Kigali, La Ville des Mille Collins (“City of 1000 hills”), is breathtaking for many reasons. The lush green, rolling hills with colorful houses speckling the rich landscape are a sight for any eyes, in contrast to the urban chaos of neighboring capitals like Kampala or Nairobi. The streets are spotlessly clean, neatly painted and lined with perfectly planted trees and cobblestone walkways for the many pedestrians. Each hill makes up a different neighborhood and an evening walk offers striking views of Kigali for pedestrians, bikers, or rooftop cocktail-drinkers alike. The colorful Kitenge (traditionally-printed cotton fabric) and Agaseke (hand-woven baskets) furnish cafes are filled with delicious fair-trade Rwandan coffee or African spice tea with local Rwandan honey. Any visitor would be quick to remark, “this city doesn’t belong in Africa”, but such a comment deprives Africa of its capacity to be all that it is — so many different things at once.
Rwanda is a remarkably resilient country, still recovering from one of the biggest genocides in history only 25 years ago. Any local Rwandan I met who was older than me has consciously lived through the genocide — a terrible fact to comprehend let alone live through. I couldn’t shake this thought from my interactions in Kigali. The massive genocide that occurred in 1994 was a horrific event during which the ruling Hutu army and many Hutu civilians slaughtered nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. The story is often left there, as if it was simply “tribal in-fighting”, but the genocide was the result of years of tension from arbitrary divisions that Belgian colonists created. Though all of Rwanda’s tribes shared the same language and culture, colonists created socioeconomic-based “ethnicities” and pitted these groups against each other. France provided military support to a violent French-speaking army despite knowledge of the planned genocide. While the genocide occurred, the international community stood by and watched — unwilling to acknowledge the brutalities that were occurring and refraining from intervention or aid until the genocide was over. We have so much to learn from such a disgraceful and grave mistake. What level of injustice is necessary for intervention? While the genocide was happening, European and American tourists were relaxing at Rwanda’s premier hotel, as featured in the documentary Hotel Rwanda. How can we vacation or invest in places from which we don’t expect or take responsibility for the same moral codes we claim to value in our own countries? At what point in such developments must citizens stand up to injustices like the treatment of Rohingyas in Myanmar today or undocumented immigrants along the US border?
It is estimated that 70% of Rwandan’s knew someone who was killed in the genocide, leaving behind a deeply impacted population of survivors with unimaginable trauma and desperation. What’s most striking about this horrific moment in history was its post-conflict response. The Rebel army that ultimately stopped the genocide did not seek revenge against the civilian Hutus, but instead aimed to re-unify Rwandans as a single population. Needing to process an enormous number of cases, Rwanda utilized community-based dispute resolution practices called gacaca, to simultaneously enact justice and strengthen reconciliation, attempting to develop a shared truth of the injustices that occurred. The capacity for forgiveness is nothing short of remarkable. Today, Hutus and Tutsis live side-by-side as neighbors and friends, fostering a shared identity and even engaging in umuganda together, community service work on the last Saturday of every month. Women have worked hard to rebuild their lives together, teaching each other skills and employing themselves through entrepreneurial pursuits like The Women’s Bakery and Nyamirambo Women’s Center.
As we strolled along the beautiful streets to a late dinner one night, I couldn’t help but wonder what’s behind such a perfect, cookie-cutter city. Many describe Rwanda as a benevolent dictatorship which is a hard concept to swallow. Over the years, Kagame has taken actions to solidify his dictatorial power until 2034 and reports have escaped of Kagame’s efforts to silence opposition and control the press. When is it fair for citizens to give up certain rights to free will in exchange for safety, support, and protection from the government? And what else is being taken or manipulated by Kagame’s political party? Rwanda has become a darling of the development community, fiercely backed by donors as a success story for post-conflict resolution and economic development on many fronts. The tall order of re-unifying and revitalizing a country after such atrocious violence has sidelined deeper questions about real economic progress and the dangers of unchecked authoritarian power. Over 60% of Rwandans still live in extreme poverty, invisible to visitors who pop into Kigali for the weekend.
When is it fair for citizens to give up certain rights to free will in exchange for safety, support, and protection from the government?
We asked a young Rwandan whether they teach children about the genocide in school. He said yes of course, since it’s important to know the history and to ensure they don’t make the same mistake again. He explained that when the genocide was starting in the 90s, the discrimination was present in schools — singling out Tutsi children and spreading propaganda to make children believe Tutsis were inferior — “cockroaches”, to be precise. Today, Rwandan children are taught to resist such narratives, and to remember that they are all Rwandan, a unified people.
Along the utopian streets of Kigali and impressively paved roads throughout the small country, you’ll find armed forces watching civilians. Laws are taken very seriously, with civilians themselves enforcing or supporting enforcement of even the most basic rules like jay-walking at a red light or passing another car along a solid lined road — out of strong patriotism or severe fear of the law, I’m not sure. Whether a serious infraction or not, police who stop you do not look for bribes or favors the way one might be accustomed in Nairobi, Lagos, or Joburg.
Driving to the volcanoes, we noticed so many young people — children playing freely, taking care of each other, or carrying large bags of produce on their heads for miles. Every other person was either a child or carrying a child. Rwanda is young, with a new generation that has not experienced the atrocities of their parents. It’s unclear how much rehabilitation vs. repression has created what appears to be a proud, unified Rwanda, simultaneously protected and policed by Rwandan government. We were nevertheless touched by the kindness and generosity of strangers in Kigali and the joy painted across the faces of little kids in rural Rwanda screaming Muzungu and waving as we passed by.