As we go into the third week, commemorating, for the 13th year, the genocide that decimated a 10th of the population, the memory remains fresh of Rwandans’ blood that continued to flow, unchecked, down the beautiful hills and into the valleys, rivers and lakes of Rwanda and, even, across the borders.
For the following 70 days or so after 7th April 1994, the maniacal cries of Interahamwe and ex-FAR would continue to fill the land as they mobilised the populace and together hunted and hounded children (without sparing foetuses), women and men in a killing and raping orgy that shocked the civilised world speechless and left it numb and dazed.
The world watched in revulsion as televisions brought the gory pictures to the sitting rooms, radios blared into the world’s incredulous ears and newspapers screamed in ghastly headlines. Then the world shut its eyes and ears in horror and hoped that when it woke up, the nightmare would be gone.
Thirteen years on, the nightmare has all but gone away, but not the way it was wished away by the world. Real humans stood in the way of that real slaughtering avalanche and halted its devastation. Unfortunately, already over a million innocent lives had perished in the most savage manner.
(And here it must be emphasised that the number was over a million dead and not, as is being bandied by genocide deniers and their blind followers, less than one million, or eight hundred or now the ridiculously small number of five hundred thousand dead.)
The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a political organisation formed by Rwandans in exile to peacefully agitate for their denied citizenship and equal rights of all Rwandans, had also wisely formed an armed wing, the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA), in case the then Rwanda Government remained intransigent in rejecting the rule of law.
As everyone knows now, albeit through belated interest in a fast-transforming Rwanda, it was this initially unknown political organisation, RPF, with its military arm, RPA, that put a halt to the 1994 genocide and rallied all Rwandans around the cause of socio-politico-economic development for their country, as a united and reconciled people.
The task at hand today is to cement this reconciliation and build a united force of Rwandans that can effectively haul Rwanda out of its abject poverty. However, for a people who have known nothing but misrule and misdirection for close to a century, during colonialism and the subsequent terror regimes of Kayibanda and Habyarimana, this may sound as a pipe dream.
President Paul Kagame himself has on occasions bemoaned the ‘emptiness’ that seems to characterise the Rwandans. On a visit to the Northern Province recently, he recounted how he chatted up some Rwandans he found idly standing by the roadside as he returned from a visit in the southern part of the country.
“So, those withering bananas behind you, are they of any benefit to you?” President Kagame wanted to know. “Not at all!” came the chorus from the peasants. “And is there anything you can do to improve them?” he persisted. “None at all!” answered the peasants.
And even if the President had not added an example of Rwandans who have failed to earn a living by working a few extra hours at night, the first example had so graphically captured the depth of the hopelessness that can be implanted into a people by misplaced policies.
As I listened to the President, I recalled the reflections of a prolific “American journalist in Kigali” (his words), Josh Kron, who seems to have found this “emptiness” “creative”. I don’t particularly know how emptiness can be “creative” but, surely, no one can deny that the Rwandan society is sometimes so laid back, and so ready to imbibe whatever is doled to them, that any caring person would get worried.
In the case of those peasant interlocutors with the President, suggesting an alternative crop that can benefit them would meet animated resistance, because “that place has always been known for banana growing.” It does not matter that the bananas have sucked the soil dry, it does not matter that other people have discovered a more profitable crop.
It does not matter that there may be a more lucrative activity, for instance, apart from cultivation of the land. And, in the case of working outside hours, it does not matter that there are employers willing to give higher pay for those hours. And, unfortunately, this ‘it’s-the-way-things-are’ mindset pervades the entire country today.
Yet we know from history that Rwandans have always been perhaps the most creative, hardworking and the bravest people of this region. It is known, for instance, that when almost all Africans lived in systems of primitive communalism, Rwandans were an organised society with strong administrative, military, religious and other institutions.
That is why, whereas slave trade devastated the rest of Africa and depleted its populations, it did not make any inroads into Rwanda. Rwandans continued to expand and embrace a bigger and more protected family even as local chiefs, in the communities around, sold their people for a song.
It is also well documented that for efficient labour, the colonialists in the Great Lakes Region relied on Rwanda to provide the necessary manpower. From the copper mines of Katanga, D.R. Congo, to the sugar cane plantations of Lugazi and Jinja in Uganda, and the tea plantations of Kericho and Nyeri in Kenya, they all looked up to Rwanda for an efficient workforce.
The most versatile cattle-keepers of the central African highlands were Rwandans, whose riches have for a long time drawn vitriolic ire from citizens of those countries, (D.R. Congo, Uganda and Tanzania), who have always hated them because they viewed them (Rwandans) as an occupying force.
Even today, stories are rife in Buganda, central Uganda, of a Kayibanda (as a symbol of all Rwandans in Uganda) who was employed to tend the banana plantations and cattle for the Baganda, for a minimal pay, but who was so wise and hardworking that he ended up as the employer, because he had become wealthier.
Yet today, the reverse is the case as investors in Rwanda go scouting for an effective workforce in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. How could such a self-respecting, hardworking and proud people slide into becoming possibly the biggest embarrassment of the 20th century, by being only hardworking at self-slaughter?
My uneducated submission would be that the moment the Rwandans allowed the foreigners to take charge of their destiny was the moment they espoused the ‘it’s-the-way-things-are’ mantra, and took the passenger seat.
Colonialism came down hard on the independent spirit of the Rwandans by physically whipping them into submission with the infamous ‘ikiboko’ (whip), assassinating their leaders who tried to resist their (colonialists’) influence, ruthlessly dividing them into higher and lower castes, and using the Church to destroy the Rwandan soul.
That is how Rwandans were turned into ‘empty vessels’ that had to be told what to do, what to think, what to speak, what to breathe, what to eat, what to believe in, what to learn, what to cultivate, what to sell, et al. Indeed, Josh Kron, “We should have grown out of this already,” but “this kind of nothingness” was the perfectly fertile ground that the successor regimes to colonialism needed for their tyranny to flourish.
After an overload of distorted policy baggage, therefore, by 1994 the Rwandans had learnt to despise themselves so much that they looked at themselves as mere objects that could be dispensed at will. At the lowest rung lay the Batutsi whose existence in Rwanda was seen as a disturbance that had been tolerated for too long and therefore had reached the point of elimination.
Being an even smaller minority, the Batwa were, for all intents and purposes, completely ignored but their time for extermination was bound to come if, for example, one of them were so much as try to voice their need for equal rights.
However, the leadership of the time had even split the purported ‘majority and favoured caste’ into northern and southern Bahutu, to the point where it was only a matter of time before they purposefully plunged themselves into an internecine, suicidal and apocalyptic bloodbath.
As someone has pointed out, Rwanda had become a brakeless vehicle that had long gone over the edge and was fast hurtling into the abyss. In giving an example of the lingering hopelessness of some Rwandans, however, President Kagame was not sounding the gong of despair that nothing can be done.
Rather, he was putting a finger at the magnitude of work that has to be done by RPF as the engine of the Rwandan development, and as the agent of a fundamental shift in the outlook of Rwandans.
From the abyss to “creative emptiness” and up the road to Rwanda-crafted destiny, Rwandans are firmly in the driving seat of an all-weather, all-terrain, formidable vehicle with all its parts intact. There is no doubt that if there is any history that will repeat itself, it will be the history of a united and strong family, at peace with itself and its global neighbours.