When I came to Rwanda for the first time in 1998, I arrived in a country completely defined by its recent bloody past: the signs of the genocide of 1994 were everywhere, from the bullet holes riddling lampposts and the parliament building to often blank and traumatised expressions on the faces of those I saw walking the streets of Kigali. Not to mention the legions of NGOs busy setting up shop to support the rebuilding and rehabilitation process. I was working with a newly assembled team of young Rwandans to develop a radio soap opera that would deal with reproductive health issues and would be broadcast on the BBC. The workshop participants included men and women, Tutsis and Hutus, English-speakers and French-speakers, former exiles and those who had been in Rwanda throughout the genocide. It was my first assignment as a freelance consultant after leaving my cosy research position at Reading University.
To say it was challenging would be an understatement. Not only was I grappling with the intensity of running, solo, a three week participatory workshop on research methods for communication projects, and getting to know and understand my colleagues, but I was on an extremely steep learning curve with respect to Rwanda itself. I read in-depth and factual accounts of the history of animosity between the two tribes, as well as Feargal Keane's more personalised account of witnessing the end of the three month genocide, and the tragic 'We are sorry to inform that that tomorrow we will all be killed'. I saw a hard-hitting new play written by an up- and-coming young Rwandan playwright, in which she used the image of the three stone cooking fire to represent the three tribes of Rwanda - the Hutus, the Tutsis and the Twa (forest-dwelling pygmies who make up about 1% of the population) - and to make the point that all three are needed to support and sustain the country as a whole. I also visited the genocide site at Ntarama that Gus has written about. But in 1998 the bodies had not yet been removed and interred or rearranged into neat rows of skulls and bones and clothes: they lay as they had fallen, still decomposing, scattered among the low benches of the church.
11 years on, it’s a sad but unsurprising fact that Rwanda is still defined largely by the big G - genocide - although to that has been added the other big G - gorrillas. But there are encouraging signs too. Kigali has been rebuilt and barely resembles the town I first saw. The radio soap opera, called Urunana (meaning 'hand in hand'), has been on air for more than 10 years and has won numerous awards. I have just had a cup of coffee with Narcisse Kalisa, now project manager, and one of the original workshop participants I trained. We talked of what has changed and what has remained unchanged. Of course things aren't perfect but Rwanda, of all the countries we have travelled through, seems determined to achieve a better and happier future for all its people.