Over the years the Kigali Genocide Memorial has been visited by countless celebrities and dignitaries; Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Natalie Portman, Ben Affleck, Ban Ki Moon, George Bush and Bill Clinton to name just a few.
The centre’s tour guides like Honore, Henriette, Serge, Emmanuel and David would guide them completely unfazed by their stardom and fame. I had so much respect for them; they gave tours in the museum about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the very event that had made them orphans, taken away their loved ones when most of them were still teenagers – yet despite this, amongst the skulls and the weapons, the photos and the videos of 1994, they were able to execute their duties with the utmost professionalism, dignity and composure.
(This blog post is part of the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa. It can be read as a self-contained piece of narrative or as part of the series.)
I had my work-plan agreed in my first few days; given my business background, my projects were about raising revenues and they included improving the website donation capability, setting up digital communications and creating a visitors’ database. When my boss Freddy saw that I had been a British Museum tour guide for four years, he also asked me to set up an audio guide system. I had no idea how to do this, but in proper VSO fashion, I of course agreed. It’s fair to say there was quite a lot on my plate.
The memorial centre is the most visited tourist site in Rwanda and one of my tasks was to raise awareness amongst regional and global media outlets especially when someone well-known came to visit and pay their respects.
There was never a dull working day and like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, I never knew what was coming next.
A few weeks before I arrived in March 2008, President George W. Bush and the First Lady Laura Bush had visited the memorial centre and there was still much chatter in the canteen about his historic visit.
The excitement had started days before his arrival; the US Secret Service came to check every inch of the centre and the hills and valleys around Gisozi; on the day, security snipers were placed in strategic over-watch positions ready for any threat. It was a security operation never before seen in the country.
The President, the First Lady and what looked like most of the West Wing, came in speeding vehicles down the u-bend sending up clouds of dust; they were accompanied by a contingent of US Marines dressed in white peaked caps and immaculate black tunics fastened with brass buttons. In their white-gloved hands they held rifles.
Chalk lines were drawn on the ground to show attendees where they could not cross – these lines were being watched in the cross-hairs of the distant rifles to make sure no one made it too close to the President. No sudden movements. No attendees who weren’t on a pre-vetted list.
The President’s visit was highly organised even down to how the guides were told to introduce themselves. The prescribed format was as follows:
“Welcome Mr President and Mrs Bush. My name is <First name> <Last name> and I am a <job role>.”
One of the guides either got confused or forgot this advice and when it was his turn to meet POTUS, said:
“Hi my name’s David.”
“Hi, my name’s George,” replied the President.
The President’s informality and human touch was fondly recalled by the staff of the centre. His office presented gifts of signed photos and books. Several of the staff at the centre continue to this day to wear a Stars and Stripes lapel badge that he presented.
While President Bush and the First Lady were being guided around, James Smith (the CEO of the Aegis Trust, which co-founded the memorial centre) took the opportunity to speak with Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, to request more attack helicopters in Darfur which was well on the way to genocide by then. The official line was that no UN member state had any spare attack helicopters, but James had already done some homework and found out that there were some in Chile.
President Bush’s initiatives pumped aid in to Africa including for AIDS relief which put emphasis on ‘ABC’ which stood for Abstinence, Be faithful and Condomise. The programme was criticised because it put far more emphasis on abstinence and being faithful (and less on contraception) and for appearing to fund a large number of faith-based organisations. The President’s initiative was never criticised though for inventing the ridiculous verb, condomise.
In contrast, his predecessor, Bill Clinton, on whose watch the genocide happened, apologised for the lack of action in Rwanda. A humiliating loss in Somalia had just happened and his administration had apparently underestimated the magnitude of the issue; “the United States just blew it in Rwanda,” he said.
Many countries have invested in the recovering nation, especially the UK and the USA, and I can’t help but think some of this is born out of guilt, for the world community, when faced with consummate evil, failed to send help. Observers at the time, said even 5,000 soldiers from the UN could have stopped the killing. All it takes for evil to triumph, is for good people to do nothing as a wise person once said.
When President Bush visited the centre, the Aegis Trust tried to make a late change on the list of attendees, by adding one of its patrons who had just arrived in Rwanda.
“If he’s not on the list, he’s not coming in,” said the head of the president’s security.
“But it’s Bob Geldolf.”
The head of security gave a quizzical look as if he wanted to say “who?”
It was no use, the security could not be compromised not even for one of most famous humanitarians of our generation and the brains behind Live Aid.
Later in the day, once the memorial ceremony was over, once the President had laid a wreath and made a speech, Bob Geldof did manage to catch up with President George Bush and presented him with a copy of his book Geldof in Africa.
“Who wrote this for ya?” asked President Bush.
“Who will you get to read it for you,” replied Geldof.
An awkward silence ensued but it was in good humour. The President invited Geldof for a meeting and so Bob managed to hitch a lift home to London with George on Air Force One (a significant step up from his outbound Kenyan Airlines economy class ticket).
I had done press work before but never with such high profile visitors. You never quite knew who would be coming to visit; there was something exciting and a little bit frantic when a flurry of clicking cameramen was on site.
One day one of the guides came to tell me that the President of Australia had arrived, and I should go and interview him. I didn’t know who the President of Australia was, so I googled it; nothing came up. I rummaged around further online, then it hit me: Australia doesn’t have a president; its head of state is the Queen. Ofcourse! I relayed this back.
A few minutes later confirmation arrived: it wasn’t the President of Australia, it was the Austrian Foreign Minister, Hans Winkler. I started to draft my questions accordingly.
One morning a contingent of Republican politicians arrived led by Governor Mick Huckabee and Cindy McCain, wife of John McCain (who was then the Republican nomination for President).
My knowledge of American politics was a little hazy and I confused Mick Huckabee, the US politician, with Mick Hucknall, the lead singer of British soul band Simply Red.
Yes seriously …
I had started to draft questions for the singer: how do you fundraise when money’s too tight to mention? What was that something that got you started? Fortunately I realised my error in advance when I saw at a distance that Mick Huckabee did not have long curly red hair, and was able to interview him with appropriate questions. There was indeed a massive gulf between their appearances.
After the Republican delegation left, Yves and David, were looking in to the garbage can in the memorial centre’s forecourt. They were rummaging through the litter and pulling out bits of paper. As I passed, they held up several fifty dollar bills with business cards. “They thought this was a donations box,” he said before taking them to the real donations box in the reception.
This post is part of a serial blog updated on a weekly basis called Letters from the Heart of Africa. A full table of contents can be found here