Rwanda: Raised in the shadow of death

In a narrow, dark vault beneath the small Catholic Church in Nyamata, 42km from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, lie the skeletons of the country’s past.

And make no mistake, they are actual skeletons, many thousands of them – the skulls arranged in neat rows on long metal shelves, facing forward, teetering stacks of femurs and fibulae crossed over each other like twigs.

On a bright April day in 1994, a militia walked through this sanctuary and slaughtered everyone inside. The tattered clothes of those victims have been stacked in heaps across the pews – a slinky leopard print dress, a sky-blue blazer with cream white buttons, a child’s jumper emblazoned with a cartoon image of a spiky-haired skater punk. A small statue of the Virgin Mary, her eyes downcast, perches on a shelf above the altar.

But as guides lead tourists through the church, they must raise their voices to be heard above the shrieking giggles of the children playing at the primary school next door, oblivious to the dark history lesson on offer just across the fence.

This, in many ways, is contemporary Rwanda – a young country energetically attempting to outpace a bleak history, a place whose future is constantly shouting to be heard over its past.

In both Rwanda and South Africa, April 1994 marked a sudden and profound turning point, a radical pivot that has dictated the course of the two countries’ histories ever since. And in both countries, the generation born after the leap bears a burden – to be raised in the shadow of a momentous history they do not remember. But they also, at least in theory, possess a singularly rare opportunity – the ability to recast their national identity in their own image.

“For a lot of young Rwandans, it’s not that we’re tired of hearing about the genocide exactly, but it’s that we’re tired of hearing it told in a way that makes our country out to be an object of pity,” says Natasha Muhoza, a 21-year old slam poet who runs communications for a Kigali tech start-up.

“We want to see the genocide remembered for what it is – a fact of the past, not something to make us a charity case to the world.”

Rwanda is a strikingly youthful country – even more so than South Africa. The median age is 18.6 and nearly half the country’s population was born after 1994. With a fertility rate of nearly five children for every woman, the country’s population is growing both younger and larger every year, and the United Nations estimates it will double by 2050.

Those young Rwandans are, by many barometers, growing up in a far more prosperous country than their parents did. Since 1994, life expectancy has doubled, the country’s economy is growing at a rate of 8% a year and per-person GDP has tripled in the last decade.

Meanwhile, over the same period deaths from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria have each fallen by more than 80%. Rwanda also holds another intriguing global superlative – it now has a higher proportion of women in its Parliament (64%) than any other country on earth.

“It is better now than it was for my parents,” says Alice Ngabire (18), who lives with her extended family in a small mud-brick hut in a village in the sun-baked northeastern district of Nyagatare.

The markers of that prosperity are basic – that her family eats every day, she says, and she finished primary school. “At least I learned to read,” she adds.

But as Ngabire’s experience suggests, Rwanda’s gains have hardly been evenly distributed.

“To have human rights in Rwanda, first you must have money,” says a young activist who declined to be named for fear of government retribution for speaking to a foreign reporter. “Without funds, there is no way here to determine your destination in life here.”

Many Rwandans argue that the costs of the country’s rapid development have been profound. Critics say the President Paul Kagame, a lanky bespectacled former general with a tough temper, presides over a veritable police state.

In 2014, Amnesty International’s annual report on Rwanda levelled a damning list of charges against Kagame’s government, including harassment of human rights defenders, unlawful detention of opposition figures, and political assassinations abroad, ­including at least one suspected hit in Johannesburg.

Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Rwanda at a startling 162 out of 180 countries in its annual press freedom index – below Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar.

“What happened in 1994 completely shattered what existed before, and in that context what has happened in Rwanda over the past two decades is in many respects very impressive,” says Marc Sommers, author of Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood.

“But this so-called miracle in the centre of Africa is also a profoundly regulated country, whose programmes are carried out with force from a centralised state and youth feel the brunt of that.”

Those social controls, he says, play out in tight regulations over where people can live, the land they can till, and the types of houses they can build. Such regulations, in turn, have made it nearly impossible for young people to pass through the traditional gateways to adulthood, foremost among them building their own home, Sommers says.

The country’s “born-free” generation also finds itself at the centre of contemporary Rwanda’s most vexing riddle – in the aftermath of a deeply intimate mass killing, in which neighbours slaughtered neighbours, how do you go about rebuilding your national identity?

How do you create an idea of being Rwandan that is expansive enough to include both genocidaires and their victims, and to mean something to both?

The path the country has chosen is one in which, officially, ethnicity simply does not exist. The census no longer records who is Hutu, Tutsi or Twa and a slate of liberally-applied laws prohibit promoting “divisionism” and “genocide ideology”, murky categories that many say can amount to something as simple as discussing ethnicity.

But ethnicity still tiptoes quietly across the surface of life here.

“Do you think now that people do not know if they are Hutu or Tutsi or Twa? They know, of course they know, but they are just too afraid to speak,” the young activist says.

For 17-year old Umuhoza “Cadette” Laurence, vice-chairperson of the Children’s Forum of Rwanda, such silences serve an important healing purpose.

“People of my parents’ generation, I think they don’t want their children to suffer as they ­suffered, even by hearing their experiences,” she says. “Being silent is their way of protecting us.”

And indeed, in speaking to young people like Laurence, or 19-year-old cycling champion Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu, it is easy to lose track of what one believes an African country’s greatest ambition should be.

Is it the chaotic democracy of South Africa, where many born-frees feel themselves abandoned by the very political system that promised to redeem them?

Or is it Rwanda, with its uncannily clean streets and low corruption index, a country whose hard reset in 1994 has given it the unlikely gift of starting completely anew?

“We have equality here, we can compete with men in anything,” Girubuntu says with a softness that belies her fierce prowess on the road. Lanky and rail-thin, just three years ago Girubuntu had never ridden a bicycle. But now she is Rwanda’s national champion, and earlier this year in an all-continental race she finished just one place shy of qualifying for the Olympics.

“When you are racing, you have only two options,” she says. “You lose because the other rider is stronger than you or you are the stronger one and you win. You must be the stronger one.”

But one does not have to travel far to remember that Girubuntu’s Rwanda is hardly open to everyone. Just a few miles from her training camp in the mountain town of Ruhengeri, in the foothills of the towering Virunga volcanoes, Apollo Saasita shares a damp, sour-smelling three-roomed mud hut with his wife, children and grandchildren.

Saasita is Twa, Rwanda’s indigenous ethnic minority, and grew up in a clan of nomadic hunter-gatherers inside the nearby Volcanoes National Park. But 30 years ago, the government expelled the Twa from that land and today they live in viciously impoverished villages on its fringes.

Once among the world’s most self-sufficient people, the Twa now rely on handouts from local farmers and visiting tourists to survive each day.

On a recent morning, three of Saasita’s granddaughters huddle over the embers of a dying fire inside their hut, sharing a plate of boiled potatoes.

“My hope for them is that they will be clever, so they can go far from here,” he says, laughing wryly. “They must go far from here.”

The reporting of this story was made possible by a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation

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