"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


frisch from kigali

Straight from Kigali's German butcher shop/bakery, which everyone refers to by its old name, La Baguette, rather than its actual name, La Gallette. This is how it goes. I'm sure that Professor Deutsch can enlighten us as to what it means that part of my lunch was "knusprig."

Kigali is such a strange place. It's pleasant enough; a sleepy capital city with a busy downtown shopping district which is what most smaller African capitols used to be like. There are plenty of new buildings going up, however, as Rwanda works to attract more foreign investment in sectors like the coffee industry.

The city is built on eight hills, each of which has a name (a la Roma), and each of which is painfully steep, especially if you've just arrived and aren't acclimatized to the altitude yet. Traffic is worse every time I'm here, but it still only takes 15 minutes to get to the airport, and that's the furthest distance away from downtown.

La Baguette, the German bakery with French names, is a reminder of an easily-forgotten aspect of Rwanda's history. Technically, Rwanda was once a German colony, paired in adminstration with what was then known as Urundi, both of which were reached via Tanganyika. After World War I, the Germans lost their African colonies, and Ruanda-Urundi was bequeathed to the Belgians as a protectorate under a League of Nations mandate.

Rwanda, though, was never seriously under very much in the way German control. Unlike most of the countries in Africa whose borders were drawn to suit the trade routes and whims of European colonizers, Rwanda was a kingdom for centuries before Europeans ever arrived. It is a natural mountain fortress that was (and is) difficult for outsiders to penetrate and control using military force. Tutsi kings called mwamis ruled the territory for several hundred years in a feudal system that classified the agriculturalist Hutu as peasants and the pastoralist (read: cattle-raising) Tutsi as aristocrats. It was possible to move from one status to the other, but, much as Europe functioned in the middle ages, the feudal system more-or-less worked until outside forces changed the norms of societal organization.

The Germans never allocated enough manpower to actually administer Rwanda; many Rwandans would probably have been surprised to learn that they were subjects of Bismarck and company. That all changed when the Belgians arrived. The Belgians brought some advances to life in Rwanda, such as the system of terraced farming on the hillsides that continues to this day. But they also created and/or exacerbated many of the tensions that plagued Rwanda for the next century. The Belgians formally classified each Rwandan as a Hutu or a Tutsi, distributed identity cards, and favored the Tutsi in providing opportunities for education and employment in the colonial administration.

Little wonder that it didn't work out so well. We hear about the 1994 genocide all the time; what's less known is that there were precedents of ethnic violence throughout the country's history, and ethnic tension marked Rwandan history from independence. The country is tiny, its economy is agriculture-based, and there's simply not enough land.

1994 came and went and the mess from that continues in the DRC to this day. Back in Kigali, though, things seem quite pleasant. And the countryside, though poor, is beautiful and productive.

But there's something underlying everything that doesn't seem quite right. Much of it, I think, has to do with knowing that everyone you meet has a story, that they have seen and endured things you would not believe; that they have lived in exile or in refugee camps; or even that they themselves did something they would not have believed they could do. There are physical wounds everywhere, people in the streets who lack limbs begging at the bus station.

Does reconciliation work? I hope so. There's certainly lots of talk about it, and efforts to get everyone to speak Kinyarwanda, rather than dividing the country between English and French speakers. But a country doesn't just get over something like what happened here, what history led to, what the decisions of bureaucrats thousands of miles away created. That takes a miracle.



Blogger Angela said...

A German bakery? Nice...

Saturday, June 09, 2007 4:44:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

What does that MEAN?

Sunday, June 10, 2007 7:44:00 AM


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