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from the October 2009 issue

Rwanda: The Flame of Hope

1 The sunny side of life

Recently one evening, as trails of ochre tinged with mauve kept stretching late into the sky of Mantua, I found myself face to face with Predrag Matvejević, the writer from Mostar and host of the writers' conference. He was alone with a bottle of red wine, looking grim. The man who had gone all over the now defunct Yugoslavia seemed to carry the disappearance of a part of the world on his slumped shoulders. In a moment of extremely lucid weariness, he said to me: "It's your turn now!" That way of passing on the role of witness from Europeans to Africans would have seemed like melodramatic posturing were it not for the feeling of urgency I sensed in Predrag Matvejević's gestures and voice. No, there was no hinting at the African Renaissance advocated by ex-president Thabo Mbeki, nor was it an act of redemption supposed to atone for who-knows-what by taking the formerly colonized people back to the sunny side of life. I politely turned down the large glass of wine he offered me and disappeared into the night of Mantua, or more exactly, went off to join some colleagues whose conversation was livelier: they were arguing endlessly a few tables down, happy as birds in paradise. Hours later, the words of the melancholic author of Mediterranean Breviary were still trotting through my head. I had to track down in the African sky the flame of hope close to Walter Benjamin's heart, or at least find a few reasons why the future should belong to the people of Africa. To do this, it doesn't help to follow the present state of the Continent in a press that delights in the disasters of the day. The fate of the African continent is always distorted by the words of others, caught in their dreams, and seen through their commiserating and secretly frightened eyes. You can picture it galloping alone towards the abyss. And the facts do their best to justify them. Indeed a large part of the continent, from the Horn of Africa to Mauritania, from the Gulf of Guinea to Zimbabwe through the area of the Great Lakes is sliding into the empire of misery. Since the end of the Cold War, new types of warfare have appeared, grafted onto old motifs (rebellion, stealing of resources, irredentism, etc.) or been newly invented (like the pirates along the Somali coast). And these conflicts are far less comprehensible than the previous ones.

What would be the point of remaking the recent history of this continent, of pitting one view against another? Let's rather slip inside what looks like a possible opening, stand inside the zone between reality and imagination, the only place that can be fertile when enriched with knowledge and ideas. Africans, like everyone else, show the same poignant, pitiful stubbornness we all do in dreaming our lives, in wrapping them up in words. Like old Job, the writers of Africa will never stop shouting at the world. They can never be quiet or laze away in the bright sun of righteousness.

2 Rwanda, fifteen years later

A small country the size of a postage stamp, densely populated, farmed and managed for centuries by a native monarchy, Rwanda had been spared predatory slavery—always synonymous with cultural bleeding. Even if colonization was a terrible breakdown of their civilization, the Rwandan people still have the talent and care to deal with the business of running a country. Nothing like the disorder, the artistic creativity of their neighbors who sing, dance and waste their energy in cathartic libations.

Nearly fifteen years after the Tutsi genocide, it is still very difficult for foreign observers and the international community to follow the development of this country with a neutral eye and without being prejudiced or excessively emotional. Some try hard to denounce the post-genocide Rwandan government, despite the fact that legislative elections have just been organized for the second time and took place peacefully. Rwanda goes its own way, without taking into account the advice of the international community, for which it doesn't have much regard anyway. And rightly so. Others emphasize the impressive achievements that have been made since 1994. Stopping the genocide and bringing the country back from Dante's inferno is not the least of the feats for which we can credit the former guerillas of the PRF. They have now swapped their battle dress for respectable-looking suits and ties.

Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times journalist and recognized biographer, belongs to the second group of foreign observers. He recently published the first biography of the man who presides over Rwanda's destiny: Paul Kagame. The task is daunting. Kagame and his comrades-in-arms were the stage directors of a world soaked in misery and apparently bereft of any hope. Somehow they fashioned a Rwanda that has been returned to all its children, available to winners and losers, exiled and survivors alike. The velvety curves of the Rwandan hills echo with the songs of children and the shouts of farmers, some of them former prisoners released from jail by the Gacaca Courts. Although Stephen Kinzer is passionate about his subject, he can keep his distance, nonetheless, according to his own criteria at least: his involvement and passion doesn't prevent him from being accurate and precise. He knows how to use the details that will give his object the aura of myth. Well documented and strengthened by thirty interviews with the former little refugee turned president, the book is also enjoyable.

