On Saturday our entire group ventured out to the Eastern District to visit the Millennium Village. This region was historically forested and fertile but is now the most infertile due to deforestation that occurred in the 1950s. In that time, the Tutsi people (~25% of the population) were sent there by the newly empowered Hutu (~74% of the population) with the hopes that they would die of disease in the jungle. This started Rwanda’s bloodied history of ethnic tension. [note: the other 1% is the Twa, a pygmy people who were largely forest dwellers] The Hutu’s ‘superiority complex’ (a vast oversimplification of the complex ethnic tensions rooted in the Belgium colonialism) was sadly promoted by doctrines taught by Belgian colonists and reinforced by religious teachings by missionaries. This tension resulted in multiple massacres of Tutsi people by Hutu people, which culminated in the 1994 genocide. Starting on April 7th and lasting 100 days, the genocide took the lives of over 1 million Rwandans, the vast majority being Tutsi who were brutally murdered.
On the way to the Millennium Village. Rwanda has a beautiful landscape.
This backstory is pertinent because most things in Rwanda exist against the looming backdrop of the genocide. This is certainly true of the Millennium Village. The genocide displaced 2/3 of the Rwandan people and destroyed the infrastructure, governing system, and economy in general. This Millennium Village was started by the UN as an example of how the Millennium Goals can be reached in places like Rwanda.
At least half of the buildings here seem to have the “tigo,” “Mutzig,” or “Primus” logos and paint colors. Tigo is a cellular provider and the latter two are beer companies.
The UN support has helped tremendously. The village school has doubled in size, now serving over 1,000 students, and the teaching staff has grown (although still rather understaffed by American standards!). As with all Rwandan schools, only English is spoken while at school (this changed from French about 6 years ago).
The school’s enrollment and one of its classrooms, respectively.
The Health Center’s nursing staff (health centers don’t have doctors, only hospitals do) increased from 5 to 19 with the Millennium support. This was accompanied by the addition of a new maternity ward, which has allowed all local births to take place in a professional medical setting rather than in the home.
The health center and some of its lab equipment.
The Village also sponsors co-ops for farmers, artisans, and other skilled workers. These co-ops help the people sell their goods in markets, which helps drive the local economy (historically the economy has involved a lot of subsistence farming). The farm we visited was about 2 hectares and maintained by one man. He had two cows, a couple pigs, a goat, and a few hens. He didn’t have a single power tool to help with the work.
The farm and some of the livestock.
Midway through our day we visited a genocide memorial (one of many in the country). This one was located at what used to be a Catholic church where 11,000 Tutsi were murdered in just 1-2 days. It was a sobering experience. The pews in the sanctuary are filled with the clothes of victims, and the altar bears the weapons used- spears, guns, machetes, and blunt sticks. Beneath the sanctuary, there is a glass case housing the skulls of hundreds of victims, a graphic reminder of the gruesome atrocities committed at this site and throughout the country. Outside, there were stairs descending down to a mass grave located beneath a cement slab. It is impossible to encapsulate the anguish and anger the site evoked. Again, there were piles of bones of unidentified victims. Many of the skulls were shattered by blunt objects, sliced by machete, or bored through by a bullet. No one left the memorial unaffected.
The memorial- no photos allowed inside.
How could people be so filled with hate that they could gruesomely kill so many people? How could a person kill his neighbor? How could a father kill his wife and children because they were of a ‘different’ ethnic group? Where was the rest of the world when this was happening? And why does this keep happening throughout history (the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, Cambodian genocide, and many others) with some being as recent as just a decade or two ago? I am convinced that I am no better than the Rwandans I have met. Does that mean that I too am capable of such heinous actions under the right social priming?
Although the emotions still pervade my mind even now, they were quickly countered by the wonder and awe I experienced upon our visit to a ‘reconciliation village.’ At this site and many others like it throughout the country, victims and perpetrators of the genocide live together. The nation pursued an avenue of reconciliation over retaliation, which involved the daunting challenges of people forgiving each other and forgiving themselves. I desperately want to learn more about the social forces that helped bring about this largely successful reconciliation, and why it has not occurred after other conflicts. But the wonder and awe wasn’t over for the day.
As it happened, it was also the last Saturday of the month. In Rwanda, that means the day is reserved for Umuganda, or “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” The tradition started in 1995, the first year following the genocide. It is a day where Rwandans come together to improve their communities through activities like picking up trash or even building new homes. We met up with one community that was building mud-brick houses for refugees from Tanzania. These were actually refugees of the genocide from 20 years ago that are just now returning to their homeland. The event is an impressive showing of national unity and pride. I am amazed and perplexed at how it was first instituted, especially so quickly after the genocide when tensions between ethnic groups were high. But it has undoubtedly helped with the reconciliation process. I am interested to see how the model can be used in different communities throughout the world.
It was a day filled with confusion, anger, and amazement at the genocide and the events that have taken place since. On Sunday, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial and learned more about the history preceding and following the genocide. Even with more context, I still cannot fully comprehend the events that transpired. Rwandans, too, seem to struggle with their past, though they have made tremendous strides in terms of economic development and social reconciliation. These intertwined advancements have been significantly influenced by the introspection encouraged by the nation each year during the 100 days following April 7th, which commemorate the genocide.
Again, no pictures allowed inside.
In my next post I’ll talk about our visit to a local hospital—the people we met, the equipment we saw, and how differs from the hospitals most of us have seen. Stay tuned!