Story and Photo by Abigail Mengistu, Co-op
I was excited to participate in a global co-op as it would offer more independence to navigate a new city than a traditional study abroad. Rwanda is fittingly known as “the land of a thousand hills” with breathtaking views nearly anywhere you go. The capital, Kigali, is a city with stunningly clean streets, a vibrant art scene and one of the most progressive technology markets in Africa. My first night there, I gazed out at the boundless hills and eagerly anticipated what was to come.
I have always had an interest in African history and politics, so the co-op at the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG) in Rwanda was one of my top choices. As an international affairs major, I understood that though researching genocide is no simple task, it would be an invaluable experience. I was able to observe firsthand how Rwanda serves as one of the strongest examples of successful post-conflict peacebuilding. It is considered by many as a model for combatting ethnic-based conflicts in other African nations and beyond. To that end, the CNLG has taken steps to preserve documentation from the Gacaca Courts, a traditional judicial system which tried genocide perpetrators through communal gatherings across the country. This has been considered a successful method of transitional justice post-genocide as it focused on open dialogue and consensual thinking. In turn, this helped to reduce hostilities and reconcile communal ties. Since the closure of the courts, CNLG has begun to digitize Gacaca Court documents, sent in from across the country, to create an archive for continued research.
The gravity of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, as well as its impact on Rwandan society today, did not escape me. Every year, April 7th marks the beginning of the 100-day commemoration titled Kwibuka, “to remember”, organized by CNLG. It is a time to learn and reflect, a reminder of the reconciliation efforts that have taken place since 1994. While Rwanda has come a long way, they don’t forget the significance of their past. There has been major emphasis on community-building through Umuganda, a national holiday on the last Saturday of each month where businesses and stores close until noon so that all citizens can participate in community service in their neighborhood. I thought this amazing initiative shows how Rwanda is consistently working towards the advancement of their society.
When away from the office, I spent most of my time hopping on a motorbike taxi to explore some of Kigali’s cafes and galleries, where I met some incredibly welcoming and dynamic people. I also had several opportunities to travel out of the city with friends. On one such trip, we took a bus east to Gisenyi, on Lake Kivu, where we ate a local favorite, brochettes, or grilled fish skewers, and looked across the water at Goma, a town in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
At Nyungwe National Park in southeast Rwanda, one of the oldest parks in Africa, we camped, scaled a canopy walk overlooking lush, green forests, visited sprawling tea plantations and hiked along a waterfall. While socializing around a campfire, I was asked by someone who had recently moved to Rwanda what I was doing for work. I explained that I was researching Rwanda’s peace and reconciliation efforts post-genocide. They said that they didn’t intend on visiting the memorials because they didn’t want the visit to taint their perception of the country. This thought perplexed me for the rest of my co-op. While the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi does not wholly encompass Rwanda’s history, does that mean that we should intentionally overlook this aspect of its past?
As an Ethiopian, one of my greatest hopes has been to change the negative narratives often bestowed on the African continent. We often fall victim to preconceived ideas when entering a new country and, for many, Rwanda is often linked with memories of the genocide. To move past these ideas and truly experience the country, we must choose to engage in conversations about experiences, values and beliefs with empathy and respect. I once asked a Rwandan friend how their society has managed to progress the way they have despite their history. They said that while it is imperative to remember the past, they owed it to the victims to remain hopeful and keep working towards a better future. As amazing as my experience was, it is difficult to appreciate where Rwanda is today without understanding how far they have come. When I think back to my time in Rwanda, I think of beauty, the rich sense of culture and tradition and the incredible resilience of a nation.