Rwanda's comeback

Fourteen years after genocide, trust has replaced fear, pride has replaced pity, and dynamism has replaced despair.

Francine Murengezi Ingabire, a happy 12-year-old, was hacked to pieces with a machete in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

Her story is told at the genocide memorial in Kigali. The building is a carefully constructed contradiction. Its subject is tragedy, yet its design – sharp lines, stalwart gables – suggests hope. That contradiction is, it seems, intentional and perfectly encapsulates today's Rwanda, perhaps the most successful and optimistic nation in Africa.

The statistics of the genocide are devastating: About 83 percent of the Tutsi population was murdered in a Hutu version of the Final Solution.

The survivors carry terrible scars – physical and mental. Thousands of women still cope with the trauma of rape. Many were intentionally infected with HIV, itself a weapon of genocide.

To those unfamiliar with the current state of Africa, Rwanda remains synonymous with genocide. Though the killings occurred 14 years ago, ethnic slaughter still dominates outsiders' impressions. That is a shame, since Rwanda is proud of the progress it has made as a nation and is optimistic about its future.

Rwanda seeks admiration, not pity. And rightfully: The people should be seen as an example of the resilience of the human spirit, not of the despair that too often defines Africa.

But how does a nation come to terms with genocide?

The answer lies within that memorial in Kigali. The exhibits construct a narrative that facilitates closure. This narrative maintains that there is only one native Rwandan people who share a common language and culture. Hutu and Tutsi are not ethnic divisions, but social classes – those labels, "Tutsi" and "Hutu" were meant to define the number of cows a family owned.

During the colonial period, the Belgians turned those otherwise fluid divisions into rigid ethnic identities as part of a strategy of divide and rule. Hasty decolonization then left the country prey to demagogues who manipulated the divisions further, eventually resulting in the genocide of 1994.

The future is built on faith: Rwandans have convinced themselves that they were once a harmonious people and can be so again. The narrative of the genocide evades certain painful details, but what matters is that Rwanda now believes itself to be the greatest country in Africa. Instead of being dragged down by despair, people walk on the balls of their feet.

After the genocide, the constitution was rewritten. Today, there is a striking amount of trust among Rwandans in government – not just in politicians, but also in the military, the judiciary, and the police.

One prominent component of reform is the share of authority given to women. At present, women constitute 47 percent of the legislature – the highest proportion of any country in the world. When I asked an Army colonel how he had adjusted to surrendering such a large share of power to women, he replied: "What's the problem? Rwanda has always been a matriarchal society. We've just given legal recognition to that fact."

Huge strides have already been made toward Rwanda's goal of becoming a model for the rest of Africa. Kigali, for instance, is the safest capital city on the continent. The safety and immense beauty of the country make it the perfect destination for tourists keen to try Africa. The government also hopes that stability will attract foreign investment. More important, it wants to export the harmony and solidity that currently characterizes Rwanda to the rest of Africa.

As I waited to board my plane at Kigali airport, my friend the colonel told me: "When I was young, I foolishly thought that the world would never see genocide again. But then I had to experience it at first hand. Now all I'm certain of is that Rwanda will never see genocide again."

Granted, it is easy to get carried away by Rwandan optimism. Under the surface, demons may still lurk. But, at the same time, cynicism seems churlish in a country so intent upon hope.

Rwanda provides stark contrast to the images usually emerging from Africa: instead of defeatism, there is dynamism; instead of pity, there is pride. If there is a bright future for Africa, it lies in the direction Rwanda points.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews. He was recently the keynote speaker at a conference on peacekeeping in Kigali, sponsored by the United Nations Fund for Women and the Rwandan Defence Force.

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