A couple weeks ago, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, visited Cyangugu, the region in which I live. His visit was met with a lot of fanfare. The entire region had some mandatory umugandas (community service days) to clean up, repair roads, and, oddly, paint trees white. My Mother Superior and the nun who heads the Health Center here (my titulaire) were invited, and my sitemate Tim and I went with them to where the President was speaking, near the DRC/Burundi border.
|A large sign welcoming Kagame to the region|
The first thing I noticed as we drove along was that mass numbers of white t-shirts bearing Kagame’s face had been handed out, and hundreds of people were wearing them along the roadsides. As we got closer to the site of the event, the crowds became thicker. There were more Rwandan soldiers than I’d ever seen before (the military, the national police, local police, and even some reserves). When we got out of the car, we were told to leave our phones and cameras in the car as a “security precaution”, or they would be confiscated. I was pretty bummed, but we did as we were told. So forgive me for this relatively picture-less post.
It was only 8 am, but there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people waiting in a very long line to get patted-down by security. Someone was handing out small Rwandan flags to everyone, so Tim and I got our hands on a couple. The nuns were on some sort of VIP list, so we shamelessly cut the line and went to entrance off to the side, where invited religious, business, civic, and education leaders were required to pass through a metal detector as well as a pat-down. At first we were seated in sort of a secondary VIP area that had chairs and was to the left of the stage, but was still in the extremely hot sun. A few minutes later, an important-looking woman pulled my Mother Superior, Tim, another Peace Corps Volunteer, and me into a huge white VIP tent behind the stage with nice chairs, bottled water, and people dressed in suits and fancy dresses. We were about 10-15 feet behind where Kagame eventually sat.
Although it was rumored that Kagame would speak at 11 am, he didn’t actually show up until 1 pm. In the five hours between when we arrived and when he spoke, the three of us Peace Corps Volunteers got an interesting look at Rwandan culture in a political light. There were cultural dances (Intore) and some Rwandan singers, which were really beautiful. And then there was a rather strange political rehearsing. The crowds of Rwandans present were told how exactly to wave their hundreds of flags (when the President pauses! Wave them furiously above your heads!), how to clap (when the President enters and exits, and when he finishes his speech. Clap furiously above your head!), and several call-and-response political chants. This went on for several hours, and it felt a bit like one of those sitcoms where an APPLAUSE or LAUGH sign lights up for the audience. I tried to picture this happening—a political rehearsal of sorts---if an American president was speaking somewhere in the U.S. Of course politicians are always very careful about people placed behind the stage and such things, especially when their audience is from their own political party (i.e. Republican or Democratic Conventions), but I think most Americans would not respond well to such a planned response. It’s amazing to me that when you’re within your own culture, patriotism seems quite normal. Most people are proud of their own country. But when you’re in another country, patriotism can seem remarkably similar to propaganda. Something to think about, I guess.
The President was only at the event for about an hour and a half. He spoke about Rwanda’s amazing progress in development, health, and education, and he promoted the new Agaciro Fund (in theory, a voluntary contribution by Rwandans to help Rwanda development itself, in actuality, it looks more like a tax due to budget shortfalls as a result of international donors pulling out money because of Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebel group in the DRC). He spoke about new improvements to the district, including paving some roads near us. And then he had a sort of “question and answer” time. People could come up to the microphone and tell Kagame about their problems. I couldn’t understand all of the Kinyarwanda, so the rest of this is what I pieced together + what the nuns told me he spoke about.
One man asked the President about his son, who was apparently killed in the late 90s by a member of the military, but his killer was never brought to justice. Kagame asked one of the high-ranking soliders nearby if he knew what the man was talking about. The soldier looked pretty terrified, and Kagame told the man that they would look into it. Another Rwandan talked about how foreigners (especially Chinese) are taking Rwanda’s resources and how locals are losing their land. I studied about land and resource grabs before, but this was the first time I saw their impact up close. Kagame said that it’s a common problem in Africa, of corporations buying large tracts of land or resources, and again that he would look into it. He said sometimes local people are not aware of property rights, and sometimes they don’t understand what’s going on. And then there were the people who didn’t actually have problems but spoke anyways. There was one guy who owned a coffee business, and he thanked the President for how well his company was doing. Another a Rwandan woman thanked him for Rwanda’s advances in health and education, and said that her only problem was that her kids spoke too much English to her at home and she couldn’t understand it.
I will probably do another post later, perhaps after my service here is over, about my perceptions of Rwandan politics, but I think today I will leave it here.
This blog is a reflection of my views and opinions only. It does not reflect the views of the United States, its government, or Peace Corps.