During her recent visit to Rwanda, Cara Meintjes spent time with young citizens who are still grappling with the legacy of the 1994 genocide.
Any urbanite, even a Capetonian, will reach for their camera at the sight of the landscape of Rwanda, known as the land of a thousand hills. Standing in the busy centre of a rural town, a shopper can look up and out to enjoy the surrounding sloping patchwork of green crops and red, freshly hoed earth. Glance at the hills and along the footpaths you will see villagers, carrying bags of grass on their heads for their cows, or bundles of sweet potato cuttings for a new field.
On a short visit to Rwanda this November, I was struck by the beauty and apparent tranquility of a country that only 18 years ago experienced a massive genocide. More than 500 000 Tutsis were systematically murdered by Hutus, but hundreds of thousands of others, including moderate Hutus, also died and over two thirds of Rwandans of all ethnicities were displaced. In short, it was an utterly devastating period in the country’s history. But order has been restored, sites of the massacre were cleaned up (with some turned into monuments), and most survivors and refugees have been resettled. Today it seems that Rwandans are simply living their lives. During my visit, I tried to immerse myself in their culture by staying with local families. From this I concluded that young Rwandans concern themselves with their social lives, family relationships, church and education, and in the rural areas, balancing subsistence agriculture and formal employment.
As a South African, I naturally identified with Rwanda’s history of ethnic strife and was keen to observe how it is being dealt with today. However, I found that if you ask Rwandans about ethnicity they might pretend to misunderstand you the first time. Ask them about the genocide and they might point dismissively to a monument, or give you a short, evasive answer. Only sporadically, more frequently in the capital Kigali, you may come across someone who looks around cautiously before answering that things are not as tranquil as they seem. There are complexities about living in Rwanda in 2012.
One day, Eugene (25) confided in me about his struggle for education. His Tutsi school friends who lost family in the genocide are all pursuing their tertiary education on government bursaries, but he, a Hutu, finds his way barred at every turn with administrative difficulties. He considers this deliberate, though unofficial, ethnic discrimination. His family members also died during the genocide, but their deaths are not acknowledged like those of Tutsis, nor does he receive support in overcoming the losses and disruption that his family experienced. He feels overlooked as he struggles to get by.
Government's heavy hand
Later I spoke to Grace (23), a university student. She agrees that Hutus are discriminated against while she, a Tutsi, is favoured by the government. “But that’s only right,” she shrugged. “We Tutsis suffered for a long time.” “Is there justice in Rwanda then?” I asked. I was curious to know whether those benefiting from the current government are wholly supportive of it. She began to nod, but then she frowned. “No. Not for the opposition parties.” She explained that people like Victoire Ingabire, an opposition politician whose recent conviction on charges of genocide denial made headlines around the world, are unjustly prosecuted by the government. According to the Grace, Ingabire had said nothing untrue and had certainly not denied the genocide.
She also mentioned the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, which has been prevented from registering as a political party and whose vice-president was found beheaded in the run-up to the 2010 elections. They were no threat to stability or peace, she said.
"Are there many young people who agree that the government is repressing legitimate political participation?" I asked her.
She hesitated. “Maybe, but we can’t talk about it. If I criticise the government, I would certainly lose my bursary. We have no voice.”
We finished our conversation before heading back onto the streets, where armed soldiers stand guard and surveillance cameras are common.
The picture is, however, not as simple as a repressive government and a suffering people. Under the current government (which ended the genocide and took over the country in 1994), Rwanda has made tremendous strides in development. The brief impressions I collected during my stay confirmed this. Stroll around Ruhango, Runda, Gitarama or just about any village in Rwanda and you are likely to come across an adequately stocked, functional health centre – a component of the decentralised, universal health system that has pushed life expectancy up by eight years since 2000. Education institutions, which were almost non-existent after the genocide, have proliferated. Given the advances in infrastructure and investment in the country, a young person who speaks good English and manages to obtain a post-graduate degree has a chance of finding a good job. Development analysts praise the government’s strong leadership, vision and accountability mechanisms for this progress.
In terms of their personal lives, things are stable and getting better for most citizens. The Rwandans I met – even those who feel they are being discriminated against – say that above all, they want peace for Rwanda. Those in government circles can possibly debate the status quo a bit more, but ordinary youngsters lack public forums where they can develop the capacity to grapple with their confusion and discontent. So they suppress it in their desire to promote unity. A young woman told me that Hutus desire more acknowledgement of the losses they suffered during and after the genocide, but then she concluded: “I wish we could all just forget these ethnicities and these negative emotions. That is how we will keep the peace. But it is difficult.”
Plenty of photographs later, my fellow South Africans and I left Rwanda with many contrasting impressions, and you know what we did? We debated them. Freely. I came to appreciate anew my freedom to get involved in building peace. We can talk about, explore and affirm our many histories. We can criticise our leaders where they fail; and get involved in lobbying for injustices to be addressed. Indeed, it is becoming clear to many that the critical involvement of ordinary South Africans in public life is a matter of national survival. This is in stark contrast to my impressions of young Rwandans, who seem inclined to believe that peace is only possible if they keep silent and just hope things work out. I find myself hoping for signs that this is not true, and that they exert their full potential in rebuilding their country.
Cara Meintjes lives in Cape Town and has an MA in political science from Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in how Africans deal with the past.