty against Tutsis, including by setting up roadblocks and hacking to death with machetes any Tutsis who came through. But that wasn’t all: through the media they controlled they stoked ordinary Hutus to turn against their Tutsi neighbors. People who had dined at friends’ houses now murdered those friends. Intermarried families now purged their in-laws. Teachers killed students. Students killed teachers. Priests led entire flocks to slaughter. Not only did the streets run filled with the blood of innocents, including women and children killed in the most gruesome ways, but all civil society — indeed, it seems, all civilization — in Rwanda completely dissolved.
The genocide ended, for the most part, after a group of rebels — Rwandan exiles who had been living in Uganda — fought their way back into the country. Those rebels were led by Paul Kagame, today the president of the country. And eventually Rwanda began to rebuild.
It has indeed come a long way in those 15 years since. Western guilt about having done little (or worse than little) to stop the genocide has led to the injection of huge amounts of aid to the country to rebuild its ruined infrastructure. Women now sit in greater numbers in parliament than in many other countries, including many Western ones. Innovative Gacaca community “courts” sprang up to address the wrongs committed during the genocide that the standard criminal justice system would have required decade upon decade to process. Rwanda is no longer a nation of Hutus and Tutsis; it is now a nation of Rwandans.
Mostly. Because while many narratives about Rwanda stop here, mine will continue. Because right now Rwanda is at a crossroads, and whether and how it can survive as a safe, stable, and successful nation of Rwandan people depends on the choices it makes today.