In April 1994, I was celebrating my tenth birthday. I remember traces from that day quite vividly, since turning ten seemed like a big thing at that point. The most badass present I got was a card with the number 10 glued to it – created out of golden 10 crown coins. The golden 10 crown coin had just been minted in Sweden, and they were so, so shiny and, above all – golden! There must have been like 200 Swedish crowns in that card, shining like King Midas’ secret wet dream. (An awful lot of cash to a 10 year old) While I was rolling around in golden coins like Scrooge McDuck the news on the TV and radio were all filled with difficult words like genocide, the United Nations, Tutsi, Hutu and ethnic cleansing. Words portraying a dramatically different reality compared to the one I was living in. The 10 year olds of Rwanda, as all the rest of the population, were in the midst of 100 days of pure hell, in a mass psychosis of merciless, violent, gruesome, despicable, horrifying fucking genocide which took the lives of 1 million people. 1 million people during 100 days. Can you even start to grasp these numbers? In a small country like Rwanda, which at the time had 8 million inhabitants, this was something unimaginable, but still so, so real. Growing up a little I came to realise what the Genocide of Rwanda actually encapsulated and what those words mean. I could look up the country on a map, I could read it’s history in books and I could watch the quite gutting fiction movie Hotel Rwanda (still quite real). All in a safe distance from really understanding what a mere 100 days can do to a person.
I will not go into detail about the genocide in Rwanda. You all should know a thing or two about it, and if you don’t do take a moment to read up on the events. I will not go into details simply because I don’t have the vocabulary for it. It is too much, too big. Throughout the cause of history, I don’t think there will be anything you can compare to it, though many cruelties have been committed in the name of ethnicity, racism, colonialism and nationalism. What happened in Rwanda was something beyond human, and that is why I want to talk about what Rwanda is today, a short 25 years later.
Crossing borders overland is always an experience whichever continent you are on. The people on the side you are leaving are always gonna say ”Oh, on the other side, nothing works, these people are NOT nice, take care of yourself, don’t trust anyone, bla bla, etc.” Crossing the border, you will always be greeted with a self assuring smile, indicating they know you are happy to have left THAT country behind, and that life will be easier now that you are here. That’s why I always try to maintain a healthy amount of scepticism whenever I cross any borders, especially in Africa. Rwanda though, exactly like everyone had told me, is not like Africa, which was duly noted immediately when crossing the border. Simple things which is just so hard to maintain in other countries just seem to work here. Firstly, the motorcycle taxis offer you, as a passenger, helmets. That is even the law; everyone who goes on a motorbike must wear a helmet! This tiny extraordinary fact struck me vividly since I had refused to use ANY motorbike taxi since my utterly traumatic experience across Cairo on the second day of this trip. Coming off of that bike I was shaking so hard I could hardly walk. (Cairo is hectic, FYI). Second extraordinary fact; the prices for the local minivans are set. All local transport have their prices printed in laminated sheets of paper, glued to the window. No room for tricking stupid tourists out of their big money. Third extraordinary fact: all the bicycles taxis you see along the road, are all registered businesses. Everyone who rides a service bicycle, which is quite a lot of people in Rwanda, have their registration number and license – for the safety of the passengers. These in any other part of the world normal measures stand out like small miracles of a well orchestrated, functional society. Travelling on either of these modes of transport you will be greeted with lush, green forests, rolling hills and cascading waterfalls. Wait a minute, what is missing? Ah, the plastic! Where have all the plastic gone? Ah, illegal. Plastic bags are illegal! The gutters are clean and the fields and waters are non polluted. Once a month, every one in the neighbourhood or community come out to work on a local project, maybe to help out someone who’s building a house, or to fix roads, or to dig in wherever work needs to be done. This is mandatory and something happening all over Rwanda. Simple as that. Perhaps when you know you’re gonna have to rebuild, clean up or fix something yourself, you maybe feel less compelled to wreak havoc in public spaces, or to throw that plastic bottle in the gutter instead of in the bin. Rwanda’s biggest tourist draw, the mountain gorillas, are expensive as f**k to visit but guess why? Well, taxes, of course. Most of the money goes into actively preserving the habitats of the gorillas, and to employ guards keeping poachers at bay. The preservation project have been hugely successful and the numbers of gorillas in the wild have grown substantially in the past decade. What’s even better than the preservation of the animals is that 11% of the gorilla permits goes straight into the surrounding local communities, to developing projects beneficial for the people living in the vicinity of the tourist streams. Even people who are not directly involved with the tourist industry actually get some piece of the tourist money pie. Maybe it is worth paying a little extra when you know your money is being well spent?
But wait a minute. Rwanda had like two decades to recover from one of the most extensive human tragedies in the history of the world. How are they today one of the most developed and fastest growing economies in Africa?
They decided to. After a national trauma such as the genocide everyone is put with choices. What is extraordinary about Rwanda is that even most of the victims, the minority Tutsi population, decided that forgiveness is the only way forward for a nation to be able to rise again. The government taking power shortly after 1994 created local “courts” where perpetrators could come an confess their crimes straight to the affected survivors, handling out forgiveness personally. They allowed remembrance, they gave the genocide the space and time to heal, and did not try to sweep it under the rug like some shameful act not part of their history. Everyone growing up in Rwanda will spend some time learning about their ancestry, their traditions, their pre colonial way of life where there was no division between different tribes. They learn about the time before the Europeans arrived and created the devastating divide between Hutu and Tutsi. They learn that it is really in their nation to be one people and that tribalism is the construction of the divide and conquer rules Belgium imposed on them. Today, they are back to talking about themselves as Rwandans, and that nothing else is as important as that, Maybe that is the most extraordinary of it all. Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery from a tragedy I can’t explain in words, and the nation’s success today is based in a common history and unity. Maybe a few other nations should learn something from that?
I remember my ten year birthday, all though it was a pretty ordinary day in my life, compared to the day that the ten year olds of Rwanda had in that same April 1994. While being a tourist in Rwanda I kept on looking at the people around me, trying to grasp that everyone about the age of 30 must have some memories, or maybe even too many memories, from the genocide. Most of them have probably lost someone to the tsunami of violence which struck this tiny, beautiful country not-so-long ago. And still, looking at Rwanda today you could NEVER guess it’s night black history. Looking at Rwandans today, you could never guess what wounds they suffer, which histories they carry, which realities they have lived in. It takes an extraordinary strength to move on, as a country, as a people, from something as traumatising as was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. So, so, so far away from where I was, in the safety of my gold coined frenzy on my tenth birthday. Young enough to be naive about the world, but old enough to anticipate that my naivety perhaps were coming to an end.