The surprising Rwanda you never knew existed

When the average person around the world, especially those over the age of 40, think of Rwanda, what immediately comes to mind is the genocide that occurred in 1994. This event is so overwhelming, and deservedly so, that it completely colours all the impressions that we might have of the country.

That is, until you actually get here. The genocide certainly does cast a long shadow on the country itself, but Rwanda in 2019 is a surprise. By comparison with the other countries in the region, Rwanda is young, densely-populated and thriving. It has a high level of investment and is emerging as a conference centre for Africa. Broadband density is high, and corruption is low, and what is incredible to see is how far the country has come from the time of the genocide; when the population dropped by more than 2 million and the economy literally collapsed. The country is very dynamic; with lots of entrepreneurs and young designers; and Rotary can be seen helping out in the Inema Art Centre in Kigali.

While there may be issues with human rights and suppression of the opposition, much of this seems to be in the past. Rwanda is in many ways more similar to Switzerland or Singapore, and up in the mountains, where the gorillas live in the mist, you could easily think you actually were in Switzerland. The elevation of the country ranges from about 1,000 metres to about 4,000 metres so there is the element of the Eternal Spring in the climate. You could say they have Goldilocks weather; not too hot not too cold. The capital, Kigali, varies in temperature from roughly 12-27 degrees centigrade. Rwanda is the only country, along with Uganda, where it is possible to view the mountain Gorillas. High end tourism is the target and the hope is that this will maintain the environment in its current pristine condition, and protect the gorillas.

At the same time, the Rwandan Genocide Memorial is, as you would expect, a shock to the system. The level of brutality seen during the genocide, which took place in the middle of a civil war, is hard to fathom, and much of it is on display in the memorial. Around the country there are occasional reminders in the form of smaller memorials built close to the locations of the actual killing and commonly containing up to 30,000 victims. This high numbers stems from the fact that most victims were killed in their own villages, and often by their neighbors.

The brief history is that after years of propaganda by the radical Hutu political elite, the country exploded into a frenzy of killing that lasted almost 4 months. The target was Tutsis and moderate Hutus, who had been divided up into these artificial categories by the colonial powers. This division in society gave the killers the opportunity to separate out the targets, at checkpoints and in buses, and this was done with relentless, systematical efficiency; including the use of rape as a weapon. As of writing, the country is in the memorial period, and every year there are multiple events to commemorate the genocide. The sense is that the Rwandans have face up the nature of the genocide and the consequences of what was done, and this awareness is being passed on to the next generation.

Frank Mulligan

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