A recent trip to Rwanda again brought to light how we take things for granted.
Rwanda, as I’ve said before is a place too good to be true and long may it last. There are problems as with any country and still scars from the genocide 23 years ago with people still needing to be reintegrated into communities as they are released from prison etc. Where are the Nelson Mandela’s of the world practising forgiveness when you need them most? I can’t help but think too, of the importance of handshakes in building relations. In Africa, we have a three-hold shake symbolising solidarity (although others exist too), but a Muslim friend recently explained to me that the shaking of hands – ie the passing of hands against each other briefly folding fingers around is in effect a way of offering forgiveness for past misdemeanours – purposeful or not. What a lovely thought and another friend – Christian – shared with me his thoughts: simply writing For-I-give.
In Rwanda, I’m hesitant to say I’m involved in the aid industry, but truth be told, I am. I cringe knowing what I know about most aid agencies and hope the work I do is true to my principles and beliefs. I was horrified to hear a friend tell me he’s applying for two jobs – both with aid agencies – one British, one Australian – as they are offering double his Rwandan salary for similar work he is currently doing for a semi-state company. How can any country develop self-sustainability when market prices are so inflated? In addition, there is talk of putting a tax on second-hand clothing – a staple supply. The reason? To protect or encourage the local clothing industry. Surely the answer is to find ways to reduce the cost of locally made items and basic materials such as kitengi (cloth)?
Whilst all of this was happening/being spoken about in Kigali, a short drive away in one of the neighbouring rural areas of the capital, the schools don’t have electricity, the pupils are crammed 5 to a desk which should take 3, the teachers young and mostly enthusiastic, are unable to teach their subject English as they can barely speak it themselves. These classrooms are better equipped and built than many I saw in Tanzania, but are still a huge way off from what we take from granted in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere. The staffroom consists of a concrete floor and everyone sitting around huge big tables with chunky wooden chairs. No clock on the wall – a standard basic in every classroom or training room in England.
A flashing light caught my attention – a teacher was taking photos on his phone. Further investigation revealed that of the 9 or so teachers in the school who do double shifts of teaching (7.20am-11.30am; 1pm-5pm), 3 have smart phones. Rwanda is a classic case of the technological divide. So much can be done online and throughout Kigali Wi-Fi is generally present, however, not all are able to access it. This is not only the case in Rwanda, the same can be found in Tanzania, Malawi and many other African counries.
Not too far out of town, one gets the ‘untarmac’ roads letting you know you’re in the countryside. It’s quite surprising how close to town these areas really are. Managing these in ‘normal’ times is one thing, but I shudder thinking how people do so in the downpours we had whilst I was there. Even those travelling on tarmac found it treacherous. One can’t take the sun for granted on a daily basis, even in March, but at least the sun does shine more frequently in Africa than in Britain.
This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.
I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.
One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).
But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.
As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.
My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.
This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for motherwhich links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).
I came upon the book whilst researching for the commissioned article on Ruanda-Urundi during World War 1. Knowing I would be visiting Rwanda, I decided to leave reading the whole book until I was there. I’m not sure if it’s better to read a book about a place when you are there or before you arrive, but on this occasion I’m pleased I took it with me. As I met with friends and travelled around Kigali and down to Butare/Huye (where the first school and university in Rwanda was built), so the names and places mentioned in the book became real. But what I hadn’t realised until I dared to show my Rwandan friend the book, that the author, Louise, is today Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Her story reflects that of many who experienced the genocide – the differences will are in the detail of events and the horrors – and survived. They haven’t given up! Despite all that fellow country men and women did to each other, it is evident that there is a significant section of the population which hasn’t given up on trying to make their country a better place for all. I’m not naive enough to think that it has been and will be smooth sailing, but there is definitely something about Rwanda which I haven’t experienced in any other African country – part of me found it too ordered, clean and new (most of Kigali is only ten years old), whilst another part of me found the interaction with and between people who had been educated in different parts of the world refreshingly open, honest and tolerant of ‘otherness’. I felt a true equal.
The resilience of Africans was brought home when we met with a young Burundi woman wo was taking refuge with her grandmother in Kigali. Talking to her, you would have no idea of all the horrors that country is currently experiencing. Concerns and worry are kept private and life as it happens is taken for what it is and enjoyed when it can be.
I imagine that after World War 1, many Africans who had experienced the horrors of that conflict reacted in much the same way and got on with life – reconciling with those who had been ‘on the other side’ in so many ways (if only a few other African countries would take a leaf out of these reconciling books!). The difference however, is that while WW1 has disappeared from local memory, I don’t think the genocide will. My reason? There are too many memorials to those affected by the genocide whilst only a few photos, part of a building (the Kigali prison) and a few descendants remain to remind those who search of the presence and impact of WW1. Records (memorials and monuments) of the past play an important role in reminding us of where we have come from; the good and bad. They reflect who we are today and can serve to remind us of attitudes and times we don’t want to return to.