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Archive for May, 2012

Ambivalent Rwanda

Rwanda is an ambivalent country: the more I know about it, the more I both like and dislike it.

I had visited Rwanda twice before starting my PhD. In 2006 and 2008, I travelled from Japan, where I was doing my Masters degree, to this country of a thousand hills, to observe the activities of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and a Japanese NGO, the Africa Reconciliation Committee (ARC).

In 2011, I returned to Rwanda for three months to conduct fieldwork for my PhD. As my research examines the history of Rwanda during the period of decolonisation, my main ‘field’ had previously been the archives in Brussels, New York and Rome, where I collected written materials. The purpose of my field trip to Rwanda this time was to interview older people about their memories of the past.

During three months in Rwanda, I stayed in three places: Kigali, Butare and Kibungo.

Kigali is the capital of the country, busy and quite developed. A Kenyan supermarket is open 24/7; a skyscraper called Kigali Tower stands high above other buildings; and the construction of new buildings, mainly carried out by the Chinese, can be seen everywhere. Foreigners enjoy coffee in air-conditioned cafes; foreign exchange bureaus are positioned at every corner in the city centre; and various kinds of food – from Italian to Korean and Japanese- are available. Most Rwandans dress themselves in western clothes. Even a bus boy can speak some English. I was surprised by how quickly the city had developed in the 3 years since my last visit.

Butare is located in the south of Rwanda, less than 2 hours by bus from Kigali. It is a cosy campus town, smaller in size than Kigali. I went to Butare in order to use the library of the National University of Rwanda (NUR). Founded in 1963, the NUR is the oldest and most prestigious university in the country. Students I passed on the street or I talked to felt pride in studying at NUR and seemed to expect a shining future ahead of them.

During the majority of my fieldwork, I stayed in Kibungo, the Eastern Province. Affiliated to the Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Education of Kibungo (INATEK), my daily routine consisted of conducting interviews and visiting the INATEK library. INATEK is a private university whose students have more diverse backgrounds than those at NUR: some directly enter INATEK after graduating from high school, but most study part-time while working full-time as teachers, business people or even politicians. Compared to Kigali and Butare, Kibungo is quite small. There is only one main street in the town with neither a single currency exchange bureau nor a non-Rwandan restaurant. Few people can speak English and I had to use my poor French, especially when I was talking to middle aged or older people.

My ambivalent feelings towards Rwanda stem largely from the gap between the rural areas and the cities. I often used motorbike-taxi to travel to the rural areas for interviews, which took one hour or so on bumpy roads from Kibungo. Life there is completely different from life in Kibungo, needless to say Kigali. People in Kibungo all wear shoes and fine clothes. In the rural areas, people wear torn clothes and no shoes. They mainly eat just banana and beans, once per day. There is no electricity and no running water. While my translator told me that most people in Kibungo have just one or two kids, a family in the rural areas will have at least five or six children, who can be seen playing outside, bare foot.

I could not believe that Kigali and the rural areas in the Eastern Province belong to the same country. After staying in Kibungo for two months and returning to Kigali at the end of my fieldwork, I came to think that there are two Rwandas: the one in Kigali nicely displayed to the international community to appeal to its focus on post-genocide development, and the other in the rural areas, where people cannot enjoy the prosperity of the capital city. I did appreciate and enjoy the convenience of life in Kigali, but at the same time, I felt a bitterness and sense of guilty for staying there.

Another thing which shaped my ambivalent feelings towards Rwanda was the people.
The Rwandans I met were all nice. It was easy and rewarding to cooperate with taxi drivers and my translator. Every time I had been to the archives previously, I had worked alone. This time in Rwanda, I went to interviews with my translator riding on bike taxis driven by the same drivers for nearly two months. So, as time went by, I felt a sense of fellowship with them. Even though the drivers could not speak English, they tried to teach me some Kinya-rwanda and invited me to their homes. Since my translator is the same age as me, he gradually expressed his honest opinions not only about history and my research but also about the current situation in Rwanda. Many people I interviewed in the rural areas welcomed me and sometimes offered me food even though they do not have enough for themselves. In Kigali and Butare, I also enjoyed kindness from the Rwandans. I did and still do appreciate the kind-heartedness and hospitality I received during my fieldwork.

However, I am not naïve enough to simply appreciate the generosity of the Rwandans. I have heard from some Japanese working in Rwanda that Rwandans and Japanese share similar characteristics. For instance, Rwandans and Japanese are both shy and socially polite. Moreover, the Rwandans I met were all on time, which was a nice surprise to me. On the other hand, Rwandans can be as unclear as Japanese. They do not give ‘bad’ answers nor refuse to respond when asked a question or favour. They say, “Nta Kibazo (no problem)” even though actually there are problems. Moreover, both Japanese and Rwandans tend to (or, at least, get used to) obey authority. It may sound absurd, but the mixture of politeness, obscurity and obedience I experienced in Rwanda led me to see overlaps between the history of post-war Japan and that of post-genocide Rwanda. Even though historical background and political, social and economic settings are different, both countries seem, at least for me, to share the problems of how to establish governance and democracy and to deal with the violent past.

Rwanda is a beautiful country of kind people. I enjoyed staying there so much that I am looking forwards to returning after I finish my PhD. However, as I come to know more about the country, I find that I not only like it as much as I dislike it but I also worry about its future.

Aya Tsuruta, CAS PhD student

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