- The Complexity of Intergroup Harmony: Lessons from My Visit to Rwanda
The Complexity of Intergroup Harmony: Lessons from My Visit to Rwanda
Examining the country’s bumpy path toward reconciliation and progress in the wake of genocide
Source: Maxime Niyomwungeri on Unsplash
With the recent “racially motivated” murders of three Black people in Jacksonville, our nation is grappling with the senselessness of yet another incident of hate crime. Indeed, the United States has witnessed a sharp and steady spike in hate crimes over the last several years. While spending time in Rwanda this summer, I became informed of hate crimes on a scale unimaginable: one million people slaughtered in 100 days in the spring and summer of 1994.
Although the sheer scale and magnitude of the brutality of the genocide in Rwanda is unlike anything we have witnessed in America in modern times (though arguably one could claim that similar atrocities were perpetrated against Native and African peoples here in previous centuries), there are lessons to be learned from understanding how such an event took place in Rwanda, and how the country has risen from the ashes to become one of the safest and most prosperous countries in Africa since then.
What can the US, and other nations, learn from Rwanda’s example?
What I write in this newsletter are reflections of what I have gleaned from readings, museums, my own observations while traveling throughout the country in both cities and rural areas, and conversations with Rwandans who lived through the tragedy and volunteered to speak with me about their experiences (it’s not a topic I would proactively inquire about, given the level of both social taboo and personal trauma and sensitivity). My primary areas of learning? How quickly things can fall apart, and what is required to put them back together again.
Much has been written about Rwanda’s reconciliation and development efforts over the last few decades under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, and it was remarkable to see the fruits of those efforts borne out in person. Kagame has done an amazing job of rebuilding the country—the metrics speak for themselves. Much has also been written about Kagame’s complicated relationship with democracy and free speech, and some (mostly Europeans) have labeled him as a dictator. As with any complex nation—that is, all of them—we shouldn’t reduce Rwanda down to “beacon of progress” or “dictatorship.” It is potentially both at the same time, and there are things I believe we can, and should, learn from each side of the equation.
Here, I want to elucidate what those things are as I see them: the significance and efficacy of national reconciliation, the destructive power of propaganda and hatred, the hypocrisy of the (White) West, and the challenges of leadership in a post-conflict state.
But to understand the lessons, we first need to understand the context.
The history of the Rwandan genocide
For the last several centuries, Rwanda has been comprised of two primary “ethnic” groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis (there are also the Twa, who make up 1% of the population). I put “ethnic” in quotations because prior to colonial rule under Belgium, which began in 1924, the distinctions between these groups had been predominantly based on occupation—not commonly cited “ethnic” delineators such as language or cultural practices. Traditionally, Tutsis tended to be cattle herders whereas Hutus tended to be farmers. Moreover, because the groups were based on occupation, the boundary between Hutu and Tutsi was fluid. A Hutu could essentially become a Tutsi by owning cattle, for example. It was also not uncommon for people to marry between groups.
But the Europeans had different ideas. As many people have noticed even in the present day, some White people are obsessed with the phenotypic appearance of Black people. Hair texture, facial features, and skin color all become the subject of scrutiny and interrogation. “Are you Black Black?” they will sometimes ask.
“You look like you might be mixed with something.”
“Your hair looks different from the typical Black person.”
“You look like you might be Ethiopian or East African.”
“You have ‘refined’ features.”
“You have a babyface, which gives you a ‘softer’ appearance.”
At some point, I have heard all of the above stated by a White person to either a Black friend, family member, or myself. I’m sure most Black people have experienced this aspect of the White gaze at some point, and how uninformed and divisive it can be.
Rwanda was no different. Through this gaze, Belgian colonizers scrutinized the physical features of Rwandans and were quick to point out arbitrary differences that the Hutus and Tutsis themselves had not paid attention to in their centuries of coexistence. The Belgians asserted that the Tutsis were “taller,” “lighter-skinned,” and “more refined” (more proximal to Europeans in appearance, in their minds) while the Hutus were “shorter” and “darker” with “wider noses.” In reality, it’s quite difficult to physically distinguish Hutus and Tutsis with any consistent measure of accuracy, due to the fluidity of group membership across time.
