As Kigali prepares for the 11th Annual National Dialogue this Friday, it’s worth noting that there is a severe shortage of humor on the subject of Rwanda. Here’s a lighthearted look at the rules for writing about the Land of a Thousand Hills.How To Write About Rwanda
by Steve Terrill
First, EVERYONE should read Binyavanga Wainaina’s hilarious and popular 2005 essay, How To Write About Africa. It’s a sharp piece of satire that captures many of the stereotypes Westerners use.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
Wainaina says he created this piece in response to the lack of “new insights” in writing about the continent. On a smaller scale, the same can be said for Rwanda.
The difference is that there is almost no good-natured ribbing to be found with regard to Rwanda. Nearly everything is either adulatory or condemning and it’s all far too serious. It seems as though we’re afraid to say anything new. Perhaps we should plant our tongues in our cheeks and take a look at how we habitually write about Rwanda. I’ll get us started and I hope you’ll add what’s missing.
First the obvious and most sensitive: when writing anything about Rwanda, you must anchor your text with the Genocide Against the Tutsi. Whether writing on technology, a bicycle-race or HIV, nothing can be understood about the country except through the lens of 1994. On that note, be sure to mention that President Paul Kagame ended the genocide—but only after the UN failed to lift a finger—and that he has led the country masterfully ever since. Don’t forget to say that Kagame is an autocrat who wins elections by over 90 percent and that he may–or may not–leave power in 2017. Also comment on his use of Twitter.
Before moving on, point out that despite a tragic past, pretty much everyone in Rwanda has reconciled. There is no more tension there. (Depending on your audience, you could add here that, historically, there was never any tension or conflict in Rwanda until the colonists came along and stirred things up.)
Don’t worry about details on gorillas because anyone who wants to know about that already does. You will want to discuss with sincere astonishment how safe and pristine Kigali is. Then it’s usually best to make a comparison to a Scandinavian country. Be sure to talk about the happy, singing lady-street-sweepers who keep the roads free of dust. Now see if you can work in how, once a month, the entire country gladly volunteers a day of labor for development projects.
Remark that Rwanda has successfully introduced English and every kid goes to school free of charge. And tell how everyone has free healthcare. And say there is readily available high-speed Internet, which is also free.
Slip in something about how most of Parliament is women and how that means Rwanda has achieved gender equality.
Don’t forget to talk about the lack of press-freedom, the closed political space and how the UN says Rwanda has repeatedly supported rebel groups in DRC. But always, always, always add that Rwanda denies this charge. Vehemently. If you are a researcher or journalist, this is where you should mention how you were followed everywhere while in Rwanda and that locals were afraid to speak to you or even be seen with you. (At this point, most people like to paste a photo of themselves surrounded by locals.)
Try to end with something about healing or the end of poverty and AIDS. Or coffee.
What did I miss?
(Steve Terrill is an independent journalist and news curator. He tweets from @steveinafrica)