Brow furled and concern in their voice, “Is it safe?”
That was the most common reaction I received when I told people about going to Rwanda on a media tour with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. I knew that under their concerned and quizzical faces, they were thinking about the 1994 genocide when nearly a million people were killed in only a few short weeks.
Admittedly, that was my first thought too when, out of the blue one evening, Amanda, the communications person from CFB called and asked if I was interested in going. “Give me a few days to think about it,” I said, as I simultaneously Googled “Rwanda” to check out the safety of the central African country that’s a third of the New Brunswick. No current news stories came up and just about all of the other hits were connected with the infamous genocide, where, in April 1994, years of ethnic tensions boiled over in a state-orchestrated genocide. The nearly one million dead included approximately three quarters of the Tutsi population who were brutally slaughtered in only 100 days. Remains are still being found today around the country and therefore, a mass grave remains open at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.
We learned that following the genocide, Rwanda struggled with how to deliver justice and punish perpetrators, and at the same time, help survivors heal. In 2002, the government launched the Gacaca (pronounced Gah-cha-cha) Courts, a community restorative justice system. Survivors, perpetrators and witnesses in villages gathered together with a locally-chosen judge and talked about what happened between April and June, 1994, establishing a truth, and eventually, likely still, healing.
One of our hosts told us that in the years after the genocide, all high school graduates continued with two further years of school with peace and reconciliation learning. The education continues today, but since today’s parents have gone through training in the years just after the genocide, it’s now a two week program. The divide between the Hutus and Tutsis is a thing of the past. One Rwandan told us it’s illegal to ask another their heritage. “We are Rwandans,” he told us.
As for safety, the city and country seems to have that well in hand. The tribal tensions have apparently dissolved after extensive reconciliation that continues today. In Kigali, there is a police officer at every intersection. Larger shopping malls and department stores have security at the doors, checking bags just before visitors pass through metal detectors. Where many African countries come to a halt once the sun sets, our hosts assured us it’s safe to be out after dark while in Rwanda.
Kigali is often cited as one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Plastic bags are banned – customs officers seize and shred them at the airport if they catch you with one – and in the days we spent driving through the city, it was common to see workers sweeping sidewalks or collecting litter.
The country also practices umuganda, when, on the last Saturday of each month, neighbourhoods come together for a community clean-up. Everyone between the ages of 18 and 65 is obligated to participate in umuganda.
It was certainly a country I felt safe in the entire time I was there. And the level of cleanliness is something to be proud of.
The sense of pride the Rwandans have is hard earned and well deserved. Over the 10 days I spent in the country, dozens of residents often ended conversations sending me and the rest of the group off with a request that we become ambassadors for the country and tell the world about what’s happening in Rwanda. Sometimes they were referring to the hunger and drought in the rural areas. Other times, they were referring to tours or hotel stays. Either way, it was always said with a smile.