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More Optimism in Rwanda

August 30, 2011

Philip Gourevitch’s New Yorker essay offered a primarily positive look at contemporary Rwanda. In the wake of genocide, the Rwanda Cycling Team represented encouraging steps forward for young men who as children witnessed the destruction of their country. It’s important to try to unpackage optimism and pessimism over the state of contemporary Rwanda, and I think—ultimately—problematic to try to reduce today’s conditions into quantifiable or qualifiable pros and cons. While “history” typically trades in progressive or declensionist narratives, the past rarely does: the past is muddier than that. Historians organize narratives to provide a sense of coherence, electing to put emphasis on points or events that help to answer specific questions.

In trying to explore various perspectives on Rwanda less than two decades removed from the 1994 genocide, I came across Rwanda: History and Hope, co-authored by Margee M. Ensign and William E. Bertrand. A quick glance at the table of contents revealed a foreword from Rwandan president Paul Kagame (and a jacket endorsement to boot), which suggested that the volume might provide a fairly rosy analysis of the state of the country (that and the fact the book was very lightly documented; I would have liked to have seen more footnotes, more data, and a more rigorous defense of their position). My sense is that stressing the positive is the harder project in Rwanda.

Imagine a nation with the highest proportion of women legislators in the world. Imagine a country where a democratically elected president is committed to gender equality and poverty reduction, where urban and rural schools are being wired to the Internet, and where the government is committed to becoming a knowledge-based economy and middle income country by 2020. Imagine that this country is located in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa and that this progress comes in the wake of one of the 20th century’s worst nightmares.

Strong rhetoric, but so they begin. “Rwanda today,” they assert, “presents a model for hope, justice, innovation and human development.” Margee and Bertrand challenge many of the popularly-held beliefs about the genocide—stressing its most ruthless characteristics—to emphasize the remarkable recovery they describe in the book.

Frankly, I have little interest in writing book reviews on this blog, but I do want to use a variety of literature and media to introduce various topics and themes. My hope is not to provide some comprehensive collection of thoughts on Rwanda, but rather to point to a series of ideas that we might necessarily put in concert with each other in order to develop a more careful appreciation of the events, historical drivers, effects, influences, cultures, etc. that shape the Rwanda past, present, and future.

Most of our popular interpretations of Africa are based on limited information or on-the-ground experience. “Darkest Africa” implies a place of mystery and one cloaked in poverty, violence, and chaos. Even Margee and Bertrand stress this. “The terms failed state, AIDS pandemic, and war and conflict are among the most frequently used terms and concept when discussing this large continent, especially in the Western media.” The few examples of hope are frequently dashed by corruption. For my part, my lone visit to Africa consisted of three weeks in Morocco during the fall of 1994; Marrakech and Essouira felt more akin to Europe than any kind of “darkest Africa.” Of course, to suggest that continental affiliation between Morocco and Rwanda—not considering more pertinent historical, geographical, or economic factors—implies an intrinsic relationship is part of the problem, really, isn’t it?

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