We were standing in an exhibition room at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which honors the nearly 1 million people who were slaughtered during the 1994 tribal conflict in this East African country of 12 million. The tragedy began 20 years ago this month.
On the walls were a series of heart-rending children’s pictures and stories telling how they’d been methodically tortured and murdered.
Numb with shock, my wife, Gail, and I gazed mournfully at each other. Until our arrival, all we’d known about this strife-torn country was what we’d seen in the Academy Award-nominated “Hotel Rwanda,” a fictional account of the genocide that had made the Maryland-sized nation synonymous with wholesale murder. But now – on the third day of our 40,000-mile “National Geographic Wildlife of the World Expedition” (seven unforgettable countries in 23 days) – we were suddenly face to face with the utterly unspeakable.
As incredible as it sounds, the Kigali museum was located beside an immense burial ground, a vast cemetery where 250,000 Tutsis now lay interred. Triggered by long-standing conflicts between the Tutsis and the country’s other major ethnic group, the Hutus, the Rwandan savagery of 1994 had left the entire world alarmed and appalled.
Another dreadful aspect of the catastrophe was the abysmal failure of the international community to step in and prevent it. No less a figure than former President Bill Clinton would later admit as much, while suggesting to numerous interviewers that world leaders might have saved nearly 500,000 lives by sending only 5,000 peacemakers to Rwanda.
As we toured the memorial center, we found ourselves wondering if a society that had endured so much trauma would ever be able to recover its balance and rebuild.
To our amazement, however, we discovered that the answer to that question was a resounding and triumphant “yes”!
During the three days in which we toured “The Land of a Thousand Hills,” we would visit or learn about a pioneering new school for bright young Rwandan girls, the Akilah (“Wisdom” in Kiswahili) Institute for Women, along with a new land-reclamation and tree-planting project, and even an artfully designed international eatery (Heaven Restaurant & Inn in Kigali) noted for its outstanding gourmet fare.
After hearing so much about the suffering of women in Rwanda, where 85 percent of them still work in “subsistence agriculture” and live on $2 a day, it was astonishing to learn about the Kigali-based Akilah Institute’s bold leadership in educating young women for newly created, well-paying jobs.
At Akilah (where the classroom building is named “Spring of Hope”), 67 percent of the 150 students are from rural Rwanda, but 100 percent go on to jobs in information processing and the hospitality industry – or launch start-up businesses of their own.
Rwanda’s new spirit was also evident at the Heaven Restaurant, where the owners – Americans Josh and Alissa Ruxin – have won kudos for their fine food during the past 10 years. Over a delicious lunch, Alissa talked happily about her years at Heaven, now a landmark for hungry travelers from all over East Africa. She also told us how their Rwandan restaurant employees are “now paying for their own health care, rent, food for their families and even higher education for themselves and their siblings.”
This rapidly emerging sense of hope and purpose could also be seen in the remarkable cleanliness of Rwandan cities, towns and villages in 2014.
But when it came to sheer, breathtaking beauty, nothing could match the mountain gorillas at Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Mild-mannered and relaxed, they cavorted happily around their jungle home, often moving within a few feet of their fascinated visitors.
Strolling through their habitat, we found it easy to understand why the nation’s tourism-based economy has been growing at an annual rate of 8 percent during the past four years.
Just before we left, I accidentally brushed against one of the female gorillas, who didn’t seem at all fazed by the contact. I can’t say the same for me!
It was a moment I won’t forget. Peaceful and easygoing, these wild animals seem capable of teaching us the lesson we need most today: how to live in harmony with each other and the environment.
*Rwandans learnt to fight racism