A beautiful, clean, joyless country, haunted by the “ghosts of genocide”, the verdict of travel writer Bridget Hilton-Barber, and her travelling companion, Hugh Fraser, who we assume may or may not share her opinion. But through whose, or what eyes were they looking at Rwanda and its people?
The “intrepid” travellers, as we told, reached Rwanda, after a twenty-five day drive. In Kigali, they found a “booming, litter-free city that is under tight control of authorities, as well as ever present reminders of the genocide that tragically claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens…” We are not offered any evidence or examples of the “tight control”, or these “ever present reminders of genocide”, but let us not get ahead of ourselves, more on that in a moment.
Feeling a need for self pampering, after their arduous journey, the travellers pitch up at Kigali five star, Serena hotel, “a few hills away from President Paul Kagame’s sprawling presidential palace.”
At the risk of pedantry, it is worth pointing out that in reality, the Serena Hotel, is a five minute stroll to the Presidential residence, both very much on the same hill. And while the residence is situated within a small park, it is hardly “sprawling,” nor can it be accurately described as a palace. A mansion perhaps, modest by most presidential standards. But we quickly learn that Ms Hilton-Barber, is a story teller, who will not suffer facts to get in the way of her well constructed tale.
A careful reading of her observations, suggests that had she allowed herself the freedom to experience Rwanda as it is, and recorded her own true feelings, Ms Hilton-Barber would have enjoyed her Rwandan trip. “Kigali” she notes, “is the cleanest city in Africa…there is no rubbish, no litter, no leaking drains, no sewage spilling…it’s an unfamiliar and wonderful sensation being in such a clean place. It felt calm and caring; it felt proud…”
Instead, she failed to follow one of the basic rules of travelling, to keep an open mind. Hers was enclosed in the narrative about Rwanda, concocted by Western media. It is a narrative also beloved of the Daily Maverick, the publication for which she was writing.
And so, predictably, from the moment of first contact with Rwandan immigration officials, her experience had to be made to fit into a preconceived narrative. Her car was “strip searched”, for which read that it was given a thorough, careful search, as would be expected at a border post, but a “strip search” was preferred, for dramatic effect. The narrative had begun to be unwound.
We should also take with a pinch of salt, before swallowing the notion that Rwanda border guards listened to “hours of begging” to allow an unlicensed drone into the country. It is unlikely they would have taken more than a few minutes, to explain that no licence, no entry for the drone.
Rwanda is an early adopter of new technologies, and drones are no different. The country has a drone blood transfusion service that delivers to inaccessible areas. As in most countries, there are regulations that govern the flying of drones, in this case possession of a licence to do so. Being “innocent tourists” would not have exempted Hilton-Barber and her companion from these regulations.
No doubt the border officials understood perfectly well, that Ms Hilton-Barber and her companion were tourists, innocent or otherwise, and will have explained that the regulations apply to everyone. Nor should it have come as a surprise, that as promised, the drone was stored safely at the border, to be returned to them on their return journey, leaving Rwandan soil.
Such embellishments however were needed to create the impression of a “tightly controlled” country. A country where there is a “highly visible police and military presence” where “there is no jaywalking, no public drinking, no partying, never mind protesting…”
Remember the “calm and caring” sensation? Well, you left too soon, before being told that it nonetheless “didn’t feel joyous.”
We are informed that “the collective trauma of Rwanda is still palpable – the faraway look in older people’s eyes, their body language, their eerie obedience.” And then the punchline, where all this joylessness, the security presence, the implacable border guards, the “eerie obedience”, was leading: “there is no doubt that Rwanda is a benevolent dictatorship, and the society is highly controlled…”
Perhaps, given Rwanda’s recent tragic history, Ms Hilton-Barber explains, dictatorship is the “the only way to bring a nation from violence to a semblance of normality…” She gives her readers a brief history of the 1994 Genocide Against Tutsi, which she says claimed 800,000 lives. Would that it were only that, the true figure is of course, over a million men, women and children, with more remains still being recovered, almost thirty years later.
Perhaps briefed on the Daily Maverick’s preferred narrative about Rwanda, Ms Hilton-Barber, entered the country, determined to find manifestations of dictatorship, and when she did not, she helpfully provided them.
A dictatorship should have “a highly visible police and military presence.” Rwanda has community based policing, policing by consent, and what Hilton-Barber will have seen, will have been the odd police officer, in blue uniform, and any number of local community police support officers, in green ones. What she will not have seen, is a military presence, except perhaps outside certain institutions, like the Ministry of Defence, which is guarded by paramilitary police.
