A thousand hills – on survival and women

During our trip to Rwanda, there were moments when words often failed us as we sank back in our chairs at the end of the day, too tired to process the jumble of images racing through our minds like a flickering silent movie. Perhaps it is mawkish, but being in a country where the violence of the genocide was so cruel and exacting, I was hyper aware of its legacy. The men clip their hair short, and from many that we met I would catch the glassy scars of clubs, machetes, sticks, on their scalps. You can’t help but think about what this person must have seen and heard just 17 years ago, how old they were, what life they would have been living, what life they lead now; and what nightmares must still play out when they go to sleep at night.

Rwanda presents a remarkable story of growth – (c) James Clasper

To explore Rwanda through the prism of genocide is both necessary and limiting. But it is where most visitors start, myself included. It is perhaps fitting then, that early in our trip we had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with a group of people who shattered my preconceptions of what the legacy of genocide really means. It made me open to the very real and exciting potential for modern Rwanda, which we then went on to see for ourselves.

Part 1: On surviving

Professor Carl Auerbach is a clinical psychologist, specialising in post-conflict trauma. In Rwanda on a Fulbright Fellowship from the Yeshiva University in New York, he is posted at the National University of Rwanda – whose Faculty of Medicine we had previously visited – and teaches undergraduates whilst furthering his own research into the particular interventions he believes are necessary in helping people deal with the incomparable trauma of genocide.  Carl provided some strong context for me: Western understanding of trauma is an individual one, that we internalise our acute experiences because they happened specifically to us – I was mugged, I was robbed – but Rwanda is a nation which is collectively experiencing trauma. This small country, the size of Wales, experienced violence on such a scale that every Rwandan is connected to the genocide in some way, and it has become a byword for categorising her people now – survivor, perpetrator, victim, refugee, orphan, widow… But there is also a new category for Rwandans, those of the next generation, born just before or after the conflict with one foot in the terrors of the past, and one in the hope for their future. As one Rwandan said of his ordeal, “Being a survivor is luck, yes; but it is also a big responsibility.”

Jean Paul and Egide from AERG – (c) James Clasper

After speaking with Carl, we met three young men who are coordinators for a national charity for student survivors of the genocide (AERG). They are survivors and orphans themselves, the youngest – Jean Paul – perhaps 4 or 5 when his family were murdered. Quietly, they started to tell us about their work and mission, and we strained against the hum of the busy café to hear the achievements they gently dropped amongst our humbled group: 48,000 national members, represented nationally at 26 Universities and 272 secondary schools in Rwanda, run entirely by student volunteers. Someone must have heard our silent pleas – a power cut – and in the gloom and reassuring sound of the rain outside we finally heard their voices, their stories and their sheer determination. The charity creates family units for students who were orphaned by the genocide, nominating a ‘mother’ a ‘father’ and a wide network of siblings who give advice and support. As Jean Paul devastatingly pointed out, what is the point of doing well at school when you have no one to go home to and show your report card? We all need someone to be proud of us. Ambition is reflected in the encouragement of others, so these wonderful family units are fiercely encouraging, fiercely ambitious. Duharanire Imbere heza, is their motto in Kinyarwandan – strive for a better future.

Jean Paul told us that modern Rwandan survival is about hope, because “how can we do anything without hope?”, more so than it is about reconciling the past. “It doesn’t matter if your father killed my father, in this community we share” he said, a remarkable point of acceptance that I am awed he can make at just 21 years old. But it also hints at something unchallenged, something so deeply buried in the Rwandan psyche that I was at a loss to know how to question it. I was humbled by what Jean Paul and his colleagues said to us that afternoon; but sometimes I was more taken aback by what they did not say.

Jean Paul and his friends are the new generation of Rwandan storytellers. The majority of Rwandans are Catholic, and in this respect the language survivors use to describe their ordeal is often rooted in depictions of hell and evil. Language is important in Rwanda – a country which renounced its links to France and joined the Commonwealth, demanding all official processes, including education, were conducted in English, almost overnight. In Rwanda, most people refer to the genocide in a very exacting way – the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis – but references to ethic differences stop there. The Rwandan government, under President Paul Kagame, prohibits discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race or religion, as well as passing laws prohibiting emphasis on Hutu or Tutsi identity in most types of political activity. Because it is illegal to use these terms as a point of official classification, many Rwandans are too afraid to use them socially too, for fear of recrimination. So, officially, Hutus and Tutsis live side by side, blind to each other’s ethnicity and quick to show the Western visitor this vision of harmony; but unofficially, there is a palpable sense it will take more than 17 years to erase the centuries of ethnic classification.

