Translation courtesy of Dario Fioravanti
It was the year 1994 and I was 16, when a remote African country virtually unknown to South Americans suddenly echoed in the news. I must say that almost nothing is published about Africa in my country, so I barely remember that moment, but what I do remember is that it was a new tragic story coming from the black continent (after all, bad news is all we hear from Africa). What I did not know until much later in my life was the magnitude of the tragedy that was taking place in Rwanda in those days, which made it unavoidable to get to this tiny country with a picture of deep grief.
Kagame Paul ! (in Spanish, his name put this way literally means: "Shit on me)
After having the passport stamped, it won’t take more than riding a few meters by bicycle to understand why Rwanda is known as "The land of a thousand hills", since that’s all there is in Rwanda, an endless succession of hills in every corner of the country. But what is almost imperceptible is the fact that here, 20 years ago, an outbreak of widespread human dementia led the Hutus, an ethnic group, to systematically exterminate the Tutsis, their enemy ethnic group. The result was that in less than 4 months, 1 million people (approximately), of which 800,000 were Tutsis, were massacred in cold blood using mostly machetes. In those days, according to survivors (only those who dare to speak), the bodies piled up in the streets, roads, fields, and the smell of death corroded the lungs. Perhaps the most tragic fact of the Rwandan genocide was that there was no army involved, but it was the very same people, ordinary men and women of all ages pushed by hate speeches of a handful of evil people, who carried out the massacre.
As usual in most of African tragedies, the so venerable European nations (in this case Belgium and France) had a major responsibility for this genocide. In the first place Belgium, which during its colonial rule and using the war technique of "divide and conquer" to exacerbate hatred between the two ethnic groups, gave power to the Tutsi minority to subdue the Hutu majority. As a result, Belgium would subdue both under its control. Then France armed the Hutus, once in power, so they would have the necessary means to carry out the Tutsis genocide. And finally, when the situation was completely out of control, everybody (including all European nations and rich countries) were responsible for looking the other way when it was clear enough that an intervention was necessary. It took four months and a million deaths until they stopped ignoring this situation.
But all of this seems to be hidden today. Except for the simple memorials, present in almost every village of the country, nothing seems to reflect what has happened here. Instead, what you see is a thriving, vibrant country, with people going back and forth to work, to study. Due to its economic boom, several international media define it as Africa’s great revelation. The villages next to the main routes are neat, tidy and everything seems to be going well, at least on the surface. However, as days pass, each town we go we find more and more difficulties. People seem to be afraid to receive us, not fear of us but to government control. Absolutely everything going on in a city, town or village must be reported to authorities. This is the Rwanda that lies beneath the huge "boom" that many flatter, the police state of Paul Kagame, its president.
During our stay in Rwanda, we couldn’t talk so much to the local people, since they are afraid to talk. All guests must be reported to the authorities. If a police officer or government employee meet new people in a town without previous notice, local people will be severely punished. As foreigners, Rwandan people have nearly always welcomed us very well, but then we run into Kagame's police state that prevents its people to be hospitable. People are afraid not to report us to authorities, and once they do it, authorities forbid them to help us. Priests are forbidden to let us sleep in the church, village chiefs are forbidden to give us a bed in their homes, and local people are forbidden to let us camp. People want to help us, but the government forbids so in the name of our security. This makes the experience of cycling in Rwanda very inconvenient, since when night comes, it’s really difficult to find a place to sleep given that Kagame’s police state controls it all.
You can stay in hotels, sure, but this is not what we look for, and, besides this, there are no hotels in the remote roads we ride. As if that was not enough, the western guilt after the genocide was so huge that they inserted millions of dollars in aid and thousands of NGOs invaded their land to clear their faults. The result was an inflation that brought ridiculous prices for everything. Rwanda is one of the most expensive countries in the region; hotel rooms have Western prices, local food is 3 or 4 times more expensive than in neighboring countries, and even Church leaders prefer to put the profitable business of their inns ahead of the hospitality that we were getting from all priests in the countries we visited before. This is something I see over and over again as I move through the continent, i.e. I see how the West, and by West I mean rich countries, continue to fuck up Africa.