Occasionally, when there is a major event, like CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting), for instance, a few military personnel can be deployed to support the police. Otherwise, unless you pass through areas where there is a barracks, you will be hard pressed to see any military. But how else to justify the claim of “a tightly controlled society” “a dictatorship”? Hilton-Barber’s answer was to spice up the truth a little.
In a dictatorship, there is “no jay walking, no partying” and the somewhat non sequitur, no “protest.” Why, about what? We are never told. Had she talked to any random Rwandan motorist, Ms Hilton-Barber would have heard no end of complaints, about pedestrians annoyingly spilling over the pavements, onto the road, necessitating the blaring of horns. And while there are buses, as well as motorcycle taxis, there are also mini bus taxis. But, while it has accuracy in its favour, this picture would have disturbed the carefully constructed narrative, and understandably had to be jettisoned.
And what of “no partying”? Culturally, Rwandans look askance at eating or drinking in public, although this is slowly changing, with the proliferation of alfresco cafes and restaurants.
But they are famously or perhaps notoriously fond of partying. Not too far from where she was staying, Hilton-Barber, might have walked into an entertainment area, which on weekends, is cordoned off from traffic, and devoted to revellers. Although it must be said that after a bust of popularity, and altogether too much bacchanilianism, especially among the young, the area seems quiet, a shadow of its former rowdy self.
Judging from the vocal protestations about the city’s recent announcement of earlier closing times for bars and other areas of entertainment, the partying seems to have moved elsewhere.
Like most other places in the world, Rwandans grumble about modernity’s encroachment on what they claim to be cultural values. In fact, these are often instances of religious puritanism, introduced by the missionaries, especially the Catholic Church’s ‘White fathers.’ The complaints are of too little obedience at all, let alone “eerie obedience.”
This is perhaps the most egregious distortion of Rwanda. There is indeed no forgetting their loved ones murdered in the Genocide Against Tutsi, but far from being “haunted by ghosts of genocide,” the extraordinary thing about today’s Rwanda, and its people, is the confluence of emotions that might normally be expected each to follow their own course.
The ever present memory of their blessed dead, forgiveness for the murderers, and a joyful pride in a nation risen from the ashes, all flow together.
Even the Gisozi genocide memorial, while moving, and at times harrowing, is a peaceful place to sit and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man. The memorial is now also an educational centre. Far from people wandering “sad eyed” through the centre, one sometimes wonders at some visitors’ rowdiness, given the solemnity of the stories about them. The centre’s café is set in a garden, and is one of the most charming in Kigali.
Rwanda is not of course, the only society to have suffered such a harrowing catastrophe as the Genocide Against the Tutsi. But one confidently say that few other human societies have devised better ways of coming to terms with their tragedies than has Rwanda.
It is not perfect by any means, but in any march towards perfection, Rwanda and Rwandans, would justifiably claim a position close to the top of the queue.
But Ms Hilton-Barber deserves some sympathy and understanding. Any Western commentator, journalist or observer, has to have not only great honesty, courage and integrity, to depict Rwanda accurately, they also need to be independent minded enough not to be swept along by the existing, loud narrative.
Rwanda does present something of a conundrum for the Western mind. For them, Africa is to be given form by the West, Africans to be understood and evaluated, by the extent to which they measure up to the West. It is a perception that is accepted and encouraged, by most Africans themselves. Rwanda breaks the rules.
The country insists on looking at itself, from its own perspective, and its own value systems. To properly understand Rwanda, Westerners would have to take the same approach they do, when looking at their own countries, their own societies, that is, as places with self determination, which have developed by a disntict set of values, some of which are universal, others idiosyncratic to them. Unable or unwilling to do that, another explanation has to be found.
Rwanda must be a “dicatatorship”, because the alternative would have to be, a law abiding nation, a nation of laws. Its people have to be “tightly controlled”, because the alternative would be a people governed by consent, in tune with their governance, all of would be incongruous with Western determination of Africa and Africans are, and must be.
And so, until Rwandans find a way of changing that, there will continue to exist two Rwandas, the Rwanda they know, that is, and the Rwanda imagined by Ms Hilton-Barber and others of her bent of mind. Ms Hilton-Barber seems to have visited both Rwandas, but preferred to give higher profile to the one in hers and that of the Daily Maverick’s imaginations.