Rwanda is easily one of Africa's most progressive and better-run nations, and has done an impressive job of coming to terms with and moving on from its dark past. That said, the news is not all positive, with the increasingly autocratic rule of President Paul Kagame worrying many observers who see definite signs of the now veteran leader making moves to ensure he can remain in power long term.
Building National Unity
Despite all the efforts at nation building since the genocide, Rwanda remains the home of two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutu presently outnumber the Tutsi by more than four to one and, while the RPF government is one of national unity with a number of Hutu representatives, it’s viewed in some quarters as a Tutsi government ruling over a predominantly Hutu population.
However, the RPF government has done an impressive job of promoting reconciliation and restoring trust between the two communities. This is no small achievement after the horrors that were inflicted on the Tutsi community during the genocide of 1994, especially since it would have been all too easy for the RPF to embark on a campaign of revenge and reprisal.
On the contrary, Kagame and his government are attempting to build a society with a place for everyone, regardless of tribe. Officially there are no more Tutsis, no more Hutus, only Rwandans – idealistic perhaps, but it is realistically the best hope for the future. Rightly or wrongly, Paul Kagame has plenty of detractors, but on the surface, at least, it's hard not to see Rwanda today as anything other than buzzing with potential for the future.
Kagame is trying to leave the past behind and create a new Rwanda for Rwandans. Forget the past? No. But do learn from it and move on to create a new spirit of national unity.
Signs of Authoritarianism
Despite being a genuinely popular leader who many credit with single-handedly leading Rwanda's impressive transformation since 2000, Paul Kagame has in recent years displayed a worrying strain of authoritarianism and undertaken various measures that suggest he plans to remain in power indefinitely.
In 2015 an incredible 3.7 million Rwandans – over half the total number of people in the country registered to vote – signed a petition seeking a constitutional amendment to allow Kagame to stand again for re-election in 2017, and effectively clearing the way for him to run for office until 2034. When the matter was put to a referendum later the same year, an amazing 98% of the electorate supported the move, though there were reports of voter intimidation and coercion. While publicly stating that he has no plans to remain in power for decades, it certainly looks like Kagame wants to keep his options open and has little tolerance for people who oppose his policies.
Unsurprisingly, Kagame easily won the 2017 presidential election. His plans are to boost the modernisation of the country, continue the reconciliation process and reinforce the diplomatic influence of Rwanda within Central and East Africa.
Amnesty International has repeatedly reported declining press freedom, human rights abuses and repression of opposition parties, although much of the silencing of dissenting voices in Rwanda can be said to be the result of self-censorship on the part of a populace unwilling to provoke a government that has brought about peace and progress.
The National Psyche
Tribal conflict has torn Rwanda apart during much of the independence period, culminating in the horrific genocide that unfolded in 1994. With that said, there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to looking at Rwandan identity.
The colonial approach of the Belgians was to divide and rule, issuing ID cards that divvied up the population along strict tribal lines. They tapped the Tutsis as leaders to help control the Hutu majority, building on the foundations of precolonial society in which the Tutsi were considered more dominant. Later, as independence approached, they switched sides, pitting Hutu against Tutsi in a new conflict that simmered on and off until the 1990s when it exploded onto the world stage.
In the new Rwanda, the opposite is true. Tribal identities have been systematically eliminated and everyone is now treated as a Rwandan. The new government is at pains to present a singular identity and blames the Belgians for categorising the country along tribal lines and setting the stage for the savagery that followed. Rwanda was a peaceful place beforehand: Hutu and Tutsi lived side by side for generations and intermarriage was common – or so the story goes.
The truth, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in between. Rwanda was no oasis before the colonial powers arrived. However, Tutsis probably had a better time of it than Hutus, something that the Belgians were able to exploit as they sought control.
But it is true to say that there was no history of major bloodshed between the two peoples before 1959, and the foundations of the violence were laid by the Belgian insistence on ethnic identity and their cynical political manipulation of it. The leaders of the genocide merely took this policy to its extreme, first promoting tribal differences and then playing on them to manipulate a malleable population.
Urban Rwanda is a very sophisticated place. People start the day early before breaking off for a long lunch. Late dinners inevitably lead to drinking and socialising, which sometimes doesn’t wind down until the early morning.
