Wednesday, June 11. Kigali.
Rwanda is one of Africa’s tiniest countries and also its most densely populated. It’s the size of Vermont or Maryland, with the population of Chicago – 10 million people. Given what the country endured, I’m amazed at the orderliness and functionality of Kigali. The streets are clean — plastic bags are outlawed – and traffic isn’t horrendous as in most African cities. Tourism is booming, health insurance is nationalized and the per-capita gross domestic product has almost tripled since 1994.
Fourteen years ago, Kigali was decimated, its homes, schools and hospitals trashed. In a May 2009 New Yorker piece, Gourevitch remembered seeing Rwanda one year after the genocide ended: “The country was … blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prisons crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty.”
Few of Kigali’s pre-genocide residents live in the city today. Instead, you’re more likely to find the once-displaced Tutsi refugees. Beginning with the first anti-Tutsi violence in the late 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled Rwanda for Kenya, Congo, parts of Europe and even the U.S. Half a million were living in Uganda alone. But when Kagame’s Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the genocide, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi exiles returned to their homeland – roughly the same number of people massacred in the 100-day killing spree.
On the city’s major commercial strip, men wear suits and ties or at least dress shirts and slacks. No jeans, no sneakers. A Rwandan cell phone costs me $50. Calls to the United States are relatively cheap but one needs to frequently buy phone cards to boost the number of available minutes. You scratch the card, just like a lottery ticket, which reveals a code on the back that you then keyboard into your touch pad.
Instead of taking a taxi back to Shirley’s house I flag down a Moto driver. These are the young men on motor scooters, licensed by the government, who function as alternate taxis – but charge roughly one fifth what a taxi does. You mount the back of the scooter and the driver hands you a helmet with visor (required by law and actively enforced).
Shirley’s ranch-style home, like most of the larger homes in Kigali, is surrounded by a large concrete wall and protected 24 hours a day by guards. She has a housekeeper/cook, Yolande.
One wing of the house is occupied by Shirley’s office and bedroom, the other by four bedrooms, all rented. That’s where I am. Tupo, a sophisticated, very funny Malawi woman, just 23, is my favorite. She has a crush on the charismatic, ectomorphic president Paul Kagame, and adoringly refers to him as “Number One.” There’s also an Indo-English woman, Angie, and three U.S. college students, Emma Clippinger, Emily Morell and Julie Carney, who share a room across the hall.
They’ve created Gardens for Health International, a fantastic project that acquires land and builds cooperative gardens to grow nutritional food for HIV/AIDS patients. The gardens are maintained and cultivated by people with HIV/AIDS, who receive an income. What they’ve done is amazing, especially given that all three are undergraduates: Emma at Brown, Emily and Julie at Yale. Go to Gardens for Health. Also: Washington Post. I visit the Kigali Memorial Center, a low-key but haunting memorial to the genocide. Very few people there. The exhibits form a circle and the last one is devoted to recovery. I know the basic history from reading I’ve done recently but it’s still horrifying, heartbreaking. Parents forced to kill children, women raped by HIV+ militia so they would die from the virus. Church pastors, intimidated by Hutu powers, who gathered congregations so they could be killed en masse.
One photo showed the manacled chief architect of the genocide, escorted from a tribunal by a policeman. What’s striking is how ordinary he looks: glasses, dark suit. He could be one of the Rotarians from last night. The banality of evil.