Maura Derrane in Rwanda: Hope rising from the ashes of genocide
The word genocide is, sadly, something that we’ve become all too familiar with over recent decades.
The Balkans, in my lifetime, was closest to home but probably the one that stands out the most for me was the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
I flew in here overnight with Irish aid agency Bóthar, which has been operating here for 20 years now, sending in-calf Irish heifers and other income and food producing animals giving people who otherwise have a daily struggle for survival a solid and sustainable future.
It’s over two decades ago since the genocide but to this day the images are embedded in my consciousness and the consciousness, I guess, of anyone who saw or read coverage of the carnage.
The world recoiled as images were brought to us of bodies strewn by roadside, in fields, in the streets of cities, towns and villages.
Even people slaughtered in their hundreds in churches, sacred places where they took refuge and were expecting to feel safe from the marauding gangs but were mercilessly slaughtered. Nothing at all sacred.
It was a bloodletting that reached a level never seen before in the world, even in a century of two world wars and other horrors like Cambodia, Armenia and, indeed, the Balkans.
Think of the numbers. Between 800,000 and one million people slaughtered in 90 days in a country the size of Munster. It’s thought to be fastest killing spree in the history of the world.
No bombs. Just machete and guns. And, adding to the horror, neighbours and friends turning on each other in a moment, unprompted and unprovoked.
As incredulous as that still is to take in, there’s a huge positive to take in – a remarkable story of recovery that is seeing it being held up as an international model for reconciliation.
Today, Rwanda is rated among the safest, if not the safest, country in Africa.
The capital city, Kigali, where we landed overnight and where the bloodbath began is now immaculate. Spotlessly clean. A sparkling new convention centre lights up the night sky of a city sprawling across many hills. There’s a sparkling new shopping area.
As we travelled the short distance from the airport to our accommodation, there’s a tangible sense of energy and noise from the streets.
Its economy is among the fastest growing in Africa yet many of its people remain incredibly poor, surviving on the equivalent of €10 per month in a country where a loaf of bread will still cost €1.
The developed world did not cover itself in glory as the bloodletting took hold but it has had a huge hand in the response.
And Ireland, I’m proud to say, was among those to get stuck in.
Bóthar has been making an incredible impact with some of the poorest families.
While the economy is on the move, making brave forays into technology, in particular, with a goal of becoming an African tech hub, agriculture remains the number one industry and the cow is sacred – much celebrated in traditional song and dance.
So when Bóthar comes bearing the gift of an Irish cow, which produces six times the yield of the local breeds, you might have an understanding of just how richly welcomed these Irish donations are.
As Bóthar’s representative in the field here Aideen O’Leary – a remarkable young woman from a famed sporting Cork family – says it’s equivalent to a lotto win.
Bóthar has focussed, in particular, on genocide widows. The majority of those killed were men but up to 500,000 women were also raped as part of the horror purge. They bore a huge brunt of the brutality.
The recipients are fully trained in advance and when the cows arrive, they come ‘in-calf’ and each year Bóthar returns to put the animals back in calf again. There’s a lovely caveat as well in the deal; the first born female must be passed onto another family.
The intervention puts a source of protein on the table that they would never otherwise be able to enjoy and they sell the excess at local markets, netting a tidy profit and allowing the women to educate their children and even build new homes.
Today I’ll get to meet some of those families that Bóthar and Irish people have reached.
And I will look forward to bringing back testimony to those Irish people who have generously donated – either farmers donating actual cows and other animals or people donating money to buy them – of the difference they have made.
It’s a phoenix from the ashes story and there’s a sense of pride that the Irish, as with agencies like Bóthar, have been at the vanguard of that response.
Maura Derrane is in Rwanda with aid agency Bóthar