Okay, so this is going to be a long one. And the only reason I'm still awake at this hour is because I closed the shop.
During my second year of university I had space for a few electives. My major was declared as economics for one reason: grades. The first year was political science, but as I'm sure you're all aware first year is just general anyway. And it's easier to get 90+ in classes where there's a right answer than classes where there isn't. Not saying my essays sucked, but they never handed out 90's. I was trying get into business school, which was a second entry program after two years and in order to do that I had to beef up my application as hard as possible. And they weren't making it easy. In addition to the high grades, you needed "leadership experience" in extracurricular activities. So I was scheming in-between my full-time course load, student clubs, and trying to get a promotion at my part-time job to find organizations and things I could do to make myself palatable.
And I did a lot of this shit. I was in Nicaragua too, for some reason, before the crackdown. I took a class, international politics, during which the professor told us that the school was offering an experiential learning "research" course to go to Rwanda and it would be entirely paid for by the school. Grant money. I figured, why not? It's going to be in the summer, I'll get to work on a research project, do an essay about the post-genocide reconstruction in the region, and hopefully get experience if I ever decided to transition into some type of career in global development.
Yep, you're right. I had to pay for it. $1500 out the ass.
The class was structured in such a way that we met bi-weekly before the departure date of the actual trip. We spent a lot of time analyzing the history and politics of Rwanda, past and present. Essentially the division between Hutus and Tutsis was largely created by colonization, they weren't so much tribes as they were "social classes" prior to colonization. It was more an identifier of how much stuff you had. You could move between classes if you acquired wealth or property. Post-Belgian colonization however, it was a different story.
One of the main topics we discussed was the gacaca court system that was established following the genocide. It was an ad-hoc judicial system created because it was physically impossible to train that many lawyers and try that many people after the destruction of the country. A large part of what we debated was the effectiveness of the gacaca system and whether the potential for error was worth it in that political climate.
One of the biggest challenges in post-genocide reconstruction is the fact that Rwanda is a centralized state under control of Paul Kagame and his party. There were efforts made to decentralize the government after 2001 but still, Rwanda is essentially a capitalist state under semi-totalitarian control. It's one of the fastest growing economies in the region. It's a safe country, like unreasonably so. And I think most people would say that's a miracle given what happened. There was an opposition party, not "hutu power", but a green party trying to implement a more fair democracy and their leader was murdered. On a local and council level (the topic of my research) social structures are still very totalitarian and you can get in a lot of trouble by stepping out of line. It is very difficult to study people's attitudes in Rwanda for two reasons, 1) people will typically lie or embellish the truth to foreigners and 2) society is very regimented. It doesn't have to be the threat of jail, being "that guy" in your village and local council means you're basically screwed in terms of employment, and survival. And so resistance comes passively, refusing to participate in government-ordained meetings, irreverent compliance, being mute, whatever you can do.
So segregation is illegal in Rwanda. It is not socially acceptable to identify yourself as Hutu or Tutsi. Those distinctions have been removed from all identity documents. You're not allowed to talk about it. A famous story in Rwanda happened about 15 years ago when Hutu militants stormed into Rwanda from the DR Congo and held children hostage in a classroom. When they attempted to divide the children by Hutu and Tutsi, they replied saying "We are neither. We are one Rwandans."
There were some cool people in the class, but we know what the stress of travelling can do to people, especially when you're doing it with complete strangers. I didn't realize how south this was going to go before it was too late.
First day, there was a layover in Amsterdam. Buddy is already hammered in the airport bar. His friend turns to me and says "bro, are you fucking sittin' on that?", referring to a beer. The trip had barely begun and I had to come to the realization that yes, in fact I had been sitting on it. I didn't realize it then, but this was going to be a lot harder than I had originally anticipated.
These people, there were about two or three, were basically drunk the entire trip. There was a lot of infighting. Their God was Doug Ford, and his girlfriend. I basically only talked to like 3 people who were sort of being excluded by the rest of the group. And I didn't necessarily hit it off well with them either, it's just the alternative was an uncomfortable silence. There were a lot of right-wing arguments and anti-Palestine rhetoric was flowing through the buses and hotel rooms. The one drunk dude had ambitions in law enforcement, I think.
The next two weeks were spent travelling across the entire country, following a strict itinerary, meeting with organizations, going to an epic soccer game, meeting genocide survivors (one person I recall fled into the DR Congo when he was a child and returned years later to found a successful tech company). We also painted a house for some lady. We met gacaca court judges. During this process I had to keep everything logged on my blog which I hosted on my website. I'll try to dig it up if I can to maybe expand on this post.
We also went to a lot of genocide memorials, and places Roméo Dallaire was at. The thing about genocide memorials in Rwanda is it's not like visiting Auschwitz. Human skulls, bones, fragments of clothing are all out there in the open. No, not behind a glass case. I mean you're inches away from hundreds of hundreds of dead people with no barrier. It's pretty terrifying. Or seeing open graves that you knew hundreds of people had been thrown into. Not even the Church, which was off-limits in their culture was a safe space from the genocidaires. They weren't afraid of God.
The extent of the human tragedy in Rwanda is beyond comprehension until you've been there. I've met killers, and the families of people they've killed. And they forgave them. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of individuals convicted of murder during the genocide went out to ask for forgiveness from the families of the people whose lives they cut short. And they often got that forgiveness. It was incredible. It was the human spirit.
By the end of this, basically nobody was talking to each other. The professor was pissed at the TA, the TA's friends were pissed at everyone else who was pissed at them. People were deleting each other on Facebook. Blasting "Big Hard Sun" by Eddie Vedder wasn't helping. People were crying. The whole thing was a disaster. The experience was life-changing but it taught me never to travel with strangers ever again. I wasn't allowed to find out why people were upset, I was the outsider.
But the Rwandan lawyers I met were cool. They followed me on Instagram and thanked me for avoiding alcohol and replacing it with Lacroix. I drank on top of the hill in Kigali in a fancy restaurant, in the nicest bar in the entire land overlooking the convention centre (google it) while that guy stole a beer from the restaurant and drank it on the bus ride home. We got on the plane and went back. Back to our world.