Flunky In The Broken Heart Of Africa

They say that just like your first romance, you never really get over your first job. My first job was on the African desk. And for some reason, Africa has been on my mind a lot of late. So I've decided to write some of my memories down, before my goldfish brain forgets.

In early 2008, a few months into the job, I was told that I would be staffing a whirlwind 10 day 3 country tour of Africa- South Africa, Angola and Rwanda. 

The time in Rwanda, in particular, was surreal. Up until my feet touched Rwanda's soil, my only image of Rwanda was from the movie Hotel Rwanda. It was a picture of war mongering militiamen waving machetes and breathing threats. It was a picture of a country divided by an arbitrary categorization of its people by a foreign power. It was a picture of fear and death. About a year after writing my final term communications paper on the communication strategies employed by the Interhamwe militia, I stood on where it all really happened- THE Hotel Rwanda, the Hotel Des Mille Colines. Surreal is an understatement. 

Welcome to Hotel Rwanda

A visit to the genocide museum was arranged for us. I made it only about halfway through when I could take no more heartache from what I saw and I excused myself when we reached the room where the photos of those who perished- men, women, and children, stared resolutely down at each visitor. I couldn't even take the museum. I could only imagine what it was like to live through those days and it rends my soul to know the darkness on man's hearts. Emerging from a side exit of the museum, I was told that I could wait at the verandah which overlooked one of the mass graves used during the genocide. My heart broke.
The mass grave at the genocide museum
In the sheltered world of Singapore, wars and genocides are distant facts. They are occurrences in history books or something reported clinically on the news of something in a distant land. Yet being in Rwanda just over a decade after the genocide, I was keenly aware that each person I met probably lost someone they loved or witnessed untold horrors. In a tiny country which lost an estimated 20% of its population in about 3+ months of bloodshed, those we met were the lucky ones who survived. 
View of Kigali City

But with these thoughts swimming in my mind, what I saw was a completely different reality. Far from the sweaty violence, the Rwanda that greeted me was one of peace, calm and order, with a cool "eternal spring" climate to match. Unlike most of the other African countries I have visited, I did not see a single firearm the whole time I was in the capital city Kigali. Petty crime was not a concern and nobody had any trouble strolling along the streets at any time of day. There were no road blocks, which always brought an inexplicable fear in my heart. Neither was there a visible security presence. The only reminders of the days of terror were kept in the museums. Everyone seemed to have gotten on with their lives and decided to put the past behind them. This almost clinical determination to move forward was exemplified in the leaders we met. Each one was an exceedingly bright and well educated technocrat with steely resolution to beat the odds and push their small country up the ladder of global success. 
Meeting with the President of Rwanda
On the final day, we got to the airport to find that our flight was cancelled. With the help of the government officials, we scrambled to find new flights out of the city in order to make it to the next leg of our trip-Angola, in time for our meetings there. We finally got tickets which would bring us to Nairobi, where we would wait 5 hours before a flight to Johannesburg where we would have to spend the night, before the flight to Luanda. And even then, we had to leave one of our delegation in Johannesburg as there weren't enough tickets.

Some years later, an official told me that the flight that we were originally on was cancelled as it was deemed not safe enough for us to fly on. I was ever thankful despite the trouble it put us through. If these people who have lived through a brutal civil war say a flight is not safe enough to fly on, I believe them with all my heart. 
Children clutching English textbooks walking to school

Till today, I remain a fan of this little hilly country in the heart of Africa. As I read articles of Rwanda's success, my heart is glad. In a region where corruption, inefficiencies and violence which are considered normal, I hope with all my heart that this nation can continue to withstand the temptations and its people can walk in the way of the upright. Yet I know the criticisms of the government remain. 

Rwanda will always have a special place in the heart of this flunky. Maybe because I always root for the underdog. Or maybe because I see a little bit of Singapore in this fledging nation.

No comments:

Post a Comment