A country with a past. And a future.

Rwandan boy popping in front of a genocide mass grave in Kigungo, Eastern Province.

It’s hard to know where to begin writing about Rwanda, and after a mere ten days there, terribly presumptuous. But since I’m not getting paid to do this, I’ll give it my best shot. Rwanda is a beautiful country that’s best known for the apocalypse of its genocide in 1994 and the nation is still defined by it. To survive, Rwanda has had to simultaneously remember and honor that past and move beyond it… in a country where people who murdered 800,000 of their friends and neighbors still live alongside the victims’ families and survivors.

That’s an almost inconceivable situation. On every level, you have to respect these people who have somehow managed to not only hold their country together for the past 18 years, but avoid another war and move forward.

Can you find Rwanda?

Rwanda is small (about the size of Maryland) and it’s home to a lot of people—over 11 million who have cultivated almost every square inch of it. The country is predominantly rural, with 90% of working Rwandans farming plots that average only about an acre, they have big families, and competition for land can certainly be seen as one cause of the genocide.

One bewildering fact is that, unlike many African nations, Rwandans are a unified people: they speak one language (Kinyarwanda), are from just one ethnic and linguistic group, the Banyarwanda and are overwhelmingly Christian. The country is remarkably clean (once a month they have a clean-up day — my kind of place!!), the government of President Kagame is largely free of corruption, and despite the poverty, you get a definite feeling of progress and forward momentum.

Children carrying 20-liter jerricans of water back up to their village.

The 2 million refugees who fled the genocide are mostly back home. Infant mortality rates have dropped by a third, literacy has increased to 71% of the population, and access to safe drinking water has doubled in just 3 years. The people are incredibly hard-working and industrious, yet when I asked my daughter Lulu who came with me on this trip what she thought of Rwandans, she mulled it over and replied, “They seem happy. Happier than Americans.”

Village boys thrilled with our empty plastic water bottles: a big treat for taking to school.

Despite an initial wariness that you often feel up close, it’s hard not to like people who literally run out of their homes to wave at you.

And it’s hard not to cheer for people who are working so hard to make their way back from catastrophe. Here’s hoping they keep on rising.

Categories: Africa, Farming, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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30 thoughts on “A country with a past. And a future.

  1. Such beautiful smiles and what a wonderful spirit they show!

  2. Their spirit and resilience–it’s something to behold! God bless them.

    • God bless them, indeed … when you think that almost everyone who is over the age of twenty shares the traumatic memory of that time of violence, which pervaded every corner of the country, it’s truly staggering to think that they have managed to keep their nation together!

  3. This is absolutely beautiful. I just was in Cameroon for 2 months. I got back home (New Jersey, USA) less than 2 weeks ago and I cannot get Cameroon off of my mind. I cannot wait to return. It is a whole different world and the people are truly inspiring and so very beautiful. The children literally melt my hearts. Have a great journey!

    • Dear Aspiration — I loved my time in Cameroon (in May) and felt the same way about that country, and actually about Africa in general. From Uganda to Cameroon to Rwanda — it’s just such an energetic and challenging and beautiful place, and the people are truly amazing!! Thanks for your comment and hope you get back there soon!

  4. So inspiring… <3

  5. I have miss Rwanda and your blog brought good ans bad memories. I worked there after the genocide.

    • Oh, gosh, Jackson — I cannot even imagine. I know the histories of Uganda and Rwanda are so closely tied together, it must have felt like a sibling went completely insane. I have to say that it didn’t steal my heart to the same degree as Uganda but certainly the people were remarkable … and I was fascinated! Uganda is so lucky to have so much land — it’s really difficult to see where all the people in that burgeoning country are going to go!!

  6. Thanks for this little peek into Rwanda. Beautiful photos as always.
    Lulu’s comment is very interesting (how marvelous for you that she could travel with you).

    This line resonates with me:
    “To survive, Rwanda has had to simultaneously remember and honor that past and move beyond it… in a country where people who murdered 800,000 of their friends and neighbors still live alongside the victims’ families and survivors.”

    • It’s really inconceivable to consider, Rosie .. and when I get into more stories of the people I met there, I think it will become even more surreal to think of the enormous capacity for forgiveness that Rwandans have had to find in their hearts … I don’t think I could do it. Lulu was amazing on the trip, and I was SO happy she could come with me .. more on THAT later, too!! Thanks, Rosie!!

