Rwanda: Heroism And Demons

Charles Onyango-Obbo

6 April 2011

On Monday, as I stood outside the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the workers were busy scrubbing the pavements and walkways. As they dry, they almost sparkle. In the memorial grounds vast graves hold the remains of nearly 250,000 people killed in the 1994 genocide. In all, at least a million people were killed in 100 days of frenzied slaughter. On April 11, Rwanda will hold the 17th commemoration of the genocide. The mood, helped by the cold, rainy, foggy weather, is sombre.

Whatever your view of the genocide, the memorial is a disturbing symbol of the barbaric depths to which human beings can descend. There is one place in the memorial I no longer go to — the section on the child victims. It is not the goriest, but still it’s the most disturbing.

Because the buildings were recently repainted, and with its washed pavements, the memorial has an eerie neatness and air about it. Indeed, Kigali city, with its manicured lawns, endless pavements and flower gardens, and clean streets, is a little too orderly.In addition, most towns and villages also have this antiseptic touch. Rwanda forces you to ask many questions. Fortunately, the place is like an onion; there is always a new layer to peel off.

Thus every time you ask how a genocide that wiped out over 10 per cent of the population could be carried out by a predominantly peasant society using mainly machetes and axes, and not modern weapons of mass destruction, you are bound to get a fresh answer.This time, I might get another answer in the hills.

When you hear that Rwanda is a country of one thousand hills, it is not just fanciful tourism. Rwanda is a country made up of mainly steep hills and deep valleys. Some people, who have bothered to count and add, claim it has the world’s largest per capita number of hills relative to its land size.

To understand the strength of character that has enabled Rwanda to bounce back to become one of the most efficient and least corrupt states in Africa, you need to look to the hills. To understand the murderous passions and demons that plague it, you need to look to the hills.Because the country is small, hilly, and densely populated, most farmers only have small plots of land to work. You can travel for kilometres, and every hillside is cultivated, making for a particularly beautiful view.

To be a farmer in Rwanda is torturous and backbreaking. It means that you will spend all your life working while climbing a steep hill. You must terrace your gardens and bank the edges to avoid soil run-off because it rains nearly all the time. And you must be eternally vigilant, because if you slip you could end up 600 metres down in the valley.

However, because the sizes of gardens tend to be limited, and also given that even with the best of effort you will still lose soil, only very few Rwandans become rich from farming.

If they had the vast and fertile expanse of America or Brazil, they would be among the world’s richest. One saving grace they have brought, though, is that Rwanda is now finally self-sufficient in food.Such modest reward for backbreaking labour creates a terrible temperament. Add to it ethnic incitement, you get the genocide.

The Rwandese brought the habits of hard work on the hillsides, the endurance of having to tackle steep hills every day, and the industry needed to survive in this environment to bear in a deadly way in the 1994 killings. They have also called on the same resources to dig their once-battered country out of the grave and turn it around, and rebuild a city that is neat in several unAfrican ways.

And so my journey ended with a puzzle. Knowing what we know today, it is not so surprising that there was genocide. What I can’t understand is why, given the factors that combine to create efficiency in Rwanda, is that unlike the serial killers in the movies, the genocidaires did not dress up their victims, put lipstick on the women, and pose them.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the Executive Editor of the Nation-Media Group’s Africa and Digital Media Division

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