Medical students at the National University of Rwanda training Hospital – (c) James Clasper

Professor Auerbach is quick to see the problem this tends towards, when his students gather in corridors and talk in hushed tones about which of their classmates are from which families. If it’s about language, then “in the language of psychology, we say that democracy requires safe conflict” Auerbach explained. Safe conflict requires trust, honesty and appropriate escalation; it requires state acceptance of diverse ideology. The escalation factor is key – one of the most shocking aspects to the genocide was the speed with which neighbours turned on each other, swiftly exchanging shared dinners for machete attacks. In his classroom, filled with students who Auerbach says are of the same brilliance as his undergrads in NYC, there is no intellectual confrontation, no push back, no challenge to what he says. It’s the line that Rwandans cannot overstep, because conflict of any shade and colour in their lifetime has resulted in grotesque violence with almost no warning. Kagame knows this, he knows it is too early to see a robust Rwandan democracy which facilitates safe conflict and conflict resolution, a democracy which may not agree with what you have to say but respects your right to say it – and to those of us bred on freedom of speech and will, this feels shocking. But Rwanda made me park some of my supposedly enlightened thinking, for the sake of understanding. Without safe conflict, and without the democracy which this can breed, there will always be something unchallenged in Jean Paul’s stories. But I understand that this is how they must survive, for now.

Part 2: On women

Previously, Professor Auerbach has written about the Rwandan instance of ‘gendercide’ noting that although men, women and children were all massacred, thousands of women were kept alive and brutalised, raped and used as sex slaves. In a landmark ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, war rape against women was defined as a clear element of genocide. It is estimated – although it is impossible to ever know – that over half a million women were raped during the genocide, although some figures place it as high as the overall death tally. Moreover, as many as 20,000 children living today were the product of rape. For these women, rebuilding their lives can feel insurmountable, and many have been isolated from their communities and unable to tell their children what happened for fear of the stigma which is attached to sexual violence. Many are also now dying of Aids, a deliberate act of Hutu warfare designed to eliminate the next generation of Tutsis. It is crucial to understand this gendered facet of the Rwandan genocide, because the notion of equality – and inequality – is ever-present. This is a country where the population count is still heavily distorted towards women, the parliament was the first majority-female in the world and there is a Ministry of Gender; this is a country where, in the words of Gabo Wilson, National Coordinator for SURF Survivors fund, “we must create brave women”.

Empowering women through education and employment is not a new idea, but it is a remarkably effective one in Rwanda. The challenges are complex and need to take into account the obvious barriers – such as skills training, finance, maternal healthcare – as well as the ones rooted in the dark horrors of their trauma. Every women-centred project we visited took a dual approach, of practical applications alongside counselling. I was chastened to hear that in some instances, 17 years on, many women still need to see a counsellor two or three times a week.

Students at Akilah Institute for Women – (c) James Clasper

On the outskirts of Kigali is an Institute for Women called Akilah, which gives women the skills and confidence to become leaders and entrepreneurs in East Africa. It’s a mindboggling aim, but they start by enrolling students on a Diploma in Leadership and Hospitality, quickly moving women who were scratching a living off the ground into paid jobs and internships in Rwanda’s growing retail and hotel districts. The scale of growth in this sector alone is big – the Government estimates that 5,000-6,000 people must be trained each year to fill the demand for qualified professionals, and many of these roles will be taken up by women. In late 2012, Akilah will open a new premises, 90 acres by Lake Cyohoha with lodging and classrooms for up to 1,000 female students by 2020.

However, for a large number of women, moving away from home to spend a year in training is just not an option. Many of those who were widowed were left to bring up what remains of their families and the families of others, and in the poorest parts of the country they are doing this on less than a dollar a day, without access to drinking water or enough food for more than a meal a day. But despite these seemingly intractable problems, women in enterprise is thriving in Rwanda in the most surprising places.

Genocide widows are helped into enterprise through Indego – (c) James Clasper

Indego Africa is a social enterprise which partners with women artisans to create products which are sold to high-end retail outlets across the world. Their training centre sits just off the main drag in a village called Abisanjia, and in the hot, packed back room 25 women eagerly sit in front of 24 sewing machines. Everyone laughs that someone snuck in after the course started, but none of them will say who. Many of these women are Aids sufferers, the sole providers for their families and suffering deep psychological trauma; they are all genocide widows. At Indego, they learn how to sew specific cuts for products which have a secure supply chain to sale, and when they graduate they are given their own sewing machine, a small start up fund and the wherewithal to go back to their communities and more than double their income almost immediately. They also make welcome friends with other women who understand the very hell they have gone through. The impact of this is not lost on Indego organisers, and they have undertaken an annual social impact report for the past three years to better define those achievements. In the year to March 2010, the women they helped showed a 517% increase in the number of their families eating at least three meals a day, an 800% increase in the numbers of women reporting that most of their children were attending school regularly, and a 760% increase in the number of women who described their income as adequate with respect to their basic needs. These are numbers which look like the decimal point has gone missing. And that’s just what they can touch and see; the psychological improvements will be near immeasurable. Indego has supported 250 women into enterprise so far; it is easy to see how much of an impact even small amounts of investment could have on scaling this up, and where my hosts for the trip, The Social Investment Consultancy, could introduce the right kind of investor.

