Rwanda’s Stereotype: An ICS Volunteer’s Experience

In early January I received confirmation for a place on the Challenges Worldwide placement which is conjoined with the ICS programme. For the duration of the programme I will be supporting SME’s in Rwanda, the placement is designed to help stimulate economic growth in local communities. Prior to my arrival I held many conceptions about Rwanda. How much did I know about Africa? What did I know about Rwanda? British media and advertisements have long portrayed Africa as a destitute and inhumane region. I can’t speak for the rest of the British populace, but it almost seems that Africa is merely an idea, conjuring mental images of children with flies on their eyes, or armed militia groups raiding and killing indiscriminately.

Furthermore regarding Rwanda, what thoughts initially came to my mind? I knew it was a small, landlocked country in East Africa. I knew it was poor, with little foreign investment compared to Kenya, or Nigeria. But in truth, it was Rwanda’s infamous history that first came to my mind. The genocide of 1994. An event spanning 100 days where some of the most horrific acts of violence committed in human history took place. Close to 1 million men, women, and children were butchered. Others were emotionally, and, or, physically scarred or maimed.

To acquire a deeper understanding of the Rwandan Genocide I felt it was necessary to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. As a graduate of Middle Eastern Studies and International Relations I approached the visit with the theoretical tools I learned from university. In my naivety I simply thought I could analyse and summarise a rationale for why the grotesque event took place. The memorial, however, had other plans for me.

Whilst there are historical facts and genocide artefacts within the memorial, I believe the memorial was designed to incite a deep emotional response. I was confronted with an inability to mentally process, or even comprehend the level of horror people were subjected to. I found myself experiencing disgust, sadness, and anger. I could not understand how neighbours and friends could deliver acts of extreme violence upon familiar faces. Whilst all of the exhibitions delivered a poignant reminder of the tragedy that occurred, I was not prepared for the Children’s Room exhibition. The horrific tales of how individual children arrived at a grisly end was abhorrent.

I could not help but notice the reactions of other volunteers. It was clear that they too were emotionally wrestling with what they had just witnessed. Some felt angry, others distressed… When the visit came to an end I can remember the silence within the group. We were subdued and shocked in response to what we had witnessed within the memorial. The visit connected reality to the stories we had been told by our in-country volunteer counterparts, and host families. One day prior to the visit I had a heavy conversation with my host father regarding his experiences during the genocide. Unfortunately he experienced heavy losses within his family. Naturally it remains a heavily emotional topic for him, but he is adamant that forgiveness, and faith is the only way Rwanda can move forward towards an inclusive and better future.

When the RPF came to power in Rwanda they inherited the semblance of a state, or rather, a cemetery. Throughout the country the roads, rivers and sewage pits were filled with corpses. The majority of the country’s infrastructure lay in ruins. Professionals such as doctors, teachers, civil servants and judges had perished or fled. The militias had looted the national treasury and banks leaving Rwanda penniless. In other words, Rwanda was in a dire situation.

To dwell on the genocide and the emotions surrounding it would be a disservice to the true message portrayed by the memorial. The true message was one of hope, and forgiveness. Quite remarkably as the years have passed since the genocide, Rwanda, a nation of traumatised victims, heroes and genocide participants, has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes, proving to the world that reconciliation and recovery is possible. Defying negative predictions, Rwanda has made immeasurable strides in rebuilding, and the country has become known as a key success story in Africa. A combination of the Kagame administration and influx of foreign aid has produced a transformation like no other.

Over the past 24 years Rwanda has achieved huge milestones. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it has implemented a good level of schooling for its youth, whilst also achieving the highest level of school enrolment rates in Africa. The public health care system is also reasonably good and the vast majority of citizens enjoy health insurance coverage. Legislatively Rwanda has succeeded in promoting gender equality across the country, though most noticeably within the government sector. However, it is the reconstruction of Rwandan identity that I find most admirable. The use of colonial ethnic identities – Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa – has been banned. People are now Rwandan, and only Rwandan. The construction of a national identity has brought the population together to rebuild a fractured state. The strict enforcement of Umuganda, a national day of community service obligating all Rwandans between the ages of 18 to 65 to cooperate with one another on community projects once a month. The government sought to stimulate socio-economic growth and foster cultural values of togetherness and cooperation.

Upon entering Kigali for the first time I was pleasantly surprised by the city’s cleanliness and advanced urban development. Kigali is gradually becoming a hub for innovation, entrepreneurship, social reform and international trade. Over the coming years I expect further growth and development from the country of a thousand hills.


James Rwanda Q13 - Rwanda's StereotypeWritten by:

James Garland
Business Support Associate
Challenges Worldwide ICS
Rwanda 2018