So different. So green. Lofty treeless hills abound the rushing scenery as we journey from Uganda’s border to Kigali. Roused by the sight of Mzungu, the European man, hawkers toe-lift themselves to our window and brandish Coca-Colas and roasted corn – they hope to make a killing. The Kigali bus station is a bustling ant farm, a maze of white dusty caravans and motorcycles; black with people. A strikingly red soil. Laterite. The color is produced by rock decay and impresses on us a feeling, as we step out from the bus, of treading on a very different planet. Our imagination cannot resist weaving a different explanation, one that runs chills down our skins. We are not at ease here. Wary bloodshot eyes stick to the new arrivals. Orbits clouded with images of past horrors. For our own sanity, we’d rather think these are forlorn glares of men trying to eke out a living out of desolation. Not of murderers.
For desolation there is. The 1994 genocidal outburst is but one of many strewning Rwandans’ macabre history. For now, a decade of peace. But the eerie quiescence that hovers about might suddenly crash, weighted down in part by a heavy grain of fatalism. Is the bloodshed really over? New policies point to uncertain directions. Hutu and Tutsi adjectives may no longer be printed on Belgium inspired identity cards – their mere whisper will guarantee you a place in their overcrowded prisons. The enemy, ethnicity, is swallowed up by the blackness of the crowd, leaving behind one common nationality. If only ethnicity was the real cancer plaguing this small, poor and landlocked community.
Ethnicity was undoubtedly a deadly force, in its ability to create a clear demarcation line between friends and enemies. Its power of identity was staggering in concocting an ingroup/outgroup dichotomy. Any Tutsi was stamped automatically by Hutus as a non-native to the land and targeted for genocide. But a line is not a cause of war; it is an instrument in organizing rival battalions. Divisive lines are made up from the observable world in order to stir the mass into a weapon of strength -”L’union fait la force”. Name your pick: religious or cultural affiliations, skin color. It is very easy, and very dangerous to do so. Scholars as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis who ponder and theorize about clashes of civilizations are actually marking lines and digging trenches that have no reasons to exist. The real danger is that seated armies are restless. They wait, and thrust for actions they do.
So what’s the real reason?
The economist Thomas Malthus predicted nature, with unflagging resolve, will check any imbalance. In the course of human history, high demographics was pitted against dwindling resources. For those familiar with economic lingo, human development was cornered by diminishing marginal returns. No matter how many hands you put to work on a land, you will reach a point where a growing amount had no more work to do nor food to lift. Famine, diseases came swooping down with terrific, almost unearthly vengeance. In some cases, human beings took things into their own hands and declared war on each other. The victors at least were given a respite from nature’s mechanism, but at a terrible price. The situation would improve until its own tail would come thrashing back.
Poor Thomas was proven wrong by two unprecedented revolutions: an agricultural one, and its baby, the industrial revolution. New technologies in the 18th century wrenched humans out from natural boundaries – scarce resources were used more efficiently, production increases and enrichment made famine and diseases less likely. With a more complex economy came the demand for specialized labor, ushering in a middle class that sought to reduce political instability in order to secure its economic interests. This middle class is usually what holds violence within a country in check- a social glue that subscribes to peace for continuing prosperity.
Rwanda. ”Le pays des milles collines”. It is the most densely populated country in Africa but one of the smallest and least resource gifted of them all. Those hills we saw, cut bare, every inch of land grazed out. An inefficient use of land coupled with an exploding population and a lack of sustained agricultural and industrial development was creating a simmering pot. With an absent middle class, it took very little for the pot to start boiling once again. Nature’s resolve was surfacing. Means of escaping it were developing. Who to blame, the witch hunt began. Though the Hutus had acquired power in the late 50’s, they continued to perceive the Tutsi as the Jews of Rwanda. They looked different, with slender bodies and elongated noses. European looking and wealthier. Colonizers: traitors. Hutus united to fight, they belonged not only to secure resources, but also all that it bequeaths – status, pride, power.
After the genocide -macheting roughly 10% of the population- the new president did away with the ethnic name calling. It was labelled the ultimate culprit. Since then, a semblance of peace and prosperity. Economic growth shortly followed and continues to this day, and Kagame and the West believe peace has been sowed- historical myopia has kicked in. The situation is improving because there is now more land per capita, less labor competition and no clear enemy in sight. Soon, structural gaps will reappear, and unless the crux of the matter is solved, new or ancient forms of polarization will emerge.
Erasing ethnicity is applying a band aid to machete wound. Psychological distress caused by uprooting identities might even worsen the pot. Let me stifle your identity and let me await your backlash. Let us then be careful with our remedies.