In March 2013, I spent several days in the small central African country of Rwanda. It is a beautiful place of verdant hills, picturesque villages, and majestic volcanic mountains. Thanks to its high elevation it has a balmy climate despite its tropical location; much of the country lies more than 1,800 meters above sea level. Rwanda is also the cleanest African country (or, for that matter, any country) I have visited; there is virtually no litter on the streets of the capital city of Kigali, and rural fences are remarkably free of the remnants of the plastic shopping bags so common in most other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.)
During the first day of my all-too-brief visit, I walked along the streets of Kigali, the capital city of this desperately poor country. I had still and video cameras slung over my shoulders, cell phone and wallet in my pocket. Wherever I walked I heard small voices shouting ‘mzungu, mzungu’ (‘white man, what man,’) usually just before I was besieged by young children, boys eager to shake my hand girls standing shyly behind. None of them asked for or apparently expected anything from me other than a friendly greeting, which they invariably replied to (for reasons I cannot fathom) by saying ‘good night.’
I got back to my hotel without being assaulted by anything other than warmth and friendliness, and all of the possessions I had left with were still mine, a situation somewhat unlikely had I taken a similar walk around the streets of my home town of Johannesburg (Well, this isn’t quite true. I was several Rwandan francs poorer, having invested in a bag of delicious Rwandan coffee and four small bottles of incomparably spicy and unforgettable Akabunga sauce; even if Rwanda had nothing else to offer, I would go back for this incandescent condiment.)
From what I knew of Rwanda, I did not expect any of this. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since most of what I knew about the country was what most people know: the Rwandan Genocide, especially the part about the now-famous hotel in Kigali. Truth be told, the genocide was the main reason I came here. I had visited Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps, as well as Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the ‘Killing Fields’ at Chuong Ek. I had watched – with hundreds of my students over a dozen years or more – the riveting PBS documentaries Valentina’s Nightmare (1977) and Ghosts of Rwanda (2004), both recounting in chilling detail the Rwandan genocide and the callous indifference of the outside world to its horrors. I felt that I needed to visit Rwanda and to visit the Kigali Memorial Centre, as both a tribute to those who had died here and to help me to gain a better understanding of the horror that took place in this country, so that I might better explain it to my students.
I failed dismally in my mission. I left Rwanda wanting to tell my students about the country’s overwhelming beauty, its unique charm, and the incomparable hospitality of the Rwandans I met. The first videos I posted when I got back from my trip were of the landscapes of rural Rwanda and the streets of Kigali. I did not want to tell the story of country of tragedy, I wanted my readers and viewers to know about a place of beauty and charm. I did not want to talk and write about the horrors of Rwanda past, I wanted to tell about about the wonders of Rwanda in the present.
But Rwanda present is Rwanda past. Those delightful kids I met on on the streets of Kigali are the children of those lucky enough to survive the machete-wielding killers of 1994, others are probably the children of the killers themselves. The reticent adults I saw are all survivors of the holocaust, regardless of whether they are Tutsi or Hutu (asking people which is absolutely unacceptable in modern-day Rwanda,) sympathisers of of the killers or relatives of their victims. The effects of 1994 genocide are far from over, and on reflection I realized that I had to say something about it.
But I can’t say much. I don’t have the knowledge to add to the large body of literature on the genocide, the first-hand experience to provide an account of its effects, or the analytical expertise to explain its causes. All I can do is pay tribute to those who survived, to the remarkable country they have managed to resurrect from the ashes of gruesome tragedy, and particularly to the many hundreds of thousands of innocent people who died so needlessly while the rest of the world looked on and did nothing. The more people who know about what happened in 1994, who refuse to forget it, and who make sure that others are aware of it, the less likely it is to happen again, in Rwanda or anywhere else. And, if history has anything to teach us, it may well happen again, perhaps where we least expect it.
This video is my tribute to the many unique and human beings who died in Rwanda in 1994. They are not numbers, they are not Tutsis or Hutus, men or women, adults or children. The victims were unique and individual people, with friends, families, children, siblings, parents, and colleagues. The Rwandan genocide was not one tragedy, it was 800,000 unique tragedies, added together to a horror something nobody can possibly comprehend.