And so begins my tour of the Genocide Memorial and Museum, perched high on a hill above Kigali, Rwanda’s capital in the ‘country of a thousand hills’. Many of the people I meet here have heard that Kampala is ‘better’. I instantly fall in love with Kigali. I didn’t fall in love with Kampala.
What we all like and dislike is particular, I guess. It says as much about us as the places and people we find ourselves liking. So perhaps it’s the Northern English thing: I need undulations in landscape, like the Peak District backdrops to Manchester and Sheffield. Flatter cities are barren to me. Hilly cities remind me of childhood: they are homes.
It’s hard to believe that the simple and empty spaces in the beautiful museum gardens are mass graves. The lush vegetation smells alive with roses and ladybirds, and I can hear the sounds of insects and birds.
Symbolism is everywhere. The garden of unity represents the diversity of Rwanda before the genocide. This then segways into a garden of division, then becoming a garden of reconciliation. Water flows through the gardens to reflect the chronology of the genocide. There’s also a cacti garden, demonstrating the need for self-protection that genocide victims and survivors experienced, and the need to be resilient to prevent future genocides. Another patch is filled with various species of roses, symbolising the delicacy and diversity of Rwandans.
I hadn’t expected this: I imagined the usual display of information boards and objects. The garden is a welcome surprise that makes the experience more reflective and less harrowing than I expected. It’s a solid preparation for the necessary awfulness that follows.
The final part of the garden is a wall of names. Inside the museum, I learn that over a million people were killed, and 250,000 buried. There are only a few-hundred names on the wall. Reflection turns to sadness as I realise that many of the bodies in the mass graves are anonymous, and that many haven’t achieved a dignified burial at all.
Inside the museum, the story begins with the peaceful coexistence of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. These were not tribal groups but different words for different activities, such as cattle farming. European anthropologists decided to classify them as races: distinguishing them by facial features, behaviours and activities, and geographical regions. Long before the genocide, the colonial project created and enforced divisions that never existed.
By the 1990s, power-sharing proposals had been problematic and tense, and there’d been much propaganda by radical Hutus against the Tutsis. One evening in April 1994, the moderate president’s plane was shot down on arrival in Kigali. Roadblocks were installed. Within hours, the radical troops (who had been trained in mass killing techniques) began killing Tutsis and forcing Hutus to kill their Tutsi friends.
‘They cut my father into pieces. They wanted to see if he bleeds. Because they thought he was made of milk. Then they threw him into the river.’
It’s not the killing that disturbs me. That has a kind of logical if awful sense after years of colonial assertion of non-existent differences followed by post-independence propaganda. That could conceivably lead to an efficient killing system.
What disturbs me is the cruelty. Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away. They were raped and killed in front of their families. That’s a kind of vengeful rage. Can peaceful minority rule, followed by colonialism, anthropology and propaganda really do that? It looks like it.
The museum continues with an explanation of the Truth and Reconciliation process that Rwanda pioneered. A smaller exhibition details other genocides: the Hereros 1904-5, Armenia 1915-18, the Holocaust 1939-1945, Cambodia 1975-9 and the Balkans in the 1990s. The Holocaust exhibit focuses on Treblinka and doesn’t mention the purge of LGBT and disabled individuals.
Finally, there’s a room of pictures of dead children. This was emotionally too much, even for me. Perhaps this is necessary: it undermines any attempt at self-distance from what happened. Neither Auschwitz, nor Amin’s death chamber made me want to cry. This did.
I arrange a moto-taxi back into town. The warm breeze catches my skin as we corner down the hills past the lush vegetation, weaving in and out of taxis and trucks. Kigali, just like Kampala, is spotlessly clean and tidy. I get a coffee while I wait to find out about my dinner plans. I joke with some of the security guards scanning the cars and pedestrians entering the shopping complex. I ask if I can have a uniform and a scanning device. They allow me to sit with them and we chat about how I’m finding Kigali.
An Englishman (myself), a Scotsman (Robbie), an American (Dan), a Swiss-Italian (Thierry) and a Dutchlady (Lara) walk into an Indian restaurant in Rwanda. And so begins dinner. Robbie has concerns about the museum. He feels the story it tells could be more representative and honest, and that many in Rwanda have still not grasped the meaning of 1994-1996. For example, a common belief is that no more than 800,000 people could have died, as there were only 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda at the time. There’s clearly a lot more work to be done.
I feel very lucky to have bumped into such a fun and interesting group of travellers, ranging from development to business students, to Australian medical students on elective placements. I’m sharing my room with three Australian girls. I seem to be getting older, and they all seem to be getting younger. I guess that’s life.
I should add at this point that Robbie is doing some great work trying to improve the circumstances of Rwandan children. I’m often cynical of such efforts, including cynicism towards my own charity for Senegalese street children that I closed down a few years ago. Yet Robbie seems deeply committed to doing his work well, and deeply aware that good intentions are misplaced if they do not benefit the people they aim to serve. His website is http://www.childrenofrwanda.org/
It’s a shame Rita (a fellow nursing student in Sheffield) and I missed each other in Kampala, literally by hours. We spoke on the phone while I was at Kampala airport. We’d both really wanted to see each other in her home city, on a continent that has a special place in my heart. It’s incredible that nursing can bring together two opposite personalities – shy Rita and ebullient me. The course is truly diverse. It reminds me how Shula, a softly-spoken district nurse from Zambia, and I built a friendship between visits in her car. There’s something very special about the diversity of the nursing profession.
We’re off to see some memorials out of town. Robbie tells me they’re more genuine than the museum: They’re churches that have been untouched since the genocide, other than for the removal of bodies.
Catch you all later, my small and dedicated group of fans. Please hit ‘like’ if you’ve enjoyed reading this, so I know just how niche my fan base is or isn’t.