A Journey to Rwanda: Backgrounder

Recent articles in the New York Review of Books and, in the more popular media, a “special report” on Rwanda in U.S. News & World Report are but a few examples in the media of a growing wave of American interest in the small central African country of Rwanda. Once only of interest to cultural anthropologists, political scientists, development experts and others interested in the origins and outbreak of the 1994 genocide (which killed upwards of one million people), Rwanda has attracted the attentions and interests of businesses, tourists, and churches, all called, it seems, to understand Rwanda in ways that the social scientists have not.

I am going to be catching a bit of that wave myself, as I join a couple of faculty colleagues who are leading a small group of students on a two-week research tour of Rwanda. This series of entries will be part travelogue and part research diary, as we visit a number of projects and programs involved in Rwanda’s post-genocide reconstruction and development.

As a political scientist who worked as an international development “professional” in a previous life, I have many reasons to be interested in looking at the supposedly remarkable “comeback” (many evangelicals call it a miraculous rebirth) of this country from the horrors of civil war and unbelievably brutal killing that took place in 1994. All of the conventional wisdom about post-conflict justice, reconciliation and rebuilding seems to be in abeyance in Rwanda. How can a society that experienced such atrocity so recently be in such good shape today? Such a turn-around seems remarkable in any case. For an African nation, it seems unprecedented.

During our two-week visit, we will be visiting a variety of project sites and communities working in such areas as micro-credit, education for children orphaned by the genocide, drilling for water, building the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and addressing the challenges of HIV/AIDS. These projects and programs are supported by a diverse cast of characters–from traditional village-based development programs to market-based entrepreneurs to evangelical Christian churches. Many of these are supported by groups in the United States who see in Rwanda a unique opportunity to do some good in the world. Of course, the social scientist in me wants to critically examine and explore what the elements of success in Rwanda might be, and what costs–if any–are attendant. Have “traditional” development and “Western-style” notions of justice, democratic governance and human rights really failed? Or is Rwanda such a unique case that the models we use to think about these things simply do not apply?

A brief example (and one that I will be interested in exploring in-country) might illustrate what I’m talking about. Central to the post-genocidal political discourse in Rwanda is a strong, decidedly post-colonial nationalism. But it is not simply post-colonial (meaning “against the West”)–it is also post-ethnic. One article mentions the importance of being “Rwandan first,” and avoiding appeals to ethnic or racial identity. As many know, the genocide and explanations of it are deeply entangled in a discourse of ethnic hatred–much of which has been challenged by a variety of experts and observers in the years following the genocide. But to many around the world–as well as Rwandans themselves–the genocide was carried out largely by Hutu against Tutsi. It was also carried out by neighbor against neighbor. The new post-ethnic discourse of Rwandan identity–a true sense of nationalism–ostensibly has been key to Rwanda’s ability to “move on.” Some wonder whether this “collective amnesia” is sustainable. After all, despite the fact that the economy is growing, armed conflict has been halted (especially between Rwanda and groups still based in the neighboring war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo), and Rwanda is the safest and least corrupt country in Africa, it still has one of the world’s highest population densities, and 95 percent of its people still engage in subsistence farming. If, as Paul Magnarella suggests, it was the cauldron of population pressures and land scarcity that ultimately sat at the heart of the killing in 1994, can the healing and reconciliation that the Anglican “Bishop of Rwanda,” John Rucyahana writes about in his recent book hold in the long term?

These are among the many issues that I hope our visit will help us to explore in some depth. As I understand it, I will have fairly regular access to the internet during most of our visit, so I hope to post stories and observations fairly regularly. If that doesn’t work out, I will save my entries and post them in the order and frequency with which they were composed, and post them after our return in early July.

Comments and observations are always welcome.


~ by de cive on June 22, 2007.

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