Entry #31 – Sunday July 26th, 2015 — “The Benefits and Pitfalls of a Benevolent Dictatorship”

Today is a novel day. As I write this post I am sitting on a porch. Nothing novel about that. The location of the porch, however, carries with it a high degree of novelty. The porch is located at a cottage-like home in Kigali, Rwanda. The sky is blue, the air is silent, and the temperature is immaculate. It is the middle of the dry season in Rwanda and, as a result, the ground is covered with brown, dead leaves. A hammock and small bird house with a red maple leaf painted on its front hang on a large tree in the front yard. Beyond the tree is an 8 foot high brick wall and beyond the brick wall is a bumpy dirt road.  Notwithstanding a large avocado tree that marks another edge of the property, I could readily be convinced that I am sitting on my deck at Winnipeg Beach on a warm September day.

Perhaps I should back up a little bit. Rachel, the cosmopolitan global citizen that she is, has managed to forge a number of friendships over the years. As it happens, a close family friend of hers currently lives with her husband in Rwanda. I will refer to these family friends as Eric (the husband) and Wanda (the wife). Eric and Wanda are a cool, young, expat couple who have lived in various countries on the African continent for the past 10 years. They visited Rachel in Kampala a few weeks ago on a business trip and the five of us immediately hit it off. Within minutes of their arrival, it was as if the five of us had known each other for years… well, Rachel has known Eric and Wanda for years, but you get the point.

My fellow Scholars and I have been keen to travel to Rwanda for quite some time. I have always been captivated by the country’s political history, Shelby by the beauty, and Rachel by the adventure that it posed. Fortunately, Eric and Wanda were just as keen to open their home to us for a few days. In a sense, our excursion to Rwanda has thus far served as a much needed vacation from our day-to-day lives in Kampala.

In my opinion, Rwanda is an idea. Rather, it is a combination of ideas. The ideational construct that informs reality in Rwanda is exemplified in its capital city, Kigali. In an email to my parents and brother I describe Kigali as “a combination between North Korea, Airstrip One (from the book 1984), and the EU”.

Kigali runs in stark contrast with most African cities, Kampala included. It is clean, quiet, and well-maintained. Traffic lights work, crosswalks are respected (for the most part), and police corruption is nonexistent. In Kampala, the roads are packed with vendors and thousands of boda bodas weaving through seemingly perpetual traffic jams. In Kigali, on the other hand, the roads are comparatively empty and are lined with green grass, sidewalks, and palm trees. If I were to use one word to describe Kampala, it would be “claustrophobic”; Kigali: “poised”.

Although Kigali might appear to embody “Africa Light”, a lot of things are swept under the rug. The feeling you get in Kigali is kind of like the feeling you might have if you were invited over to a friend’s house for dinner – and you knew that your friend was abused by his parents. The house is beautiful, the food is great, and the family appears to get along famously. Still, you know that something is up. When the father sits near your friend, he starts to look uncomfortable. When the mother pats your friend on the back, he shudders. Things look okay on the surface, but you know that your friend has had a rough history.

Like many countries on the African continent (or in the world for that matter), Rwanda has an incredibly complex social-political history. For a full account of its history please see part 2 of this entry. For better or for worse, Rwanda’s history plays a principle role in its present reality.

The country is currently under the leadership of a president who has a considerable measure of authority – and he is not afraid to use it. Although “democratically” elected, the president is better described as a benevolent dictator. He has legally been in power since the early 2000s and is currently amending Rwanda’s constitution to abolish fixed term limits for sitting presidents. Like Harper, Rwanda’s dictator believes that a highly controlled society is preferable to the unpredictable nature of an open democracy. Unlike Harper, Rwanda’s dictator is willing to admit it. More, he is far more benevolent than Harper.

Here is a good subjective comparison between Canada and Rwanda: both countries have controlling fathers. Rwanda’s father openly tells his sons and daughters that he knows what is best for them. Father Rwanda is willing to lock his children in a tower if he believes that such an act will keep them safe and happy. Freedoms are limited, people are oppressed, but things work. Father Rwanda’s house is exceptionally clean. He runs a tight ship and it shows. His children might not be as vibrant as the kids down the street who have hippy parents, but you can be sure that all of their homework is done before dinner. The house is spacious, quiet and monolithic.

