Sunday, February 14, 2010

Development after Death

I knew that smell, I thought. I remember that smell. I don't like it. The last time I smelled it, it was a few minutes after walking away from a tower of human skulls. It was closest I'd ever seen to evil. This must be what we smell like when we're killed and buried in crowds.

The atmosphere was entirely different this time. Instead of bones sticking up from the ground, with simple stark signs of fates being left over, I was looking at a beautiful, well manicured garden, and listening to a hand-held audio guide. At first it was only the smell and the things the guide were saying that made this different from any other garden. Perhaps a few of the unmarked slabs a couple meters square were a bit out of place as well. Until I found one with a sign saying something I'd seen before, all those months ago: 'Please don't step on the mass grave.'

Sitting in the center of one of the biggest continents on earth, Rwanda barely measures up to half to size of Scotland. Mention other countries like this to the average non-African, maybe Lesotho, Burundi, or Djibouti, and you won't see much recognition. Mention Rwanda, and you get one. An atrocity put this little land-locked dot of a country on the map.

In 1994, a population found itself divided by tribal lines highly exaggerated if not totally made up by colonial powers who had left decades ago. One side began to systematically exterminate the other. It was one of, if not the most efficient killing machines in history, slaughtering over 1 million Rwandans who either happened to have the word "Tutsi" on an ID card, or didn't but helped another Rwandan who did.

As I made my way through the memorial with the largely superfluous audio guide to my ear, I took in the story. It was not a new story for me. I'd studied this event in both high school, to learn it had happened, and college, to figure out how and why. The colonial division by the Germans and Belgians of those who owned more than this many cattle to the ruling minority, everyone else but the Twa, or pygmies, to the other. ID cards. Enforced rule of the minority over the majority. The last minute switch of power before independence. The first blood a few years later. The warning signs so blatant they couldn't really be called signs but announcements. The UN commander asking for troops and being rejected. Then the start in earnest of torture, murder, and rape on a scale only known to crimes against humanity. I could go on, but you might not forgive me.

My point was to pay my respects. See how they handled the tragedy sixteen years later. This, the main, (though by no means only) memorial pays compact and fitting homage not only to the Rwandan genocide, but a few of the other genocides in world, including the Holocaust, the Armenians, the wars of the Balkans, one I'd never heard of before in Namibia, and the one whose memorial I'd been so strongly reminded of before, Cambodia.

I studied international politics in college, hoping to make this planet a better place in a big way. I know lots of people like me from all over. We had our training, We want a better, more peaceful world. Now there I was getting a briefing on our enemy. This is genocide. This is what we're up against.

But looking around, I remembered something else I wasn't seeing in this memorial. It was back in Chicago, Pick hall, bottom floor lecture hall, Professor Stephen Wilkinson and spring quarter's course, Ethnic Conflict. We'd just put down our copies of "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families" and listened to the latest reiteration of the phrase "never again." The professor looked at his students with a pause, until one of us finally said what everyone was thinking: Darfur.

It wasn't until I was sitting in a coffee shop with an experienced photojournalist and human rights activist that I got any mention out of it. It's a situation so many people know the name of yet don't know the story. To oversimplify, the ruler of Sudan, wanted for war crimes, is backing Arab Muslim militias that are systematically killing black Muslim villages. The Rwandan genocide lasted a few months. This has been going since 2003. And once again the UN and UN Security council is hamstrung from acting. Two of its most powerful members, China and Russia, refuse to recognize the situation as genocide. Entirely coincidentally, these two also receive a massive amount of oil from Sudan.

As one of my friend's old history professors likes to say: "Remember class, history has absolutely nothing practical to teach us."

It makes me think about the places on this map of Africa that are no go zones for me. Sudan, Somalia, northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I know people who've been to all of them, the "safe parts" of them, but what they have to say is either entirely about being a tourist or isn't too encouraging. The stories out of the Congo are so horrific I don't feel comfortable repeating them here. I've never heard of a human doing anything like that to another human in real life or fiction.

But equally remarkable is how Rwanda isn't one of these places. Sixteen years after the chaos, and this ambitious little place is the most developed country I've been to in a full month. In a region where traffic police expect $2 bribes and issue tickets when they don't get them, and trash is thrown out the window anywhere you go, Rwanda is an amazingly clean and corruption-free place. The Kigali taxi-motorcycle drivers not only all have helmets, but they carry spares for their riders. Plastic bags are outlawed because of their environmental impact. I've never seen either of those things anywhere else in the world. I had one Swedish foreign service officer tell me the place is so ambitious that they keep having to be told to slow down or they'll miss steps.

And as for tribal divisions, I won't say there aren't any, but there is a very big movement to forget them. If you ask people who they are, they don't tell you Hutu or Tutsi. They tell you Rwandan. In other countries, when asked in a registration book at a hotel or border what tribe they belong to, I've seen all Rwandans put an emphatic slash through the space. They're done with the distinction.

I used to divide countries into the categories of "developed" and "developing." But I've definitely noticed that some of the latter deserve the title more than others. From my brief stay there, I'd say Rwanda deserves it fully, it's not sitting there undeveloped, it is actively developing. This will be a place to watch in the years to come, when hopefully it will be known by its successes rather than its tragic past. And maybe someday we can expect the same from some of its neighbors.

In the meantime, I've hitchhiked my way to a very different place. I wrote most of this entry sitting in the passenger seat of a 2100kg gas tanker (that's the weight when it's empty). Now I'm I'm going to the coast, and then a little bit further. At noon today, a boat sails for a place you can't say without thinking of adventure: Zanzibar.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Beautifully and thoughtfully written about a horrifying event. Thank you.

  2. So...what was the smell? More sensory descriptions please?

  3. I remember watching a powerful movie about the horrors of Rwanda, and can't remember the name of it at this moment, but this movie placed Rwanda and its people on the map for me! I'm amazed at your report and thrilled to hear the country has recovered and doing so well. Are there churches in Rwanda right now? Mission groups going on? Sounds like an interesting trek you're on, and it's always nice to experience the smell, sights, and taste of something you had only heard and read about in the news and history books! Take care!

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  5. I'm glad to hear Rwanda has recovered as well as you say it has. It gives me hope.

    Enjoy Tanzania. Don't skip the Tanganyika, as well as the Zanzibar.

  6. Second comment above....presume the smell is that of dead mammals and that people are mammals. May not need/want more sensory description than that?
    Great blog. More thoughtful site than many including the readership who comment.