The Belgians, though, put a stop to the fluidity in 1932 by instituting a national ID card system requiring every citizen to carry a card naming which ethnic group they belonged to. In short, the Belgians conferred racial differences onto people who had never been racialized in such a way before, and they stoked those tensions for years afterward by granting more rights, education, and opportunities to the Tutsi minority while leaving the Hutu majority behind (Tutsis constituted roughly 14% of the population whereas Hutus were about 85%).
The divisions first came to a head in 1959, when the Hutus rebelled against the Belgian government while also scapegoating the Tutsis, which led to hundreds of Tutsis being killed and thousands more fleeing to neighboring African countries. Included among these refugees were young Paul Kagame and his family, who fled to Uganda. For decades, the Tutsis in exile longed to return to their homeland of Rwanda, but the tense political environment never allowed such a safe return to occur. Some Hutu leaders capitalized on the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis as a way to shore up political support. There were propaganda campaigns that painted the Tutsis as oppressive vermin (i.e., “cockroaches), leading to further alienation and dehumanization.
In 1987, with hundreds of thousands of Tutsis still living in exile abroad, a group living in Uganda formed a rebel army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the goal of which was to repatriate Tutsi refugees and reform the government to share power between all groups. Yet, in 1990, with no significant change to Rwandan government policy in sight, the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda, after which point the Hutus in power labeled all Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the country as traitors, escalating the internal conflict to a full civil war.
At the same time, through the spread of propaganda in the media, Hutu extremists were building and inciting the Interahamwe, a paramilitary organization supplied with machetes and other weapons, whose members were being prepared to murder Tutsi citizens, including children. This years-long campaign of hatred ignited into full-blown genocide when the plane carrying the Hutu President of Rwanda (who’d been trying to broker a peace deal with the RPF) was shot down. The ruling Hutu government blamed the Tutsis for the assassination of their leader, and called for all Hutus to kill the Tutsis. (It’s worth mentioning that the parties responsible for shooting down the plane were never discovered or brought to justice, and there is speculation in Rwanda that the hit may have been ordered by Hutu extremists in order to create a pretext for the genocide.)
The mass violence began almost immediately after news of the plane crash on the evening of April 6, 1994, and continued until the RPF successfully gained control of the country on July 15, 1994. During this period, approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed—nearly 15% of the country’s population at the time—and an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were raped, many of whom later died due to severe mutilation or deliberate infection with HIV. It was one of the deadliest genocides in history.
Human skulls from the genocide on display at the Nyamata Memorial Site in Nyamata, Rwanda. (Source: I, Inisheer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Immediately following the genocide, the country entered a period devoted to seeking justice and accountability—a tall order considering the vast number of perpetrators and the incredible losses suffered in the judiciary, most personnel of which had either fled or died in the conflict. In November 1994, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to "prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States" (the International Criminal Court didn’t exist until 2002). The Tribunal indicted 93 individuals—mostly high-ranking officials, politicians, businessmen, and other leaders—and after the completion of all trials in 2012, 75 of those indicted were prosecuted, and 65 were found guilty and convicted.
Internally, the government of Rwanda conducted its own trials of more than 100,000 cases of non-high-ranking perpetrators. To help the judiciary handle the caseload and speed up the trial process, they established a participatory justice system, called Gacaca, wherein communities across the country elected local judges to hear trials and gain the perpetrators’ public confessions and apologies.
The Gacaca courts were just one of the many initiatives based on Rwandan cultural practices that the government undertook to facilitate truth, unity, and reconciliation:
In 1999, it established the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) to help promote reconciliation and “social cohesion” among Rwandans and establish equal rights.
The Commission then set up Ingando, a program of peace education that ran from 1999 to 2009 in the form of “solidarity camps,” where they taught Rwandan history and the colonial origins of the group divisions, promoted patriotic ideals, and fought genocide ideology.
