Well, it’s taken 42 blog posts and over 60,000 words, but I’ve managed to get there – this is the final post in the series ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. Thank you for following and if in some small measure it’s brought you some extra insight of Rwanda, a place of so many complex layers, beauty and grief, memory and progress, pain and hope, then I feel my job is done.
From the outset this writing was never meant to be shared (it was just a series of private correspondences) and if it hadn’t been for the unending encouragement from my wife Sarah who suggested I turn it in to a series of blog posts, this would have forever remained in the hard-drive of a laptop.
I aimed for balance in the series, mixing the lighter posts amongst the heavy ones, tricky at times because the genocide still exerts a strong gravity and provides a backdrop for so many things. In places though, Rwanda has light and joy and beauty, its people have ready smiles and all these enrich her tapestry beyond 1994.
It was wonderful to receive comments and feedback from you on the series – one of the most encouraging was from fellow blogger M. Charles of Mugisha Thoughts Blog, who posted the following comment on Getting to Work Rwanda Style.
I am Rwandese and I have never read or heard anybody who writes about Rwanda just like it is, without misconceptions and stereotypes, whatsoever. I guess it’s because you had the courage to explore about the culture and people here, something many foreigners ignore. Your description of the streets, motorbike taxis (and stopping them), and people is so perfect and REAL.
In my final month, I took a flight to Arusha in Tanzania to see the wildlife of the Serengeti, and then took a bus down to Dar Es Salaam and a ferry to Zanzibar. On my return, the airport at Kigali felt even slower, no hassle of hawkers, just the subdued tones of taxi-men offering a ride, people walking with the relaxed gait of hill people – it felt homely this time, not exotic or remote.
The team at the Genocide Memorial threw a goodbye party for me in a restaurant in Kucikuro, Freddy gave a report on my performance to VSO, the charity that had posted me there. The loose ends were tied and I felt a heavy heart on leaving. I had only lived there for 7 months but it had felt so much longer.
My return home to London was eye-opening – my birth-town seemed different, but after a few days I saw it was really me that had changed. I suddenly felt I didn’t need that many possessions anymore, I started to send clothes, books and oddments to the charity store in the high street; I swapped my smartphone for a simple burner phone; I stopped complaining about food in restaurants or trains being late or the rain; it was nice to have a fridge with food, hot water on tap and a TV again.
Supermarket aisles brimming with a large choice of small differences beguiled me. There were so many options for everything. The toothpaste shelves were the worst: Max White, Cool Mint, Expert Whitening, Sensitive, Clean Breath, Anti-Tartar, Cavity Protection, Enamel Repair, Deep Clean with Baking Soda, Cool Stripe, Fresh Gel – and that was just Colgate. It felt too much, too decadent and too far from the bare necessities, the minimal and more mindful life I had once led. I try to hold on to those feelings as much as I can, to be grateful for what I have got, the lessons from the Children of Kinigi. How much do we really need to be content?
Did I make any difference?
I never realised that doing voluntary work in Africa would draw such a wide range of views – these ranged from people volunteer in order to feel good, because they’re rich or religious. An ex-colleague reasoned that people shouldn’t volunteer in developing countries because ‘poverty is Darwinism, survival of the fittest in action.’ That afternoon he left the office early to take his elderly mum to the doctors; I only just managed to hold my tongue at the irony of the situation.
A close friend suggested on my return that surely it would have been better to have not volunteered, but to have just sent the salary I would have missed out on in. This seemed at odds to what VSO had taught me about transferring skills was better and more sustainable than any giving of aid. (The project that I completed, the audio guides raised took about $200 to $300 a day – but last week when I spoke to Freddy he told me the audio guides today take in excess of £120,000 revenue every year – an ongoing revenue stream forever which they control).
I can’t speak highly enough of the Memorial Centre and the Aegis Trust ,the UK charity that set up the centre in 2004 – before then, and for a decade, the victims’ bones were lying in shallow mass-graves and would remained so had it not been for their initiatives to bury the victims in dignity, to be remembered forever. And what an honour it was to work with those remarkable people. and a privilege to work with them, however briefly, on their noble cause.
And VSO too, the UK volunteering charity that gave me the opportunity and trained me to work in an Africa NGO overcoming my trepidations. In Rwanda I encountered many charities, some were proper outfits like Oxfam and the Peace Corp, others just tiny and finding their way. They all added value of some sort that’s true. The man by the cross roads in Rimera who made animals from balloons and handed them to passing children to make them happy – but once balloon man had left Rwanda, so did the benefits he gave.
