RUHENGERI, Rwanda – The clump of professional cyclists swept past a grove of banana trees and a field of potatoes, continuing up the steep hill toward a trio of mist-topped volcanoes.
With their shimmering skintight spandex outfits, wraparound shades, and brightly painted bicycles, they looked spectacularly out of place in this landscape of red-brown earth and verdant green slopes, dotted by stone huts roofed in rusting tin.
The young men – on a recent training ride outside Ruhengeri, a two-hour drive north of Kigali – belong to one of Rwanda’s eight professional cycling teams. In a society that has experienced the worst of what ethnic exploitation and hate can do, they represent a new and unified Rwanda. Members of its first post-genocide generation, they are too young to fully remember what started 20 years ago this month, when extremists in the majority Hutu community spent 100 days slaughtering 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Among these riders, no one talks about who is Tutsi and who is Hutu (it is illegal to differentiate, anyway). They all train, eat, and chill together. To them, and to their peers, which side of the ethnic divide someone is on now appears to be genuinely irrelevant. What matters to this rising generation is to strive, to arrest any violent repeat of history, and to change the image that comes to mind when the world hears the word “Rwanda.”
“When we are in other countries and people see us competing and winning and being happy, they wonder, are these people really from Rwanda, where they are always killing each other?” jokes riding team coach Felix Sempoma.
Well over half of this small Central African country’s 11 million people were born after the start of 1994, the year of the genocide. For most, what they know of the national tragedy comes from the school curriculum, a narrative that has been carefully shaped by President Paul Kagame.
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Basic to the story is how Mr. Kagame led a rebel army south into Rwanda and ended the genocide when the West failed to do so. And how Rwanda has since introduced policies designed to strip away any economic or social differences between Hutus and Tutsis, and thus remove the anger born of inequality and jealousy that drove the genocide.
It’s also a story of how Rwanda, in less than 20 years under Kagame, has transformed from a country on its knees into one of the fastest-growing in the region. The fivefold increase in its gross national product has given millions of its poorest citizens a shot at moving into what has become a booming middle class through a studied equality of opportunity in jobs and society.
This narrative of Rwanda’s recent past is reinforced during the annual official mourning month of April, and told by families to their children.
As with all history, it was scripted by the victors. Nonetheless, as the past 20 years are studied and debated, the narrative is found not to be drastically wide of the truth.
It does, however, ignore claims that Rwandan forces massacred tens of thousands of people, combatants and ordinary Hutus alike, in order to end the genocide, and then kept up killings afterward – something Kagame denies.
It also glosses over Rwanda’s disastrous adventures into neighboring Congo, which Kigali has twice invaded since 1994, helping to twice depose a sitting president and install another. And it ignores claims that Rwanda armed proxy forces and looted minerals in Congo’s east.
Also sidestepped are claims that Kagame is becoming increasingly autocratic as 2017 nears, the end of his term in office.
Rwandan authorities would rather that people forget these details. Instead, everyone is encouraged to absorb a nationally sanctioned memory that critics say is starting to turn into an ideology.
Rwanda has long been a hierarchical society in which ordinary folk follow the dictates of their rulers in a quasi-feudal system. The chains of command are clear, from the highest echelons in Kigali all the way down to the village level.
This hierarchy helped the grandmasters of the genocide, the Hutu extremists, send out messages to their foot soldiers that would ready them for the mass killing to come.
Today, it still allows for local spies to inform on neighbors who divert from the approved “memory.”
These two words – remembering and forgetting – swirl with hidden meanings in Rwanda, where discussing an issue directly is rare and where euphemism and metaphor rule.
Today, “remembering” translates as unquestioningly accepting the official narrative of the genocide, acting accordingly as a good citizen, conforming to the rules, and saying, not inappropriately, “never again.”
Those who question, criticize, disagree, or diverge are accused of “forgetting” the genocide. People who oppose Kagame, or who fail to pay their taxes, or who shirk the monthly national community service, are forgetters of the national story that brings unity.