They established Abunzi, a program employing local mediators to be the first step in conflict resolution in communities.
The Commission also instituted Itorero, leadership academies that educated participants on Rwandan values and development goals like gender equality, environmental awareness, HIV/AIDS prevention, etc.
And to this day, the Rwandan people participate in Umaganda, a community service mandate requiring citizens to help plant trees and clean up trash, for example, in their communities one day each month.
All of these efforts have been supported and, in large part, driven by Paul Kagame, both during his time as Vice President starting in 1994 and since being elected President in 2000. He’s shared the three tenets motivating his leadership: unity, accountability, and a big vision. The truth and reconciliation efforts were necessary on many levels, but certainly to achieve accountability and unity.
“People can be different and can express themselves differently, but when you want to use the difference to harm the other, then there is a problem,” he said in a 2019 talk with business leaders in North Carolina. “We have to work together because we are one nation.” Division had destroyed the country; unity was vital for building it back up.
Paul Kagame, 2020 (Source: New African Magazine)
Today, there are memorials throughout the country. Touring the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which is not only a museum but also a burial site for nearly 250,000 victims of the genocide, was an incredibly powerful and emotional experience. Some of the images are still with me today. They know it is important to never forget the past, even as the country has moved forward into its dazzling renaissance.
Today, the “land of a thousand hills” is a shining example of progress on many levels. The sprawling capital city of Kigali is clean and modern, with a vibrant arts and culinary scene. The climate is moderate all year, with temps in the 70s and 80s—more reminiscent of San Diego, CA, than the sweltering humidity and temperatures that one typically associates with Africa. Moreover, dining at one of the many restaurants with outdoor terraces gives one the impression of being in Hollywood, with twinkling lights dotting the hills surrounding the city.
A friend and me at dinner in Kigali
The government’s commitment to education is readily apparent. As I traveled, everywhere I looked there were new, modern educational facilities, from primary schools to universities (the data support my observation)—all built because Kagame has put education front and center (which is not what so-called “dictators” typically do). He has even launched an initiative to ensure broadband internet connection in all schools by 2024. “Our people are our main resource, our main asset,” he says. “Education is the most important investment we can make in our people.” And the investment is working. According to World Bank data, in 1992, the high school graduation rate in Rwanda was as low as 1.7%. In 2021, it was 44.8%.
With education, “you also need people with good health,” Kagame says. His government has invested significantly in healthcare, providing community-based health insurance coverage for 85% of the population. As a result, the percentage of Rwandans covered by health insurance has increased from 43.4% in 2005 to 90.5% in 2020. The combination of education and health spending accounts for nearly 30% of the government’s budget. Contrast that with the US government’s commitment to the health and well-being of American citizens.
Kagame has placed great importance on achieving gender equality as well. At 52% of the general population, women now hold 62% of the seats in Parliament, 52% of the Cabinet ministerial roles, and 44% of the judiciary—and all with equal pay. Again, contrast that to gender equity in the US—or anywhere in the world. To be fair, the focus on women’s equality was something of a practical necessity: The genocide decimated the male population, leaving women in the overwhelming majority. You could not rebuild the nation without them, and there would be no men “coming back from the war” to take over positions of power and leadership at a future point in time. But as a result, Rwanda is now the #1 country in the world for women’s representation in government.
Finally, in conjunction with all the efforts listed above, under Kagame’s leadership, the country’s economic growth has skyrocketed. Rwanda is geographically small—no bigger than the state of Maryland—and much more limited in resources than its neighbors. And yet, according to the World Bank’s global Ease of Doing Business rankings, it’s now the second-best economy for business in Africa, and 38th in the world—even above its former colonizer, Belgium, which is ranked 46th!
