Today is Genocide Memorial Day in Rwanda. There are a few official ceremonies, but the day’s theme is private reflection. The streets’ usual crowds have stayed indoors. The average Rwandan’s house is cramped with tiny windows that afford little light, so the empty streets are testament to this day’s severity. A UNICEF survey found that 99.9% of children witnessed violence in the genocide, 79.6% experience death in the family, 90.6% believed they would die and 87.5% saw dead bodies or body parts. I recently read an enlightening book called ‘Miracle in Kigali’ by a Genocide survivor. I don’t know how widely available it is, but I’d highly recommend it. Her story is uncommon simply because it has been passed on. In the face of massacre the individual is all too often forgotten, and that one account was the most enlightening text I’ve read on the subject.
This week I met Jean-Claude an 18-year-old orphan (see above). Six years ago his widow mother died leaving him the provider for a ten-year-old brother and a newborn sister. English children of that age can’t be left home alone; some of Rwanda’s must spend their whole childhoods so.
That story is one often told here. There is nothing unfamiliar in seeing one child carry another, barely a year its junior. It’s true that many are not orphans, but still they surrender schooling so their parents can work. You see tiny kids, usually girls, smiling and playing with others one moment, and then the next consoling a crying sibling over their shoulder. This muddle of maturity and youth is difficult to empathise with, but very common. It is estimated that Rwanda’s population, already the largest for its size in Africa, will double by 2020. These child-carers are not the result of one event, not all genocide orphans, and this problem will only get worse.
Yesterday I took part in umuganda, or as we in the West would call it: ‘unpaid labour day’. Simply speaking, on the last Saturday of every month the local community is required to take part in various projects selected by the government. This requires all capable men and women over 16 to do anything from grass cutting to litter-collection. As you may have guessed, mzungus are not normally required to take part. However Aaron and I were feeling energetic, and agreed to go. Our task was road digging, unfortunately not one of my A-levels. I’ve become used to constant attention, but arriving shovel-in-hand to an event that even well to do Rwandans avoid was the cause of extra amusement. It was a hot morning but we managed to work for about two hours. We both did pretty well, but it was tough. Bringing a camera wouldn’t have been the best way to integrate, so this is the only evidence I can give you of my labour.
We didn’t want to ditch the diggers early, but we retreated when the men began amateur tree surgery. Frustratingly, as I pulled clumps of dirt from my hair, I noticed that Prince’s trainers were still a superb white. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish journalist, has a rather brilliant description of the white man in Africa which rung painfully true: ‘…the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic.’ Meanwhile the local men and women, graceful and strong, cleanly presented and tireless only stop to suppress laughter, or more frequently to share our humiliation with a friend.
The day though, is not about the white man. At dusk, the government counts the money saved by umuganda. Judging by the activity it would have been a lot, but I don’t think that’s entirely the point. There was a real sense of (Rwandan) togetherness about the day, with complete strangers side by side at work. Perhaps, in a country so long divided, this cooperation was the real value.