When I told friends that I was going to Rwanda their reaction was an almost uniform: "How horrible!" Of course, their view of Rwanda was based on the terrible genocide of 1994 that left an estimated 850,000 dead and a country with deep psychosocial scars behind in its wake.
But when I visited in late January, I saw a very different environment from what they had pictured. The first thing you might notice about Rwanda is its majestic beauty. The country is known as the land of 1,000 hills and no name could be more apt. Kigali, the capital city, is a city of hills. Everywhere you go there are stunning vistas of the magnificent landscape.
Then you notice the cleanliness of the country. In Kigali, there is a low volume of traffic, little congestion, and consequently far less air pollution. And growing out of this pristine atmosphere are the visible signs of economic growth -- the construction of buildings and roads all around you.
Speaking to aid workers in Rwanda, you find more grounds for optimism. Government and development professionals have closely aligned goals. This was probably most clearly signaled when the World Bank listed Rwanda as the "World's Top Reformer" for business and entrepreneurs in their 2010 Doing Business report . Evidence of reform is common: for example, along roadsides there are billboards with numbers to call to report acts of corruption. On Saturday morning, I saw dozens of people out in their communities, through government run volunteer programs, involved in community reconstruction, cleaning up streets and repairing buildings. CHF International's own team , who run a consortium of local partners involved in providing social services and economic development for people affected by HIV/AIDS funded by USAID and PEPFAR, have a similar positive relationship with civil society and government.
It sounds good and it is good. As you pass through the country, it is hard to imagine that 17 years before, these same streets in this country the size of Hawaii were the scene of one of the worst human slaughters of the late 20th century.
As you talk to Rwandans the scale of the genocide becomes clear; it comes across not in abstract numbers, but lives lost, pain suffered and families shattered. It is hard to find anyone who has not been personally affected by the violence. For some, it remains too painful a topic for conversation. For those who can discuss it, it is nevertheless emotionally overwhelming. Although the government is made up of Hutus and Tutsis, all must remember with horrific clarity the events of 1994 and the tensions that led up to it. The first memories of many young adults must be the traumas of violence and displacement. The signs of this collective experience are clearly visible in the Kigali Memorial Centre and other places of remembrance that many Rwandans visit regularly, as they struggle to come to terms with what happened, and in the week-long commemoration of the genocide that takes place in April each year.
It is hard to imagine that the society in Rwanda is not a deeply damaged one, much less that divisions caused by such recent events in Rwanda can have disappeared already. While there is a kind of serene quietness to virtually all Rwandans I met, it is hard not to believe that there must be residual hatred just below the surface. And while Rwandans may be reluctant to discuss it, the conversation among foreign visitors around hotel bars and swimming pools inevitably turns to: could it happen again? Will the people feel justice is served by the ongoing investigations and trials of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that seeks to prosecute those responsible for the genocide? Can the psychosocial programs implemented in the country possibly be enough? Can the visible benefits of cooperation and stability overcome the grief and rage that must still be felt after the genocide? Like many countries in Africa, the population is young -- 42.7% are aged between 0 and 14; can the fact that there will soon be a majority of the population born after the genocide mean the future will have no reflection of the past, even while the survivors pay homage at the memorial and testify during the commemorations as a way of saying 'never again'?
I left Rwanda admiring the Rwandan people for their industriousness and dedication to their country's future. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to put oneself in their shoes and ask 'how could I forgive what happened?' We can only hope the benefits of forgiveness are strong enough to assure them of the good future they surely must desire. The progress I witnessed and the very significant strides Rwanda has made in its development give reason for hope.