Such behavior is classed alongside denying that the genocide took place. Expressing such sentiments is deeply taboo.
“The government watches hawkishly for anyone saying anything that could be construed as diverting from the official line,” one Western diplomat in Kigali says. “There’s a good reason for it: No one wants what happened to happen again. But there is an argument that ‘genocide ideology’ has no firm legal definition, and it’s becoming a kind of catchall term with which to accuse people who are not playing ball.”
What endlessly irritates Rwandan officials who feel they have lifted their society up is an attitude at home and abroad that the kind of ideology that led to the Hutu killings and genocide is treated too lightly, and that it continues to be a force, albeit a latent one.
The many interlaced meanings of “remembering” and of “forgetting” here amounts to a kind of doublespeak, and this first post-genocide generation has grown up speaking it fluently.
Most of the 30-odd people who spoke to the Monitor during a week’s trip around Rwanda explicitly and repeatedly praised Kagame, talked at length about his good leadership, and repeated key aspects of his vision.
“I disagree that our society is restricted,” says Mussa Uwitonze, a travel and tourism student in Kigali who lost both his parents when he was 3 years old and fleeing the genocide.
“I can look at any newspaper website that I want and read that there are people who say our government does not let us speak our minds. That is not true. It is those people outside [Rwanda] who are causing the problems. Talking of these things does not bring development,” he adds.
The effects of that development are obvious across the country.
One million people have been lifted from poverty in a decade. Public schooling is free. Well-managed investments in infrastructure mean the country has some of Africa’s best roads, reliable electricity even in the remotest villages, and broadband Internet nationwide.
“I am here as an educated young woman, as an entrepreneur, and as someone who is helping many of my siblings thanks to my income from my own business,” says Benie Nshimtumukiza, a 20-something who rents wedding party dresses in Kigali.
“From what I was taught at school, before the genocide, women did not even have rights. How can anyone say that this situation of today is not better?”
Equality of opportunity – gender, family, class – is an affirmative way to oppose the Hutu extremist propaganda against wealthy Tutsis that helped fan the jealousy that spurred the genocide.
“I grew up thinking that I was a victim, but I came to realize all of us were victims; we were all affected,” says Jonathan Iyandemye, a student raised in a poor family who has just won a scholarship to Harvard University.
“Here we have no oil. We have no natural resources. But we have a people who, thanks to God and good leadership that encourages us to preserve our dignity, [have] the mind-set to succeed.”
While the common narrative can sound slightly sinister to a visitor, it raises a central question: If exploitable ethnic hate has given way to a sense of proud national unity, is it wrong to bring such change with a heavy official hand?
The jury may be out. Still, no one would talk openly about this, and not everyone accepts that it’s in Rwanda’s best interest to use every tool of the state to push an official memory.
One supporter of Kagame talked of research carried out by a mental-health charity for the Rwandan government that showed “many Rwandans are boiling up inside” but feel they cannot speak of their experiences for fear of breaking laws banning “genocide ideology.”
Another point of view comes from Kigali-based psychiatrist Charles Mudenge: “Only slowly are we changing the idea here that needing psychological counseling means you are crazy.”
His caseload is large, he says, something that could suggest that, until recently, more people needed help to deal with mental trauma than had been seeking that help.
Despite such challenges, this little Central African country has been setting new standards for surmounting high hurdles. Like leading an all-African cycling team to the Tour de France, perhaps?
“Why not?” asks Kimberly Coats, an American who, with her husband, Jock Boyer, helps coach Team Rwanda, the national squad. “It’s only a lack of access, not a lack of talent, that’s held these guys back.”
In the shadow of the three volcanoes, cooling down after his morning training, Theo Karasira argues that succeeding despite the genocide is not what should distinguish Rwanda’s cyclists. What should surprise the world is that they were climbing the rankings despite coming from a “really, really small country,” he says.
Perhaps that may become Rwanda’s own kind of exceptionalism – a small place on its way to becoming known for its achievements and not for past evils.
“We will keep our flag flying high for … something commendable,” Mr. Karasira says. “We are a different country now.”