Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bring and Braai (with Stephen)

In 2000, Zimbabwe was centre of conversation. A stream of global interest got my Zim buddies excited that perhaps there was going to be change. Then 9/11 happened and the global attention span shifted. Small countries like Rwanda have also captured and lost attention. In the time they have been forgotten they can change dramatically, but be remembered in a different way. Like a nephew you meet again as an adult. I was reintroduced to Rwanda in 2013 when I was looking at businesses there, trying to find ones worth buying shares in. It really has changed. My mo-growing former colleague and friend Stephen had lived and worked there, and considered the country a second home.
Stephen:
Thank you, Trev. Rwanda is indeed a rapidly changing country. I arrived there in 2003, nine years after the genocide, but already there was virtually no obvious evidence of the horrors that had gone before. President Paul Kagame, the controversial figure who is credited with ending the genocide, but also accused of human rights abuses, has established a secure and peaceful environment in the country. The economy, tourist numbers, and human development index have all been rising rapidly. The Rwandan people I found in 2003 were reserved, and the grief under the surface must be immense, but they were also friendly, welcoming and seemingly optimistic for their future.

Trev:
South Africa had a 'Truth and Reconciliation' process led by Desmond Tutu after Apartheid. The idea was that as long as people were completely truthful, the horrors would be put aside. The Rwandan story of people who were neighbours turning on each other, but then somehow being able to figure a way to move forward, is both disturbing and inspiring. Finding a way to balance deep grief, resentment and a desire for vengeance with the question of the best next step is a real challenge. Do you go back regularly? Were there any interesting ways they approached the emotional rebuilding, separately from the obvious benefits of economic progress? Is it still a divided society? As I understand it, the divisions were fabricated as a 'divided and rule' approach.



Stephen:
To answer your last point first, the division almost certainly did exist prior to colonialism - the ruling monarchy was an exclusively Tutsi dynasty, for example, and scholars are divided on whether the Hutu/Tutsi distinction is racial or purely a social one - but it's certainly also true that the Germans from 1894 to 1916, and then the Belgians from 1916 onwards, perpetuated and strengthened the dominance of the Tutsi in order to safeguard their own power. The reconciliation process, including the Gacaca village court system, has gone some way to emulating the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, but it specifically dealt only with Hutu crimes of genocide against the Tutsi, not with alleged abuses by the Tutsi army that now forms the government, so I genuinely don't know whether the Hutu majority now feel happy to be in a peaceful and growing country, or resentful at a perceived new era of Tutsi dominance.

Trev:
I am trying to do more reading about Colonialism. When I did History at school, it was still the tail end of Apartheid. I lived in a 'liberal' area and so many of my teachers did give a more balanced view. But it is always useful relooking at history with the perspective of time. It is interesting how the European powers reinforced many of the hierarchical 'conservative' structures that were in place inhibiting the development of true democracy. I think that is part of the reason for the 'Big Men' problem we experienced in Africa. Perhaps it will only be the generations who aren't hurting any more that will be able to relook at things to get a better understanding. Perhaps there first needs to be an active attempt to patch the wounds, then invest in a reason to make fixing the wounds worth while. Some sort of communal aspiration to a better way.



 

'Big Men, Little People' by Alec Russell

Stephen:
What is particularly interesting is that despite attempting to justify the subjugation of African peoples because of their supposed primitive and savage culture, the colonialists in fact often gave their backing to the social structures that were already in place, as they did with the monarchy in Rwanda. The process of independence was often as badly handled as the colonialism itself though, and many of the African leaders who replaced the departed Europeans essentially perpetuated their style of rule. Rwanda was somewhat different, because the social order was turned on its head at the time of independence around 1960, with the previously downtrodden Hutu rising very rapidly to a position of dominance, with the backing of the outgoing Belgian administration. But this was no democratic righting of old wrongs, it simply swapped the roles of the two groups, with the Tutsi becoming the victims and the Hutu elite, now governing an independent state, the aggressors.

Trev:

The idea of primitive and savage cultures is amusing. I love reading of the fall of Rome to the 'Barbarians'. Nowadays the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) is used as a name for the countries in Southern Europe that are struggling. THESE were the 'founders' of European culture. The division between where culture came from in Greece/Turkey/Persia is also tenuous. Macedonia of Alexander the Great? Genghis' Monglia? The Barbarians were the Scandinavian Germanic blondies who inherited culture from those they defeated. History tends to make a mockery of tribal claims to being more civilised cultures. Turns out civilisation is what we in South Africa used to call a 'Bring and Braai'. You give something to the pot, and you take whatever works.

Stephen:
Here in the West, we consider ourselves to be the kings of civilisation and prosperity within the world, yet in many cases we have forgotten how to be social, and activities such as "Bring and Braai" are few and far between. We live our lives in the rat race, always worrying. In Rwanda, and in sub-Saharan Africa generally, I found a much more social way of living. People in villages typically toil hard growing food each day, but also spend a lot of time socialising and enjoying each other's company. They were very welcoming to me as an outsider too - wherever I went I was sure to find people willing to sit down with me over a "Primus" beer or enjoy a game of pool. The Rwandan villagers have an incredibly hard life of manual labour, and the trappings of poverty are everywhere, from food insecurity to needless death from curable disease. But despite that I genuinely think the "happiness" level is higher than it is in the UK.



Trev:
It is interesting to hold the seemingly conflicting ideas of poverty being a barrier to happiness, and the impoverished holding secrets to what it means to be happy. Sub-Saharan Africa is not just a story of people without money. Rwanda isn't just a story of genocide. Sometimes people just remember the photo of a vulture waiting for a little child to die in their head as 'the image of Africa'. It is indeed a wonderful place and I am a proud African. In our ability to build connections and take the best bits from around the world, I think we are starting to build new ideas of what civilisation is. It gets me very excited.

Stephen:
Although I can make no claim to be an African, I too am proud of my association with the continent, and with the family ties I now enjoy there through my Kenyan wife, whom I met in Rwanda. We visit Kenya every 2-3 years, and I usually try to fit in a few days in Rwanda, catching up with my friends and also the school children that I helped to educate, who are now adults and contributing to the continuing growth of the country. I truly enjoy bringing my experiences to people there, and carrying their often positive outlook on life back home with me, dispelling the "dying child" image wherever I can. I also see another spell of living on the continent in my future, either through work or retirement; it really is a fantastic place.



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