  7. Fascinating information in this post, Bettty. I had no idea there was linguistic unity there. Also, I LOVE the photo of the little boy waving at the camera. What a cutie. Hope you have a great weekend, my friend.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Thanks, Kathy … I love so much learning about the countries I visit and certainly Rwanda is one of the most intriguing and troubling — and inspiring. I’ll send you another photo of that little girl (their hair is always cut so short, it’s sometimes hard to tell the boys from the girls!) … as she was a total charmer and kept following us around, waving and smiling and being oh-so-photogenic!!! xoxoox b

  8. Isn’t it interesting the different messages commentators get from your blog. I’m not usually a “half empty” sorta gal, but rather than seeing resilience I see the ease with which we can turn on people who are different in any way. This could happen any where.

    Canadian Lieutenant General, Romeo Dallaire, who was in charge of the ill-fated UN peace-keeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide, documented that time in his devastating book “Shake Hands with the Devil”. As a result of what he witnessed in Rwanda and his inability to stop the genocide, he attempted to take his own life in 2000. He speaks openly of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from which he will always suffer. He was appointed to our Senate and now speaks out about issues of mental health of those in the military, child soldiers and conflict resolution.

    He is an amazing man.

    Thought you’d want to know about him. He’s quite well-known here in Canada.

    • I’m so happy to hear from a Canadian about another worthy Canadian since we here in the United States are so myopic sometimes, and surely, he was on the front lines of this disaster. I am going to read his book next — it’s on my list! — and I am so happy to hear that he was not successful in taking his own life and can now speak out on behalf of others. I can only imagine, having seen the few photos I could stand to look at in the Genocide Museum in Kigali, what it must have been like to be there … and to have to stand by helplessly and watch the horror go down, particularly from a position of protection where you were supposed to be able to intervene and help. I do think your point about how easy it can be to turn on each other is well taken, Sybil — which is why we should be so vigilant against hate speech (that preceded the genocide for months before it started, and lay the groundwork for people accepting violence and extermination as a “logical solution” to their problems. I think of just the awful level of discourse in this election here in the U.S. and how Democrats and Republicans are getting so polarized against each other … and how media like Fox News is demonizing and denouncing anybody who isn’t following their brand of right-wing gutter politics. We need to stop this kind of hatefulness (Ann Coulter leaps to mind) and not allow it. It’s uncivil and dangerous. Period

      • Betty, as a “left, socialist” Canadian I get quite worked up and upset by the right-leaning American politics. I sport a bumper sticker on my car that says: “Republicans for Voldemort”.

  9. Deb Morrow Palmer

    This is why I follow your blog. The information I receive. I now know about Lt. Gen.Romeo Dallaire of Canada. I would love to travel to these amazing areas, but having the opportunity to see it at the level you are seeing it is the best. Rwanda is an example of human nature having the ability to exhibit the rawest of ugly. It is everywhere and has been this way for ever. The most wonderful thing is they are moving forward. When you experience trauma that severe is hard to not live in the past. When mankind learns to grow from the past but not dwell in it, we can move forward.

    • Debby — I have so much respect for Lt. Dallaire of Canada, who was in charge of the UN troops there, and struggled mightily to both avert the tragedy (by bringing information leaked to him by a government insider to the attention of Kofi Annan) and then to plead for more troops to intervene once the genocide began. He wrote memo after memo saying that if only 5000 soldiers were dedicated to keeping the peace, the murders could be stopped — but to no avail. I know that it’s simplistic to look back and say — if only — but you can certainly see in interviews and documents that the total lack of international intervention (perhaps due to the Somalia debacle and bad experiences in Kosovo, etc.) resulted in the worst excesses of violence and savagery being overlooked and ignored. So tragic!!

  10. “Happier than Americans” ….. an eye opening comment if there ever was one! Lucky Lulu to experience this!

  11. Anonymous

    Betty,

    Another amazing post. I had no idea that Rwandans had one language, and one ethnicity – I think I had always assumed that the genocide started over such a difference, as has happened in other places – what were the main causes do you think? Also interesting that it’s so crowded, yet still so agricultural. As others have said, it’s a learning experience, reading here. Thanks – so glad Lulu could go with you.

  12. Kevin

    Motivation–Motivation to be happier about life and to work harder to make a difference! Thanks for writing and sharing these beautiful people. Sometimes I can get lazy and ungrateful, yet moments when I read your blog or see a smile on someone who’s going through it with joy, it always help me place everything in proper perspective. Love you Betty!

  13. Mary Yee

    Thanks, Betty! Wonderful photos and a good take on Rwanda. My husband was there to evaluate the work of an NGO and, from what he saw of Rwandans, he would agree with you about their courage and resiliency.

  14. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 Rwanda Round-Up | Heifer Blog

  15. “A country with a past. And a future.
    Heifer 12 x 12” ended up being a relatively great posting, .
    I hope you keep publishing and I’m going to continue viewing! Many thanks -Millard

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