More, what Father Rwanda says, goes. If you disagree with him, then you are accused of trying to break the family apart – and nobody wants to be accused of dissent after the family feud that boiled over in the 1990s.

Father Canada is also very controlling, but he exercises his control in a much different way. He might not overtly tell his children what is best for them, but he will cut off their allowance if they start to question his advice. He might not lock his sons and daughters in a tower to protect them, but he will tell them stories that make them scared to leave the house. Father Canada is just as coercive as Father Rwanda; however, he is too deceitful to let his true colours show.

While Father Rwanda threatens to excommunicate children that try to break up his family, Father Canada silences dissenters by changing the dynamic of his family. He lets his favorite children sit near the head of the table and shuns his unruly children to the back. He makes them feel unwelcome in their own home. Dissenting children still have a voice in Father Canada’s household; whether their voice is heard is another story.

While Father Rwanda heads a benevolent dictatorship, Father Canada runs a friendly dictatorship.

Our trip to Kigali started early on Thursday morning. Everything went smoothly until we passed through an initial security check at Entebbe airport. Thanks to some poor foreign policy moves made by the Canadian government, all Canadians must pre-apply for a visa and have a formal letter of invitation in order to enter Rwanda. Canadians are some of the only people in the world who have to go through this rigorous process in order to enter the country. I guess us Canadians are not as friendly as our government has led us to believe, eh?

Despite the fact that the three of us applied for our visas at the same time (well in advance of when we needed to) only Rachel’s had been approved when we reached the airport. Shelby and I still do not know why ours were not approved with Rachel’s. In any case, we had tracking numbers as proof that we applied and a signed letter of invitation from Eric so we thought that would be enough to get us on the plane… we thought wrong. Airport authorities would not even issue me or Shelby our tickets until we presented a signed visa from Rwandan immigration. This was 2 hours before our flight was scheduled to depart.

A few airport staff at Entebbe tried to get in contact with Rwandan immigration, but their efforts were futile at best and counterproductive at worst. Rachel describes the ins and outs of our airport fiasco much better than I ever could so check out her blog for more details. What I will say is that the following 5 hours were among the most stressful I have ever lived – almost as bad as the Nile Special. After a number of heated phone calls, a missed flight, chocolate bars, broken computer systems, and miracles, the three of us found ourselves on a direct flight to Kigali.

Upon arrival we learned that Eric spent most of his morning on the Kigali end “blazing a trail of white privilege” to get our visas pushed through. He also ensured that Rwanda Air did not charge us for changing flights. It turns out that catholic guilt goes much further than anger when dealing with Rwandan immigration authorities.

All in all, we arrived in Kigali only a few minutes later than we would have on the flight we missed. I guess all is well that ends well.

That evening we headed to a funky arts centre for cocktails. The cocktails tasted great, Shelby got tipsy (as usual) and pretentious conversations about art flowed. Great night. The following day was quite heavy. We spent most of the day at the Rwandan Genocide memorial. I won’t get into the specifics of the genocide right now, but I strongly encourage you to check out part 2 of this entry for more on that.

The memorial itself is nothing short of surreal. In addition to housing a museum, the memorial is the final resting place of nearly 250 000 victims of the genocide. More disturbing, the genocide ended only 21 years ago so many Rwandans still have direct ties to the events that occurred in 1994. In that vein, the memorial is not only a testament to the dead, but also a place for young Rwandans to mourn their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. Whether Rwandans will admit it or not, the wounds from the genocide are still fresh and society is far from finished its mourning process. I personally do not think that Rwanda will ever fully recover – but more on that in part 2.

That said, Rwanda is a damn cool place. The languages spoken include: Kirwanda, Kiswahili, English, French, and even a little bit of Luganda. We usually greet a moto driver (the equivalent of a boda boda) with a “miri wae”, or “good afternoon”. He might respond, “miri wae, comment ce va?” On the moto, I usually like to say “mpala mpala!”, or “slow slow!” After the moto ride I sometimes say, “webale, ssebo!” or “thank you, sir”… you get the point.

More, there are a few benefits that come with living in a benevolent dictatorship! For instance, the president recently rolled out a new program that urges Rwandans to live healthy and active lifestyles. In fact, every Friday all government workers get off work at 2:30pm so they can play sports in the afternoon. Even more, when we went jogging the other evening, almost every person we passed cheered and gave us high-fives.

