April 7th is the International Day for Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. If you read about Africa in the news, you’ll certainly find lots of reminders of the horrible events of those infamous days in 1994. You’ll probably read a lot about tragedy, death, heartbreak and loss. You’ll hear about generations of rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi, about past genocides and the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo…
I don’t want to give a history lesson here; but I think that it is important to put things into their proper perspective as well. There is no Hutu or Tutsi. There are Rwandan people. These quasi-scientific terms were constructed (in their modern form) by Belgian “scientists” who tried to put simplistic labels on a complex culture. As happened all too often in colonial history, white rulers didn’t understand (nor did they care to) local cultures, ethnic groups or indigenous systems of rule. So, they created categories which made sense to them. Rwandans were categorized by facial features and those who most resembled whites won. It is as simple and sick as that. Tutsi came to mean tall with fine features and Hutu came to mean those with more “Negro” features.
The truth of the matter is that for Rwandans, the terms had been economic in nature. Both groups spoke the same language, had the same religions, intermarried and lived not just side by side; but together. Hutu married Tutsi and vice-versa with no stigma attached.
It is the social Darwinist pseudo-scientists who created the hell suffered by the millions of beautiful Rwandan people so many years later. By instituting IDs which separated the two categories of people and attaching power and status to these groupings, they decided the fate of a nation.
I want it made clear that I am not blaming the average Belgian man or woman who is sitting in Liege or Brussels today reading this blog post. I do though think that the most important part of dialog is honesty. It is only through honesty that we can move forward and build a strong Africa. So, now that we have the truth on the table, I think it will help to frame the Rwanda that I know more clearly.
Over the past 10 years, I have met some of the most wonderful Rwandan women and girls. Most of these women are genocide survivors in one way or another. Some are girls born from rape during the genocide. Initially, it is how I saw them: as victims. But, they are not victims! I don’t mean to say this in the glib “they aren’t victims, they are survivors” kind of way that we hear so often.
Let me be precise: They are not victims, they are heroines. These women reacted to their horrible circumstances with the kind of grace, honor and integrity that most of us only read about in fairytales. They might be poor or physically disabled; but they are beacons for the rest of the world. Their ability to overcome such circumstances is a great feat. But, they didn’t stop there. They didn’t want to just survive. They wanted to help others survive. They didn’t want to just eat; they wanted to ensure their neighbors had food too.
Women like Béatrice Mukansinga, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Jaqueline Murekatete and thousands of others whose names we might never hear…. Each of them has played an integral role in the healing of their nation. They have lent their voices, their homes, their hands and their courage to help other women and children rebuild their lives and their nation.
I must, as an African woman, give credit to the leadership of Paul Kagame who insisted as soon as he took power that the old labels would have to be shed, put back into the box they came from. It is so easy to use name-calling and accusations to keep power. We see it not only across the African continent; but throughout the world: Democrats are evil and lazy. Republicans hate the poor and are devils. The followers of this faction are seen murdering those of another. In the case of Rwanda, it would have been so very easy to seek vengeance above all else. Yet, the Rwandan people instead said “No more!” This decision was made despite receiving no help from the rest of the world, despite the fact that their nation had no infrastructure left and no courts to try offenders in and yes, despite the blood still running in the streets and the bodies still littering the towns and countryside. Instead, they decided to return to the traditional values, ideals and courts of their common ancestors.
Rwandan people are a beacon for all of Africa. We’ve seen genocides in many nations (Cambodia, Armenia, Darfur, and Germany are but a few examples). We all clearly understand the potential for evil in man. But, Rwandans are my heroes; because they showed us the beauty that humankind is capable of, even under the most horrid of circumstances. And to the people of Rwanda, to my sisters whom I love so, I will be eternally grateful.
I know so many who work so hard against really difficult odds like post-traumatic stress syndrome, amputated limbs and broken hearts… just to build something beautiful for the children they have taken in after losing their own. These women are my heroes. Remember them today and please join me in taking a moment today to say a prayer for them to have the strength to continue working toward their dream of building a strong, safe and happy life for themselves and their children.
A piece of my heart belongs to the Rwandan people. God bless them!
If you want to join these courageous, heroic Rwandan women to accomplish their dreams, stop by MamaAfrika.com and learn how!