Locals fear to speak, the introversion they developed due to their fear and traumas of the recent past, it all conspired to prevent us from getting in touch with them and learn about Rwanda through Rwandans. Thousands of kilometers aheadfurther south had to pass until I met Father X in another country. Father X asked not to reveal his name or place of residence product of the fear they have of Kagame's government reprisal. Father X, a Hutu that during genocide risked his life to save hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus hiding and protecting them in his church, ran away from Rwanda after being chased by Kagame’s government. He explains how Kagame (Tutsi) keeps purging Hutus disguising his argument under “equality”, reflected on the phrase we heard from all Rwandans almost like a motto: “Now we are a single Rwanda” making reference to the overcome of the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. People say this over and over product of their fear and not because they mean it nor believe it, Father X says: -“we won’t solve our issues by denying our identity, but rather respecting each other as human beings independently of the tribe we belong, but Kagame doesn’t support that”. Kagame and his government punish with prison anyone who mentions their ethnic group labeling them as having genocide mentality, but the real intention of this is just to keep hunting Hutus as they come out. Government still rules with an iron hand, they don’t tolerate dissidents and they keep pursuing and murdering Hutus across the lake Kivu in D.R. Congo, where Kagame controls diamond extractions and other valuable natural resources with which he enriches himself.
A challenging experience
It’s hard to believe that such a small country could have so many deep and serious issues but somehow they still manage to make it. Cycling through Rwanda isn’t easy. From a geographical point of view, it’s exhausting. Flat ground isn’t certainly a thing here but perhaps the toughest part is dealing with Rwandan’s extreme curiosity. It’s true that the concept of western privacy doesn’t apply to a bunch of countries, mainly in Africa, but in Rwanda there’s not even the concept of personal space. As soon as you stop the bike, you get surrounded by dozens of people, mainly kids, and by surrounded I don’t mean the usual approach, I mean sitting to gaze a landscape and after 5 seconds having 25 kids standing right at your face, scrutinizing you with an intensity similar to someone trying to pick lice from your hair. There’s no way to deal with this, it doesn’t matter how you beg over and over to get some space, they won’t go away until you get on your bike and move on, and then the same scenario repeats all over again at the next stop. At the end of the day, exhausted after endless hills, to find a quiet space to have some rest is not easy but rather impossible.
Rwandans are not as evil as Ethiopians, but constantly asking for money is turning into a habit at a speed rate that it’s getting closer and closer to them. Generally, they are simple and peaceful people. In fact, I was amazed by the fact that they can play around and smile after the dark past that has left countless orphans and a trauma for all their people. It’s shocking asking people their age, mainly to those who were born around the genocide, and see how they are just guessing their estimated age. There are no such things as records, and that makes countless orphans not knowing where they were born or when. Those are the dimensions of the genocide.
When people don’t get suffocating, it’s possible to find comforting places to stare for hours at their so famous mellow hills, most of them with terraces bordering perfection. Tea plantations on the stone trails bordering the magnificent lake Kivu, with outstanding views of D.R.Congo turned out to be the most beautiful I have ever seen among tea producing countries, including Sri Lanka. You can easily get lost there going from one quiet small village to another, enjoying possibly some of the best landscape on this side of the continent. Not all people turn out to be suffocating, and keeping in mind all the suffering they’ve been through, it’s remarkable to find village kids that are so happy to sing a song and dance around.
Those are the pictures I took from Rwanda, a country of experts on what we all try to avoid the most: the suffering and the pain. It’s hard to imagine how it’d be ever possible to move on after such an enormous tragedy, but in Rwanda you can get a picture of that, and actually see that you can raise from ashes and that life goes on, even after being through the darkest black hole you can imagine.
It took us 7 days to make it through a country that could be done in two only if it were flat. It’s been exhaustive from both points of view, geographical and human, but honestly, what made me feel I definitely wanted to leave Rwanda were the countless obstacles from the government forcing their people to deny us help. On the other hand, in several ocassions I had to remember myself the extreme pain they’ve been through to control the frustration I felt when people became so annoying. However, now that I look back, I just see people being people, the result of issues so dark that only Rwandans and no one else could ever understand. I’ll always remember Rwanda with a melancholic tone, for being such a beautiful country in which their people have been punished so badly by some God, karma, destiny, obscurity, or by all of them at the same time, which will make me remember it as the country of a thousand hills and also a thousand ways of suffering.