Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rwanda, ethnic identity, genocide - what can we learn?

I'm in Rwanda, mostly observing and trying to learn all that I can about the challenges and opportunities for Rwanda in these days with the 1994 genocide of Tutsis now almost exactly 16 years in the past. I've been reading all kinds of accounts of the genocide and watching documentaries and movies and I just can't imagine the horror of it.

How is it possible that any person could do the things that were done? I have no answer for that question, though I know that this was neither the first nor the last time that people will act in such a way. And, to be honest, I have no absolute certainty that I would be incapable of such actions myself. It's clear that simply being a Christian does not innoculate us against participating in evil. After all, Rwanda was, at the time of the genocide, one of the most Christian countries in the world if we are looking at church affiliation and attendance as indicators of faith.

In some ways Rwanda seems to be an example of a country which has, with determination, put the horrific events of those 100 days in 1994 behind it. The government has taken a firm hand and there seems to be a quite remarkable stability here. It's an absolutely stunningly beautiful country, with rolling hills, lush soil, a wonderful climate, and a people working hard to keep a half step ahead of extreme poverty. And yet, it still feels like a fragile and tentative peace.

In fact, just a few weeks ago there were some grenade attacks in Kigali and the military presence now is apparently much more noticeable than is "normal". Still, I feel quite safe. But as I watch and listen, I can't help wondering what we can learn from the Rwandan experience. What lesson is there in all of this for me as an individual Christian, or for the entire family of faith?

The National narrative in Rwanda - that is, the state generated ideology to ensure that such a thing will not happen again (the "never again" campaign) - is espoused in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. The explicit claim is that the country is united. People are taught that they are Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi (or Twa - the aboriginal peoples). But this raises the question of identity and I wonder if it's healthy to try to eradicate one's ethnic identity...?

Now there are those who claim that the ethnic division between Tutsi and Hutu was quite artificial anyway, so erasing it is an entirely good thing. But I'm not sure that it's that easy to erase an identity, especially once a history and a consciousness has been established and seered into one's very being. Surely it would be good if a person can be Rwandese AND Hutu or Rwandese AND Tutsi or Rwandese AND Twa. We've visited communities that are beneficiaries of Canadian Foodgrains Bank food security projects, where community members (both Hutu and Tutsi, and even Twa) are working together and gradually learning how to trust. But it's not easy.

Sometimes I think we Canadians have put too much emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, but as I sit here in Rwanda I have to say that I'm very happy to be part of the Canadian effort to be inclusive and to even celebrate ethnic and religious and cultural and political and linguistic diversity. I know that our acceptance of "the other" among us may not be as deep or as genuine or as optimistic as we might hope, but it seems right that we would allow for diversity rather than suppressing it.

I recognize that our treatment of the First Nations peoples continues to be a signficant stain on our credibility, and an issue whose "solution" continues to elude us, and I know that things are not always what they seem. There are still marginalized and vulnerable people in Canada - lots of them, in fact - but we at least seem to be moving in a positive direction, even if it is painfully slowly for those who feel the sting of racism or other forms of discrimination and stigma.

I guess that the real point of this posting - sorry that I've been rambling! - is that I'm actually quite concerned that the security that we often take for granted in Canada may actually be quite fragile. It's easy to get along when we are enjoying a pretty enviable standard of living and when our economy is holding up pretty well under lots of international pressure. We're not being attacked by foreign armies and our climate, though a little odd at times, is not nearly as extreme as it is in other places. We all like to criticize the government for one thing or another, but all in all, we're pretty pleased with our democratic system - and what we don't like, we're free to advocate to change. We can complain about education but essentially ALL of our kids get to go to school. We may grumble about inefficiencies and delays in accessing our health care, but most of us are pretty proud of our Medicare system. The price of food can make it harder to stretch our food budget, but most of us don't lose a lot of sleep wondering whether or not we will eat the next day or if our kids will die from some complication of malnutrition. Yup - all things considered we have it pretty good in Canada. But that could all change in a heartbeat. I won't bother to spell out the possible scenarios that could turn things upside down - and I'm not being a prophet of doom - honestly!

My point is that we would do well to learn from Rwanda. As Christians, we need to guard our hearts and our minds against all manner of evil, not by making sure that we have everything we need for safety and security, but by living radically counter cultural lives. Being generous, not AFTER we've looked after all of our needs and desires, but off the top. Being an advocate and an encourager for the vulnerable - not just those who are half way around the world, but also those in our own neighbourhoods. Being a person who actively looks for ways to extend peace into our world, even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Next month is the month of mourning for Rwanda and especially from April 7-15 the country will be commemorating the pain of the genocide. Back in 1994 the world withdrew from Rwanda and left evil to run its course. In the aftermath of the genocide we were shocked, not just by the genocide in Rwanda, but also by our own indifference. The question that continues to haunt me is this: how is my faith equipping me to stand firm in the face of the evil forces which are loose in our world? Or am I choosing to stay clear of evil as best I can so that I will not have to put my faith or my life on the line? Tough questions...


John and Jane Weiler said...

Thanks Lois for reminding us we are vulnerable and need to keep God center in our lives to help maintain the peace and stability we have in our country.

Mike said...

My daughter is in Rwanda this week and next week, with about 30 other grade 11 and 12 students, involved with Project Ubuntu. Mostly they are helping at Centre Cesar.

Lois said...

Hi Mike. I just checked the Ubuntu website - looks like a great place and an amazing vision! What an opportunity for you daughter and her classmates! There are lots of groups and agencies doing good work in Rwanda and I'm always inspired by the resiliency of people in the face of hardship and tragedy. Thanks for sending the Ubuntu link!