Did Rwanda change me?
Rwanda changed my outlook in several ways. It would have been a brutal wake-up call to have just put my suit back on and re-enter corporate life again in London but I needed more time to find my way – I needed to be true to that feeling. In Rwanda I had seen groups of orphans selling newspapers or phone top-up cards together, pooling their profits and helping one another. It’s an old concept, co-operatives, where the fruits are shared, and today also has a whole movement called social enterprise, private for-profit firms that use their profit to help a social cause. The orphans pricked my interested in that and I set up a pro-bono consultancy called SilverbackWorks that trains community organisations; in 2009 I gained lottery funding to set up a social enterprise to upskill young people through tour guiding which today has helped train over 300 young people mostly from London’s poorest borough, Tower Hamlets.
In some ways my months in Rwanda made me more of a pessimist and I no longer believe in the inevitability of goodness to overcome evil. As someone who grew up in peaceful Western Europe, to have heard the stories first-hand from Tutsi friends who saw their families murdered, to have seen the immensity of the graves, the lime-coated corpses of Murambi (something I didn’t write about), they affect you even if it was so many years after the genocide. You just had to think and absorb what you were seeing and hearing. You didn’t need to be Rwandan, you just needed to be a human.
Rwanda, a place of progress and hope
But there is some much positivity in the land. The massive task of justice and reconciliation goes ahead. Perpetrators speak to victims’ families in a new way of dealing with the victims of crime, so unlike our western models where the state actors dish out retribution and the victims are side-lined, needing closure and understanding.
Although I have never returned to Rwanda, I stay in touch with the Memorial team which grown from strength to strength in the last decade – the centre itself has a new auditorium, cloud-based archiving of over 55,000 video testimonies, and their Peace and Values teaching and learning materials now interfaces with the national curriculum across all subjects, not just history – a whole generation of new Rwandans, born after the genocide, are starting to learn to champion humanity by changing hearts and minds together. Nothing can heal without truth, education seeks truth, so nothing can heal without education a wise person once said.
But not just education but the carrying forward of collective memory, so vital, more so now in the era of false-facts and manufactured truth, that the baton be handed to future generations who may one day scarce believe that such horrors even happened
Rwanda has grown in fifth gear over the last decade; that cement dust from girders that criss crossed the skyline suspended from high cranes, was making Kigali in to a mountain citadel. The boom of 8% growth in the 2000s has slowed but the economy thrives and is still attractive for foreign investment; today there is free WiFi on Kigali’s buses, and it still is one of the cleanest countries in the world; it is big on women’s rights, 64% of Rwanda’s parliamentarians are women (the highest ratio in the world); the populations of the rare mountain gorillas have increased. The country is ripe for more tourism, with rolling hills of unending beauty, shimmering lakes and misty volcanoes.
It’s not all plain sailing, there’s no free press, the country is surrounded by areas of hostility, the president has massive powers and there is work to be done to not alienate the Hutu majority. And can the growth Rwanda hopes for, like a new Singapore, trickle down to the rural areas of grinding Dickensian squalor? That remains to be answered.
After I had checked-in at the airport, I heard my name. It was Vincent my tea-time friend, out-of-breath with his usual smiley, elfin face – he had heard my flight was delayed and had had come to see me off. As I left him, he handed me an envelope. ‘Open it later,’ he said.
Below the plane the the mountain fortress peeled away, the plains of east Africa unrolled an ochre blanket, with trees and ridges, mirrored by black shadows in the pink light. I opened the envelope to find a beaded bracelet with a zigzag pattern made from black, yellow and red beads. There were some words on it in Kinyarwanda.
I turned to the suited businessman in the seat next to me.
‘Excuse me are you Rwandan?’
‘Could you translate this for me please?’ He held up the bracelet close to his squinting eyes.
‘Ibyiza biri imbere? It means the best is yet to come.’
I took it back and fastened it with the popper; it fitted on my wrist perfectly, its meaning was for the country I was just leaving, so appropriate.
‘Ibyiza biri imbere‘, I said it a few times. I liked the way that sounded.
This was the final post in the blog series about Rwanda called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on heyloons.com
A full table of contents can be found here
Table of Contents:
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by