When you close this book, you won't be able to say that Rwanda is an abandoned corner for the dead. You'll learn that it is a country standing tall on its thousand hills, set back into orbit, ready for life and economic recovery. The past won't be like a rearview mirror acting as a constant reminder of guilt, nor will it stand in front of you like a tyrannical master. The past is with you, very close to you, not to be forgotten, as the new Kigali Memorial suggests.

How can a dispassionate, efficient political system be established without going through a majority elected to the detriment of a minority, creating a permanent climate of hostility between two antagonistic political camps? Rwandans have to come up with the answer to that question. The solution for now is to be found in a fine balance between the main party (President Kagame's RPF), and six other small ones. The representatives of three "vulnerable" groups must be added to the mix: women, the handicapped, and young people. In a country where the words "majority" and "minority" are charged with deadly connotations, such a heterogeneous but original coalition deserves praise for even existing. Not everyone is pleased with this motley crew, obviously. Many are critical of it, particularly among its opponents from abroad, from Belgium in particular, who accuse the RPF and its leader of nipping in the bud any dissonant voice, and Human Rights Watch is certainly right about stressing the complete lack of opposition in this newly elected house.

Houses, roads and avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years. This is the thought borrowed from Proust that's in my head, as I come back to Kigali last July. I don't recognize anything, almost nothing, in the city I walked through for two months in 1998 and 1999. It's true that memories sometimes have their own recipe for reinventing the reality that created them, but this city could not be more different from the one I visited nine years ago. Completely transformed, and also thriving. Malls everywhere, roads, homes right out of an American suburb. The dream has no limits for someone who knows how to combine energy and integrity. A wind of renewal is blowing hard and the good news spreads like wildfire in business circles abroad. Kigali is about to become the meeting place for philanthropists and decision makers: they all compete with each other to come up with the most daring project. Bill Gates pulled a lot of money out of his pocket to stop the spread of AIDS; Bill Clinton is a frequent visitor to this country which has often been praised by the IMF and the World Bank as a model country. Tony Blair offered his services as a sherpa to President Kagame, said to be his personal friend. According to a Wall Street Journal study, Rwanda, in 2006, was the frontrunner in Africa in the fight against poverty. Now that Rwanda is secure, the government concentrates on the economy and the social sphere; the impulse moves from the bottom up: in 2003, parity was implemented, giving women access to the highest positions in politics. By establishing equality between men and women, Rwanda has pulled itself up to the very top. A real feat in a country where tradition didn't tolerate women expressing their opinions publicly. No wonder, then, that Kigali looks amorously at the big bankers and patrons of the Anglo-Saxon world like Blair, Gates, and Clinton!

Standing atop the Gisoir hill, the Kigali Memorial, completed in 2006 with the help of a British NGO, is the newest thing in the spotlight. The basement is filled with huge vaults containing 250,000 corpses, all people killed in the Kigali area. On the first level, there is a terraced garden designed around large funerary plaques, as well as several exhibition halls—you can feel here the American touch and even detect a kind of family resemblance to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The permanent exhibit manages to combine the concern to educate the public about the 1994 genocide with the will to open up onto other genocides (the Holocaust, Armenia and Cambodia), while focusing on testimonies and the individual identities of the deceased. Finally, the sponsors of the Memorial did not forget to point a finger at the UN, at the former colonial powers and particularly at the tortuous meanders of French politics.