Community stewardship is also a large component of Rwandan life under a benevolent dictator. On the last Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are required to participate in something called an “Umuganda” or ‘community project’. These projects can range from improving a local road to pulling weeds from the sidewalks. There is usually a “cell” meeting that follows an Umuganda where local matters are discussed. As a side, Rwanda is separated into provinces, districts, sectors, cells, and villages. Each cell contains roughly 200 people. Granted, kind of 1984ish… but still kind of interesting.

We were lucky enough to attend an Umuganda on Saturday. There was no work project scheduled; however a cell meeting still took place. The goal of the meeting was to elect two representatives from the community to serve as mediators in small legal disputes; things like “who gets the mangoes from a tree that sits on two properties”.

Eric and Wanda have done a fantastic job of showing us Kigali over the past few days. We’ve visited museums, spent afternoons by the pool, attended a music festival, spent an evening at a film festival, and met tens of fantastic people along the way.

We still have a couple of days left in Kigali and cannot wait to see what the future brings.

Check out part 2 below,


Part 2

Disclaimer: The following account was written sans google due to a lack of internet. Most of the information you are about to read comes from my head and from poli sci notes. That said, the following should give you a good idea of what happened in 1994 and why. It is by no means the whole story.

Between April 6th and July 16th, 1994, 1 million Rwandans were systematically murdered by their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.

On May 16th, 1994 Time Magazine published an article entitled: “Why? the Killing Fields of Rwanda Hundreds of thousands have died or fled in a month of tribal strife. Are these the wars of the future?” This article was printed in a special issue of Time that set out to show the world what was happening in Rwanda. The front cover of the May 16th edition displayed a young Rwandan child held by his mother. The child: big eyes staring off into a seemingly hopeless future; the mother: sheer terror. The title read: “There are no devils left in Hell”, the missionary said. “They are all in Rwanda”.

The article goes on to describe the conflict in Rwanda as “mindless tribal violence”. Others at the time referred to the genocide as a civil war. The article explicitly suggests that Rwandans are primitive people who enjoy killing each other – that tribal warfare is the norm. By extension, the article insinuates that Rwandans are ignoble savages who are simply too primitive to civilize; too primitive to transcend what Time refers to as a “culture of violence”.

But here is the thing: Rwanda did (and does) not have cultures of violence. That is, until colonial occupation. A brief look at Rwanda’s history shows us that exogenously imposed racism is the true culprit of the 1994 genocide.

For hundreds – if not thousands – of years before colonial occupation, what is today known as Rwanda was composed of three major tribes: the Tutsi, the Hutu, and the Twa. In reality, the differences between these tribes were minimal, if not non-existent. Tutsis tended to heard sheep and cattle in the North region of Rwanda while Hutus engaged in farming and other activities in the South. In general, Tutsis were a little bit taller than Hutus and Twa – however differences in height were largely arbitrary due to the fact that there were frequent marriages across all three tribes. In fact, before colonial occupation, it was quite common for a Tutsi to become a Hutu or vice versa.

Unfortunately, the same European nationalism that led to genocide in WWII directly contributed to tensions between the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. When the Germans colonized Rwanda in the late 1800s, they arbitrarily favoured the Tutsi over the Hutu and Twa. A small group of Tutsis were given unprecedented access to education, positions of authority, and wealth. Hutus and Twa, on the other hand were lumped together, made to do forced labour and quickly became second class citizens. To reiterate, the Germans were the first to create marked ethnic divides in Rwanda. Their choice to classify the Tutsis as superior was completely arbitrary.

The Germans were forced to give up their colonies after WWI so Rwanda was subsequently taken over by the Belgians. By this point, “race” identification cards had already been issued to all Rwandans. Marriages between Tutsis and Hutus gradually stopped as the Hutus were increasingly oppressed by the Tutsis.

Rwanda gained colonial independence in the early 1960s. Upon independence, roughly 84% of Rwandans were classified as Hutu, 15% as Tutsi, and 1% as Twa. Oddly enough, in Rwanda’s first election the Belgians played a role in ensuring a Hutu president was installed. The majority of Rwandans were Hutu so in the spirit of independence, Belgium thought that the Hutu deserved a chance to lead after years of oppression.