In rural areas people work long hours from dawn until dusk, but they also take a break during the hottest part of the day. However, it is a hard life for women in the countryside who seem burdened with the lion’s share of the work, while many menfolk often sit around drinking and talking.
Faith is an important rock in the lives of many Rwandan people, with Christianity firmly rooted as the dominant religion. Churches from different denominations in Rwanda were tainted by their association with the genocide in 1994, though that doesn’t seem to have dampened people’s devotion to the faith.
Like many countries in Africa, Rwanda actively promotes universal primary education. Despite suffering terribly during the genocide, the education system continues to improve and the literacy rate, according to Unicef, stands at around 68%, up from 58% in 1991.
Rwanda’s economy was decimated during the genocide – production ground to a halt, and foreign investors pulled out altogether. However, the current government has done a commendable job of stimulating the economy, which is now fairly stable and boasts steady growth and low inflation. Foreign investors are once again doing business in Kigali, and there are building projects springing up all over the capital. Tourism too has rebounded and is again the country’s leading foreign-exchange earner.
The agricultural sector is the principal employer and a major export earner, contributing around 33% of Rwanda’s GDP. Coffee is by far the largest export, accounting for about 60% of export income, while tea and pyrethrum (a natural insecticide) are also important crops. However, the vast majority of farmers live subsistence lives, growing plantain, sweet potato, beans, cassava, sorghum and maize.
The population exceeded 13 million in 2017, which gives Rwanda one of the highest population densities of any country in Africa. While tribal identities are very much a taboo subject in Rwanda, the population is believed to be about 84% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa. The Twa is a Central African indigenous group that has suffered from discrimination over the generations, though it is slowly gaining a political and cultural foothold.
About 65% of the population are Christians of various sects (Catholicism is predominant), a further 25% follow tribal religions, often with a dash of Christianity, and the remaining 10% are Muslim.
Rwanda’s most famous dancers are the Intore troupe – their warrior-like displays are accompanied by a trance-like drumbeat similar to that of the famous Tambourinaires in Burundi.
Leave Your Plastic Bags at Home
In an effort to preserve the natural beauty of Rwanda, the government enforces a strict ban on plastic bags throughout the country. Police at borders may even confiscate any plastic bags they find, although we have never heard about a visitor having their suitcases searched.
In the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, it is hardly surprising to find that endless mountains stretch into the infinite horizon. Rwanda’s 26,338 sq km of land is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and almost every available piece of land is under cultivation (except the national parks). Since most of the country is mountainous, this involves a good deal of terracing. Coffee and tea plantations take up considerable areas of land.
National Parks & Reserves
Due to its small size and high demand for cultivatable land, Rwanda only has a small network of national parks. The most popular protected area (and the focus of most visits to Rwanda) is Volcanoes National Park, a string of brooding volcanoes that provides a home for the rare mountain gorilla. Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda’s newest national park, is a tropical montane forest that is one of the richest primate destinations in the region. Akagera National Park, the third of Rwanda’s parks, is on the up after habitat destruction during the civil war as well as postwar ‘villagisation’ – its impressive comeback includes growing wildlife populations and the reintroduction of both lions and rhinos.
Soil erosion, resulting from the overuse of land, is the most serious problem confronting Rwanda today. The terracing system in the country is fairly anarchic and, unlike much of Southeast Asia, the lack of coordinated water management has wiped out much of the topsoil on the slopes. This is potentially catastrophic for a country with too many people in too small a space, as it points to a food-scarcity problem in the future.
The Slow Hand of Justice
Following a slow and shaky start, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR; http://unictr.unmict.org) managed to net most of the major suspects wanted for involvement in the 1994 genocide. After more than 20 years pursuing justice for the genocide's victims by ending impunity for its gravest perpetrators, the tribunal finished its operations in December 2015.
The tribunal was established in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1995, but was initially impeded in its quest for justice by the willingness of several African countries to protect suspects. Countries such as Cameroon, the DRC and Kenya long harboured Kigali’s most wanted, frustrating the Rwandan authorities in their attempts to seek justice. However, due to changes in their attitude or government, many of the former ministers (including the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda) of the interim cabinet that presided over the country during the genocide were arrested.
While the architects of the tragedy were tried at the ICTR, Rwanda’s judicial system found itself facing a backlog that would take a century to clear. With too many cases (in excess of 120,000) and too few jails to humanely detain such a large percentage of the population, an age-old solution was revived.
