Most Americans’ perception of Rwanda, Africa, stems from the 2004 Academy Award-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” movie and images of barefoot African children running around in American hand-me-down clothes. Until last summer, that was my perception, too.
Then I had the life-changing opportunity to study abroad for five weeks in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. The college program focused on genocide and international law, but I took away from those five weeks so much more than just what I learned in the classroom.
For those who aren’t familiar with that beautiful country, Rwanda suffered a campaign of genocide that was orchestrated by the government and that began 20 years ago today, on April 7, 1994.
The ethnic majority, the Hutus, committed mass killings of the ethnic minority, the Tutsis, for three long months — mostly using machetes and other farm tools.
Neighbors killed neighbors, doctors killed patients, even husbands killed wives. It is estimated that approximately 800,000 lives were lost.
The genocide came to an end when the RPF — Tutsi rebels from Uganda — took over the capital city, put a stop to the killings and reinstated a new government.
Over the past 20 years Rwanda has become the success story of Africa. Rwanda has sustained economic and infrastructural growth under the leadership of current president and RPF-leader Paul Kagame.
Today, some perpetrators of the genocide remain imprisoned, while others have been released, and many were never imprisoned for their actions. In any given village, perpetrators of genocide live and work alongside victims of genocide who lost parents, spouses, children and often their own limbs.
Once we arrived in Kigali, I quickly noticed the hills that went as far as I could see and the large number of people on the streets. I noticed the armed policemen on every street corner. I also noticed how smoothly the ride to our guesthouse was because Kigali has paved roads that are extremely well-kept.
What I found most remarkable during my time in Rwanda was not the beautiful hills or the enormous number of people at any given market or even the amount of time you had to wait on your food at a restaurant (three hours at least).
What I found most remarkable was the kindness of the Rwandan people and their ability to forgive.
Jean Guy, a Rwandan man who gave a lecture in one of our classes, talked about how his uncle, aunt and five cousins were killed in the genocide.
“If I go and kill the man who killed my family, what have I done? Will other members of their family come to kill me?” he said.
Throughout my time there, I met numerous Rwandan people whose stories and friendships have impacted my life in an unforgettable way.
Jackson and Benoit, workers at the guesthouse where we stayed, quickly became close friends with whom I still keep in touch. For every question I had about Rwanda, they had another question about life in America.
Even the kindness of strangers was overwhelming.
One morning we went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Butare, which was especially intense because bodies had been preserved and put on display for visitors. You could see the looks on the victims’ faces, the limbs missing and, worst of all, the small skeletons of the children who died in Murambi.
After going in the room that was designated for children, I stood there for a few minutes. I guess I had a disturbed look because the guide put his hand on my shoulder and asked ME if I was OK.
Here was this Rwandan man, who was probably at least 10 years old during the genocide and who probably lost many friends and family members in 1994, asking ME if I was OK.
Me, who grew up sheltered and couldn’t even comprehend what these people had been through. Me, who didn’t know a single person who was a victim of murder, much less know wide-scale genocide. Me, who didn’t even know about the Rwandan genocide before last year.
No, I was not OK.
From Jackson and Benoit, to my weekend host family, to the people on buses who helped me get where I needed to go, to the guide in Murambi whose name I didn’t even know, I was constantly humbled by the kindness and strength of every single human being I met in Rwanda.
There are many differences between Americans and Rwandans. We eat different foods, speak different languages and worship in different ways.
Rwandans have to face on a daily basis the other Rwandans who killed their friends and family, while our main concern is what we’re having for dinner or the amount of work we have to do this week.
We Americans shouldn’t feel guilty for not having been through such things. We shouldn’t be in a constant state of depression because other people have been through harder things than we have.
But we should be aware of what happened.
Many Americans don’t know about the Rwandan genocide. They didn’t pay much attention when it was happening, and we don’t really learn about it in school now.
We don’t know what our government did (or more precisely didn’t do) to stop it. But we should.
Because if we don’t know about it, we cannot do anything to prevent it from happening again.
Emma Pardue of Jonesville is a journalism and political science student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is Stephen Harris’ cousin. Stephen’s columns will resume next week.