Maura Derrane in Rwanda: Signing off from Rwanda with hope
‘Ndi umunyaRwanda’ – I am Rwandan.
This statement, to those who have not had the opportunity to experience the Rwandan story like I have this week, would probably appear to be no more than a statement of place.
But in this most emotive of places, today it’s a statement of scarcely believable reconciliation.
Across just 100 days in 1994, this stunning country that is no more than the size of Munster was gripped by the fastest killing spree in the history of the world. One million slaughtered in a horrific genocide that would see neighbour set upon neighbour.
Hutus against Tutsis; an ethnic divide created by early 20th century European colonialism. Same people, same colour, same place. Even same culture.
But as I leave Rwanda after an unforgettable week here with Irish aid agency Bóthar, it’s the bridging of that divide in the 23 years since the unimaginable horror that I’m most struck by.
And ‘Ndi umunyaRwanda’ is the essence of it. A powerful declaration of reconciliation.
I am neither Hutu nor Tutsi. I am Rwandan!
It’s more than a phrase. It’s a philosophy, embedded in the educational system and psyche of the young from the off. Not just breaking down lines of division but making sure they don’t exist.
‘Ndi umunyaRwanda’ has been one of the great cornerstones for this remarkable recovery, but there are many other pillars on which this country is rebuilding.
Not least among them is how they mark those 100 days when a blood blanket covered this beautiful nation as the rest of the world more or less closed its eyes.
Across the country, in villages and towns, there are permanent, memorials to the genocide.
Almost a quarter of a century later, they are unrelenting in trying to find the remains of their disappeared. In recent weeks, in the south of the country, a community packed into a church to show their solidarity with the latest family to get some degree of closure.
It was one of a number of churches during the genocide where, infamously, thousands took refuge, naively thinking they would be protected. A place of worship but nowhere was sacred. Some of those churches today are also memorials, with machetes, guns and other items used to kill thousands left as a reminder. Slaughter to remembrance; it’s some distance to travel.
A large portion of the nation’s 10 million population grew up post genocide, born into reconciliation, but for the older generation, forgiveness is hard. Yet, for their children and children’s children, they commit to reconciliation and admit it openly.
Away from the reconciliation there’s much else to be admired about the country of a thousand hills.
Those hills seem to roll for ever, lush with greenness and patterned with rice, coffee and tea plantations.
The climate that Bóthar’s cows and other animals arrive into from Ireland is surprisingly temperate. As we prepare to leave, the rainy season is starting to sprinkle its first drops and yet the soils remain fertile.
The economy is among the fastest growing in Africa. There’s a stated ambition and policy to become the Singapore of Africa.
Another surprise are the streets; though the Rwandan terracotta dust permeates everywhere, there’s no waste to be seen.
It’s another part of the reconciliation; different professions dedicating time each year to community service – typically street cleaning. Everyone participating in rebuilding Rwanda.
Prison time is also restorative as inmates labour on emerging new municipal buildings.
Few want to emigrate. There’s a determination to stay and continue with the remarkable rebirth.
On a lighter aspect, you even have to admire a policy of holding all heavy duty vehicles outside the capital city of Kigali for rush hour. Keeping it calm.
And it’s remarkably so. The streets team with people yet the sense of safety surrounds. And the crime rates confirm this.
There’s a gender equality programme that’s making huge strides. Transparency is also high on the agenda. And much more besides.
But there remains a long road ahead, in particular when it comes to eradicating poverty.
By our own standards, the poverty is abject.
This is where Bóthar is making its mark, transforming lives through donations of cows and other income and food producing animals, gifts from the Irish public.
I’ve seen the impact it is making. I’ve seen the extra impetus it is giving in the rebuilding of this nation of hope.
I’m heartened by the experience and proud to see us on the ground making a difference.
But, like the road ahead for Rwanda, Bóthar, too, has much work to do.
But, with the generosity of the Irish people behind them, they can continue to add to this remarkable Rwandan reconciliation.