Things got ugly in the years that followed. With the support of France and Belgium, Hutu governments enacted a number of racist policies that sought to systematically remove Tutsis from positions of power. Further, through intense propaganda campaigns, Tutsis were painted as enemies of the state. The prevailing logic of the time was that Tutsis wanted to take back the power they lost after colonial independence and continue their oppression of Hutus. Consequently, between the 1960s and 1990s thousands of Tutsis were exiled from Rwanda, into neighbouring Tanzania, Uganda, and Congo.

In the early 1990s a group of exiled Tutsis banded together into a group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF’s primary concern was the repatriation of exiled Tutsis into Rwanda. The Hutu government in Rwanda saw the RPF as a direct threat to a supposed “Hutu way of life”. Racist propaganda immediately increased as Rwanda’s Hutu government prepared to fight off the RPF – and thanks to military support from France, the Hutu’s were quite successful at first.

In the years leading up to 1994, government officials complied lists of all Tutsis and moderate Hutus that still lived in Rwanda. A Hutu youth was created (not unlike Hitler youth) and Hutus were brainwashed to see their Tutsi friends and neighbours as enemies of the state.

The genocide started early in the morning on April 7th, 1994. The president of Rwanda was killed when his plane was shot down on its descent into Kigali. Hutu extremists immediately blamed Tutsis and their RPF collaborators for the incident and within hours of the President’s death Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis.

The following 100 days were characterized by the brutal murder of 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Hutus used machetes, garden hoes, hammers, and other blunt objects to murder Tutsis. Although nobody was spared, women and children were primary targets because they represented the ‘future’ of the Tutsi race. Entire families were betrayed and subsequently murdered by their friends and neighbours. All societal bonds that had once brought Rwandans together were ripped to shreds during the genocide.

Worse, the international community did nothing to stop the genocide.  After all, the killing in Rwanda was the result of “primitive tribal warfare”; the West certainly was not implicated in such matters. In fact, during the genocide the United Nations passed a resolution to remove all but 270 troops from Rwanda! Canadian General Romeo Dalliare was among the few who stayed behind. Further, the US Congress openly opposed a Rwandan mission because they wanted to avoid another “Black Hawk Down” incident. We now know that 5000 troops would have been sufficient to stop the genocide. The United Nations only sent in troops after the RPF ended the genocide and took control of the country.

For 100 days in 1994 the world stood by and watched genocide unfold in Rwanda. Not tribal warfare. Not civil war. Genocide.


4 thoughts on “Entry #31 – Sunday July 26th, 2015 — “The Benefits and Pitfalls of a Benevolent Dictatorship”

  1. Jeremy, the heaviness of standing in that spot must have been almost unbearable. I, like most here, did believe that the it was tribal warfare. To be set up by outside forces so as to turn on each other is so horrific it is really difficult to fathom. Do you think Rwandans are aware of how it really went down? What about now, are the tensions still there? One million people slaughtered, it is sickening. I wish that this post was compulsory reading in schools so that our youth would see how easy it is to fall under the spell of propaganda and how catastrophic the result. I have so enjoyed your posts Jeremy and have learned so much but this one…. My heart is broken for the people of Rwanda and I feel your astonishment at the cruelty of the world to watch it happen and do less than nothing to help.
    We just don’t learn, this happened in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, Ukraine. Will it happen again? History says yes and that should make the hair on the back of our necks stand up. A most relatable, amazing account and I thank you for writing it so passionately. On April 7th, every year, I will think of all those Rwandans who lost their lives from now on.


    1. Hi Mel,
      Rwandans are certainly aware of the role that colonialism played in creating genocidal ideology leading up to 1994. Identification cards were immediately abolished after the genocide and today many people do not know (or care for that matter) whether they are Tutsi or Hutu. It is still pretty taboo to talk about the genocide or publicly mourn unless it is between April and July due to the fact that a large number of victims and perpetrators still live among each other. Tensions are not explicit, but still exist. That said, the Rwandan government has come up with a number of innovative ways to ensure revenge killings do not happen.
      The Rwandan Genocide is taught in schools, but usually only at the university level. Many teachers like to focus on the Holocaust because of underlying racism and misunderstanding about how the West is implicated in warfare all around the world. Ironic.


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