So, from the outer to the inner circles, President Kagame has surrounded himself with brilliant women, one of which – Agnes Binagwaho – is the Minister of Health. Agnes is formidable, and having been in her role for just six months she hasn’t yet stopped for air. She’s also not one for pulling punches, and her candid comments on the international aid agencies which operate in Rwanda probably gave us the sharpest view of how her country must learn to stand on its own two feet. She spoke of the shame and anger at being applauded for life expectancy peaking at 53, up 17 years in the past decade, “but why don’t my people deserve to live till 80?” she demanded. She spoke of the thousands of community health care workers in every village across Rwanda, but the absolute dearth of specialists with only 12 pediatricians in the whole country and not a single oncologist. She spoke of the need for $135m a year to build the health infrastructure her country needs and deserves, but with 49% of her budget coming from overseas organisations (of which the UK provides around £8m), too much is tied for her to do significant things with it.

Agnes Binagwaho, Minister of Health – (c) James Clasper

But Agnes also spoke of Rwanda’s remarkable achievements, particularly with regards to women’s health – the urban and rural parity in access to birth control, at 45% of the female adult population, up from 10%; the prevalence of separate maternity wards in hundreds of health centres, meaning that even in the poorest areas – such as Bugasere, the location of the Millennium Development Village – some communities haven’t had a single death from childbirth in over two years; the near-universal health insurance (95%) and innovative mobile health provisions that means even the poorest and sickest families, which are often headed by lone women, can receive most of the emergency treatments they need in time. But Agnes and her team face a sizable gap, where the percentage burden of disease caused by poverty is growing. In many instances, poverty is most acutely felt amongst female-headed households. Households where women cannot work because of the psychological sores that will not heal. I asked Agnes whether her urgent vision of Rwandan health care encompassed the need for clinical psychologists: “My priority is to prevent death, and my people are not dying of psychological problems” she snapped back. But they are, I wanted to scream; they are dying inside, and they are failing to live for themselves, their families, their communities.

The grounds at AVEGA – (c) James Clasper

So it falls to other people to find a solution to this problem. People like Odette Kayirere, a genocide widow and mother to six daughters and countless other orphans, who refused to stop living for herself. In 1999 she founded AVEGA East in Rwamagana, an outreach centre for widows of the genocide which initially offered counseling and some basic medical care. In 2011, the centre is unrecognizable from its early days, now running a profitable guesthouse which subsidises a range of projects for women across the community, such as financial literacy and legal advice and guidance. They still continue to provide counseling for all their members, and more recently they have started providing antiretroviral treatment for HIV-positive widows, a debilitating legacy of the genocide now acutely being felt across the country. Odette has won awards for the work she has done, and has remarked that “the most important thing is that we build hope among our beneficiaries; we built self-esteem and self-reliance. They are able to continue to build their own lives. The consequences of the genocide are ever present, but we are trying to fight and we hope that we can overcome the problems.”

When Professor Auerbach spoke about the students on his clinical psychology course, he remarked that the ratio was about 60:40 women to men. In Rwanda, this is quite unusual, where – in the rest of the Faculty’s classrooms – the number of female students peaks at just 28%. I asked if this was because women survivors gravitate toward the sharp end of trauma counselling because they often require it themselves. The professor’s answer brought home the reality of this shuddering home for me: yes, he said softly, and although he has never asked any of his female students about their personal experiences he uses the space of the classroom to make it known that the skills they learn to help others, will also help themselves. It is when he sees the almost imperceptible nod of female heads around the room, at this comment, that he says he understands the magnitude of what he is teaching them


It’s impossible to capture everything Rwanda threw at me in the confines of my blog, from the very short amount of time I spent there. These are the first two parts of my write up, and I hope to follow this up with some other pieces on employability, growth and investment, and politics – I have only briefly touched on Kagame, because I couldn’t do justice to the scale of debate about his role, in the above. There are some superb books written about Rwanda, which cover off the whopping gaps in my own tiny overview, and you’d do worse than to start with Stephen Kinzer’s A Thousand Hills which charts Kagame’s rise and Rwanda’s rebirth. I also found Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood a very moving and – at times – quite difficult read, which made plain our total incomprehension of the genocide.

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