The progress and stability the country experiences now is staggering considering just how recent the genocide was. I was very impressed with what I saw on my visit, and I heard time and again from nearly everyone I spoke to how happy they are today. It makes me wonder how much the criticism of the country’s government by European countries is fueled by envy, and possibly guilt. To be sure, Kagame is not perfect. But the Europeans, and the UN, abandoned one million Rwandans to be slaughtered when the genocide could have been prevented by as few as 3,000 foreign troops. Kagame, on the other hand, was there in the trenches—literally—fighting to create a better life for all Rwandans. This gives him a lot of credibility among Africans. And by most indicators, he’s been successful in his endeavor to create a better life for Rwandans. In this sense, he is not a “typical African strongman,” as some have referred to him, because the wealth of Rwanda is going back to the people.
To give a concrete example, during a drive in the countryside I came across a new construction project. As people who know me know, I love real estate. So I asked if we could pull over and speak with the workers. They were happy to engage and let us walk around. It was the construction of government housing, or “projects,” for poor people to live in. However, it wasn’t Cabrini-Green-style highrises where people live on top of one another. These are single family homes, all with electricity, running water, and small yards where people can garden, as well as community spaces where neighbors can socialize. Best of all, these houses are given for free to people who cannot afford housing. They don’t have to pay a dime. The only stipulation is that they cannot sell the property, though they can pass it on to their descendants.
Housing “projects” under construction in rural Rwanda.
The country is also making great strides toward conservation. Plastic bags are illegal, and moves have been taken to protect their natural resources. Rwanda is one of only three countries in the world (with the DRC and Uganda) that have wild populations of mountain gorillas, and they have a system in place to protect them and funnel the revenue from gorilla tourism to local farmers. The result is that the Rwandan people are proud and avid protectors of their majestic, non-human primates.
And then there is the quintessential African bush, filled with lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other amazing creatures. The safari experience in Rwanda is one of the most unique in Africa. I didn’t see the hoards of Range Rovers surrounding big game that you find in other countries. The game was plentiful, and most of the time we were the only humans around. The lake in Akagera National Park where my lodge was located was home to over 700 hippos—and hundreds of crocodiles too! It was as pristine as any place I’ve ever been.
Finally, the crime rate in Kigali is lower than almost every major US city. I partied into the wee hours of the morning with no worries or security concerns.
A night out in Kigali
Takeaways from Rwanda’s interethnic conflict and its aftermath
The history of interethnic conflict in Rwanda is certainly different from the history of slavery and anti-Black racism in the United States, but it undoubtedly brings forth cautionary tales and lessons that can apply to our country and context in their own ways.
Propaganda is powerful—and scary.
Propaganda played a key role in fueling hatred between Hutus and Tutsis ahead of the genocide. While of course social media was not around at the time, Hutu extremists spread divisive rhetoric and hate speech about the Tutsis in newspapers, on television, and over the radio, including on a station called RTLM, which was set up expressly for this purpose.
After the RPF launched the attack on Rwanda in 1990, the media spread the government’s message falsely accusing all Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers as traitors. Using racist language, RTLM broadcasted names of public figures that were to be killed and further urged people to “cut down the tall trees” and “weed out the cockroaches”—both references implying people should kill the Tutsis.
When spewed widely and left unchecked, hate speech can produce tragically destructive consequences, such as murders. We’ve seen this play out in America time and again, but with the advent and proliferation of social media in the last 15 years, the ability to spread false information, hate speech, and, yes, propaganda has burgeoned to an unprecedented degree. We shouldn’t underestimate it.
The West criticizes but is often complicit.
In the last several years, (mostly White) Western nations have criticized President Kagame and his government for alleged human rights abuses, citing stories that have emerged of his government’s forceful opposition to political dissidents and those who speak out against him. Some of the criticisms are fair: There is evidence that he suppresses free speech and “disappears” prominent, loud voices who criticize his government and policies.
On my trip I was talking with a group of people who were sharing their doubts about what would happen when Kagame wasn’t at the helm. I asked them, “How has he been president for this long anyway?” They said, “He changed the constitution to increase term limits—twice.” The whole group laughed until one of the women shushed everyone, saying, “We shouldn’t be talking like this in public.”
