In science there is a concept known as a paradigm, which is simply a widely accepted view that exists over a period of time. Scientists will operate under the assumption that a certain paradigm is true, and while there will be some growth in discovery, it is usually not substantial.
However, once in a while a new discovery comes along that causes a radical shift in the accepted paradigm. The discovery of quantum physics early in the last century was one of those events. The scientific community went from one way of looking at light and energy to an entirely different way.
Just as there are generally accepted paradigms in science, there are also beliefs that are ingrained within us when it comes to how we view other people. We operate under a set of assumptions which are at best, limited, and at worst, outright falsehoods. I believe it’s time for a radical shift in the way Westerners view Rwanda.
One thing about a paradigm, it is often so entrenched in us that we cannot see anything different, even when it is clearly before our eyes. It also usually has some element of truth to it, which is why it becomes so widely accepted over a period of time. Let’s take a look at the generally accepted Western paradigm about Rwanda.
First, little to nothing can be published about Rwanda in the Western press without mentioning the Genocide that occurred 18 years ago in 1994. This is the backdrop to every discussion.
There is some validity to this, because this tragic event in such recent history is still something that affects Rwandans daily. But when we only look at Rwanda in light of the Genocide, we miss some other things.
In the eyes of many Westerners, Rwanda’s story begins with the Genocide, but the history of the nation is rich and deep.With the ghosts of Genocide lingering in the background, I want to discuss four ways that Rwanda is viewed by the West.
Foremost, the west holds a view that Rwanda is a nation mired in ethnic hatred and violence, a view closely influenced by the Genocide, because the violence that occurred during those 100 days was for the most part ethnically motivated. This perception also fits in the general view that Africa is a place of tribal and ethnic warfare.
This view is perpetuated by Rwandan opposition groups who commonly play on this stereotype to draw attention to their plight. But oftentimes this view is overstated.
Is there ethnic division in Rwanda? Yes. Has any person been killed or
victimized simply for being a Hutu or a Tutsi? Absolutely. Is the ethnic hatred and division in Rwanda any worse than that of other countries, including the United States? Maybe somewhat, but not to the extent that it has been highlighted and reported.
Rwanda is also viewed as a nation full of poverty that desperately needs our generosity and aid. This view is perpetuated by missionaries, NGOs, and aid workers, whose life work is the business of “helping” people.
They portray a dire situation, and appeal directly to a person’s desire to do something good to help the less fortunate, and thus feel better about themselves. This feeds a superiority complex that many Westerners have, that poor Rwandans need our aid to survive.
I will not argue that it is wrong to help those who are in poverty. But the attitude we have toward it is vital. Rwandans are not in any way less than us, and we are not needed to “save” them through our donations, missions trips, or child sponsorship.
Another view is that Rwandans are not capable of handling serious legal or human rights issues without outside intervention. This view was recently highlighted with the issuing of the Trévidic report about the downing of former President Habyarimana’s plane in 1994.
The much anticipated French report was released to a flurry of news coverage. I wondered on my twitter feed why all these so-called "expert" reports on Rwanda have been coming from Westerners.
A few days later, President Kagame echoed those same thoughts in an address in Kigali: "I have an issue with accepting that Rwanda or Africa will always be defined and judged by the outside people, the same people who are so deeply involved in the problems Rwanda, our neighbors or Africa have had. I don’t accept that the lives of Rwandans, my own life, should be defined and managed by others."
There have been numerous other reports from international agencies, including the United Nations, which in the span of hundreds of pages of data, present evidence and name perpetrators of crime.
But my question is, how are these international bodies, led by members who have perpetuated wars all over the world, including recently in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, qualified to pass judgment on the wrongs of a tiny country in Africa? Shouldn’t we look into the mirror before judging others?
The view that Rwanda is a model of development and a shining example for all of Africa. On the surface seems like a good thing. After all, haven’t I just been complaining about the negative publicity that Rwanda gets? Again the problem is that it is a limited perspective, based on pronouncements by Western bigwigs from the luxury of the Kigali Serena Hotel.
They love to marvel at the clean streets and development as if it is something extraordinary, when in their own countries it is seen as a normal and basic thing.
There is also the possibility of negative repercussions from this view, as Rwandans know all too well from their own history what can go terribly wrong when Westerners come in and categorize one group of Africans as better or more civilized than others. The same division may grow between Rwanda and its neighbors as Westerners continue to fawn over such superficial signs of “progress.”
All these views of Rwanda have some element of truth to them, but they are incomplete. We must recognize that like our own Western cultures, Rwandan culture is nuanced and multidimensional.
By focusing on only one narrative, we minimize the people of Rwanda to a caricature. When we do this, we miss the humanity and individuality of each Rwandan. Anyone seeking to know and understand Rwanda must make an effort to interact with Rwandans of diverse backgrounds, to learn about the culture and history, and always remain open to seeing something that he or she does not expect.
When we expect to find violence, we will find violence. When we expect to find hatred and division, we will find it. When we expect to find poverty, we will find it. But when we expect to find positive stories of economic success, achievement, and reconciliation, we will find them as well.
When you look at Rwanda, what do you see? If all you see is negativity, adjust your perspective and look again. There is more to Rwanda than what our preconceptions have revealed.