Across the country thousands of gacaca courts were set up and hundreds of thousands of judges appointed. Modelled on traditional hearings that were headed by village elders, these tribunals were empowered to identify and categorise suspects. Category 1 suspects who were thought to have organised, encouraged or instigated the genocide were remanded for processing in the formal judicial system. The gacaca court tried category 2 and 3 suspects, those accused of murder, bodily injury or causing property damage. Each court contained a minimum of 15 community-elected judges and was witnessed by 100 citizens. These small courts, the work of which has also come to a close, not only found many of the guilty but also provided closure for the families of their victims and helped relieve the burden the larger courts face. That said, the lack of due legal process raised some concerns among some international human rights groups.
A New Language
In 2008, teachers woke to a shock. A curt government decree required that public school teachers throughout Rwanda were to instruct their students in English – a tongue that few spoke with proficiency. Prior to this, early grades had been taught in Kinyarwanda and senior classes in French. From 2011 all classes at primary (from fourth grade onwards), secondary and university levels have been conducted in English.
Officially, the reason cited for dropping French as the national language was based on economics. English is the international language of commerce, and since Rwanda is surrounded by anglophone neighbours, a switch to English is hoped to attract foreign investment and open up future opportunities for generations to come.
Others feel the abrupt move reflects a cooling of the close relations Rwanda once had with France. Leading up to the genocide, Rwanda’s Hutu-supremacist leader Juvenal Habyarimana received aid and arms from the French. (An error of judgement not easily forgotten by the Uganda-bred English-speaking rebels led by current president Paul Kagame.)
So while the French are out, the English are in and not just linguistically. On 29 November 2009, Rwanda, although it lacks any British colonial ties, joined the Commonwealth.
The Life of Dian Fossey
When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.
Dr Dian Fossey, zoologist (1932–85)
Dian Fossey was an American zoologist who spent the better part of her life at a remote camp high up on the slopes of the Virungas studying the mountain gorillas. Without her tenacious efforts to have poaching stamped out, and the work of committed locals since her violent murder, there possibly wouldn’t be any of the great apes remaining in Rwanda.
Although trained in occupational therapy, in 1963 Fossey took out a loan and travelled to Tanzania where she met Dr Louis and Mary Leakey. At the time, she learned about the pioneering work of Jane Goodall with chimpanzees and George Schaller’s groundbreaking studies on gorillas.
By 1966 Fossey had secured the funding and support of the Leakey family, and began conducting field research of her own. However, political unrest caused her to abandon her efforts the following year at Kabara (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and establish the Karisoke Research Center, a remote camp on Bisoke in the more politically stable Rwandan Virungas.
Fossey was catapulted to international stardom when her photograph was snapped by Bob Campbell in 1970 and splashed across the cover of National Geographic. Seizing her newfound celebrity status, Fossey embarked on a massive publicity campaign aimed at saving the mountain gorillas from impending extinction.
Tragically, Fossey was murdered on 26 December 1985. Her skull was split open by a panga, a type of machete used by local poachers to cut the heads and hands off gorillas. This bloody crime scene caused the media to speculate that poachers, who were angered by her conservationist stance, murdered her.
While this may have been the case, a good measure of mystery still surrounds Fossey’s murder and despite the 1986 conviction of a former student, many people believe the murderer’s true identity was never credibly established and her former student was merely a convenient scapegoat.
Following her death, Fossey was buried in the Virungas next to her favourite gorilla, Digit, who had previously been killed by poachers. Throughout her life Dian Fossey was a proponent of ‘active conservation’: the belief that endangered species are best protected through rigorous anti-poaching measures and habitat protection. As a result, she strongly opposed the promotion of tourism in the Virunga range, though the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has changed its position on the issue since her untimely death.
Today Fossey is best known for her book Gorillas in the Mist, which is both a description of her scientific research and an insightful memoir detailing her time in Rwanda.
Parts of her life story were later adapted in the film Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey, starring Sigourney Weaver. The movie was criticised for several fictitious scenes in which Fossey aggressively harasses local poachers, as well as its stylised portrayal of her affair with photographer Bob Campbell.
Dian Fossey's legacy is kept alive through the ongoing work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (www.gorillafund.org), which has a research centre in Musanze.