In another example, there has been a great amount of attention on the former hotel owner Paul Rusesabagina, who was the subject of the widely known and acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda. As the movie depicts, Rusesabagina was the general manager of one of the nicest hotels in Kigali. Though he himself was Hutu, his wife was Tutsi, and he went to great lengths to protect and shelter Tutsis at the hotel during the genocide. Afterward, in 1996, Rusesabagina and his family moved to Belgium and then to Texas in 2009.
In the years since, he has become an outspoken critic of Kagame, suggesting that Hutus in the country now are targets of discrimination and that Hutus abroad aren’t welcome back. At first advocating for diplomacy, Rusesabagina eventually aligned himself with an armed opposition group in Rwanda called the National Liberation Front, or FLN. In 2018, the Rwandan government accused the FLN of carrying out terrorist attacks in the northwest region of the country, and Rusesabagina called for them to use “any means possible” to “free the Rwandan people.” In response, the Rwandan government charged him with terrorism and imprisoned him until his trial in 2021, where he was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years. His sentence was commuted, however, and he was released from prison in March of this year.
Since the success of Hotel Rwanda, Western media outlets and governments have promoted Rusesabagina’s story and criticisms of Kagame extensively. With the amount of praise and courtship he has received from the West, along with his extended tenure abroad, it’s hard to know the degree to which his own motivations for condemning Kagame remain unmuddied and honest.
In its own way, the West using Rusesabagina as an example to back their narrative of Kagame’s human rights abuses allows them to keep the focus away from their own culpability in the region. In constructing the racial divide between the Hutus and the Tutsis and doing nothing to stop the genocide, they perpetuated far worse human rights abuses against the country than it is even possible to say that Kagame has. I’m not excusing his authoritarian behavior, but when the West wants to point fingers at African nations, they conveniently overlook their role in the problem, often telling the story as White saviors opposite a barbaric, Black villain.
Rwandans themselves are happy with their government and its leader. Black people from other countries in Africa are also happy with Kagame. In fact, many Rwandans and Africans outside of Rwanda wonder what will happen to the country when he is not president. It is the Europeans who are the loudest critics. My advice to them would be to look deeply into their own role in creating the problems in Rwanda, as well as their apathy during the genocide, and to the racial injustice and lynchings in their own nations. Only then they will have moral license to point out the various mistakes and shortcomings of African leaders.
Reconciliation efforts are critical for rebuilding a unified nation.
When discussing how to address racism and antiracism in the US, I often talk about the three stages of an apology: recognition, remorse, and repair. For an apology to feel meaningful, you need the perpetrator to own and recognize the offense they have committed and its effect, express genuine remorse for what they’ve done, and make serious, concentrated efforts to repair their wrong. Here in the States, Black people have never received a full apology at the national level, and any conversation about real repair—reparations—is immediately thwarted by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Rwanda, though, has managed to accomplish all of the above.
Human rights concerns aside, Rwanda has become an example propped up by much of the rest of the world for its rapid developmental growth and commitment to unity after such an atrocity in the years since, and this, I’m sure, was only possible because the people received a level of apology—including recognition, remorse, and repair—that allowed them to feel heard and supported and, ultimately, to move forward.
Kigali, 2018. (Source: By Adrien K -, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
How will we move forward?
In the United States over the last few decades, we have witnessed the degradation of truth, increased political polarization, and the proliferation of extremist ideology and general hatred for those different from ourselves. We have also seen the rise of another movement advocating for increased rights, visibility, representation, and respect for Black people and our experience. We potentially sit at a collective decision point:
Will we heed the warnings of others who have experienced extreme division and attempt to come together, reconcile, and move forward with greater respect and humanity?
Or will we allow the divisions to increase, the rhetoric to go unchecked, and the trauma of generations to continue to go unacknowledged?
Reconciliation begins with truth, even if it’s ugly. And the ingestion and digestion of truth require humility. Ego and vanity can provide shields against the truth, but not forever. Once the situation hits rock bottom, truth will reveal itself, whether you are ready for it or not. Let’s hope that circumstances do not have to continue to deteriorate in order for people to open their eyes and begin addressing the racial tensions and equity challenges that we face.