3 The forgotten people of Biseness

But things are not perfect, far from it. For instance, the country's reconstruction has bypassed the survivors, who are part of a mostly silent minority. It isn't that there is any political will to marginalize them, but the result of the economic policy carried out by the political elite (many of whom came back from exile after 1994) has been the further deepening of existing inequalities. And thus, the survivors are more vulnerable and are hit harder by the problems other Rwandans have to face. You can't find, for instance, a single road sign on the twenty-mile trail linking Kibboutz, the capital of the Western province, to the Biseness hills, where Tutsi farmers hunted by the perpetrators of the genocide resisted heroically. The government is eerily absent. The Biseness museum is empty and its attendant nowhere to be seen, on that day at least. The survivors and their children come out of their shacks, extremely surprised to see foreigners. Nobody comes to visit, they say. The angry howling of the wind against the eucalyptus trees. Throughout our visit, many show signs of impatience, and seem mentally fragile too. Some were taken to Arusha to testify before the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). With the risk of reopening the wounds that have not yet healed. Then back to square one. Forgotten right away again. As if their long shepherd's crooks and their coats, too large for their skinny bodies, had made no impression on the NGO's swarming all around the big cities. Nor did the survivors receive the benediction of the American churches that traipse around through the rest of the country.

Yet the last general census of July 2008 which completed the data of the 1998 census, shows that part of the present administration wishes to acknowledge these problems and hopes to alleviate the fate of the 309,368 survivors.

4 Constructing the memory of the genocide

A tug-of-war between the French government and those who oppose its politics and its "francophone strategy"1 is rare, even unique, in the annals of African history. The roots of this adamant resistance are to be found partly in the genocide, as the damning Mucyo2 report shows us. Divorcing France to marry America is indeed ironic: to be overtly americanophile is now the new elite's dogma.

Whatever the shortcomings of a government that has its own political agenda and does not always treat its outcasts well, this is a nation truly committed to remembering its genocide, even in dealing with its internal problems.3 This includes reviving often subversive, traditional cultural practices: black humor in songs and theater, the ironic use of choreographic figures in the traditional Intore dance, the feudal art of the drum now appropriated by women. Constructing the memory of the genocide also includes an unprecedented outpouring of writing. Besides the books written or the films made by foreigners or Rwandans that come out in France and Belgium, collecting texts at the national level is also important; conducted by associations of student survivors (AERG), this type of work sometimes leads to writing workshops at the University of Butaré.

5 A new African world war?

Between 1998 and 2003, "the first world war of Africa," as a high-ranking officer of the American Foreign Office termed it at the time, saw eight armies fight and led to four to five million deaths in the former Zaire, with a real risk of spreading throughout central and southern Africa, from Angola to Tanzania, from Chad to South Africa.

Since the end of October 2008, Joseph Kabila's troops (FARDC), supported by various paramilitary militias, have been fighting the deposed General Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, with the help of Rwanda. Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect the Congolese Tutsi minority (to which he belongs) from the Hutu militias who have been active in the eastern region of the DRC since the end of the Rwandan genocide; but as Kigali is trying to establish a safety zone on its western side, we have reasons to be wary. Laurent Nkunda accuses the Kinshasa regime of discriminating against his ethnic minority, the Hutus, and threatens to overthrow Joseph Kabila, who is allegedly backed by Angola.

The power struggles with ethnic overtones are not the only reasons for war, of course. North-Kivu has important mining resources; gold, tin and coltan are much coveted and greed is highly conducive to flare-ups.

Such is life, with both great achievements and challenges, in Rwanda and in the region of the Great Lakes.


1 A member since 1970, Rwanda left Les Instances de la Francophonie at the Francophonie summit that took place in Quebec in 2008. English will be used in the Rwandan administration and in Education. "We give priority to the English language which will make our children more competent and will help our vision for developing our country," said President Paul Kagame. 2 The "National Independent Commission Report," whose mission was to gather proof that the French government was implicated in the preparation and carrying out of the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994, or Mucyo Commission Report (named after its president), is available on the Internet and was made public in August 2008. 3 I wish to thank Catherine Coquio, professor of literature (University of Poitiers and Paris IV) and president of AIRCRIGE (International Association for research on crimes against humanity and genocides)

Translation of Le Rwanda: la flamme de l'espérance. Copyright Abdourahman A. Waberi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Nicole Ball and David Ball. All rights reserved.

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