Conversations with strangers in Rwanda usually go one of two ways: people burst with optimism for their future or begin retelling horrifying experiences from their past. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when a million people were killed in a hundred days, still casts a shadow over the country – and every Rwandan is connected to it in one way or another.
In the decades since, Rwanda has risen like a phoenix from the flames to achieve the greatest progress on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The health system has become a shining emblem of its recovery, achieving near universal coverage and treatment rates for diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS that put wealthy countries of the West to shame – and all this in a nation that, despite huge progress, remains one of the poorest in the world.
Many still carry literal or emotional scars, but while doctors continue their work of physical repair, Rwandan artists, many of them genocide survivors, are using culture to heal wounds less visible. From the tech entrepreneurs establishing Kigali as a test kitchen for tech disruption in Africa, to the young architects rebuilding their nation, a bright new generation of poets, rappers, artists, musicians, writers and designers is establishing Rwanda as a cultural powerhouse in what many predict to be the ‘African century’.
Nestled on the side of one of Kigali’s many rolling hills, artist and poet Natacha Muzira is stirring a bubbling pot of pilau rice in her kitchen in the Kicukiro district. As she pours in more masala, a spicy aroma floats through the house, which has become the de facto HQ for Marakuja, the arts and culture organisation Natacha founded with Romanian photographer Irina Bara. On the other side of the house, her friend Eric 1Key, a spoken-word artist and rapper, is helping other local MCs put finishing touches to a DIY studio, soundproofing the walls with foam.
Like Eric, Natacha was born in exile in Congo and returned to Rwanda in 1996 when she was twelve. “We call it ‘coming back’ but I’d never been here before,” she explains. “It was traumatic for most families. The only reason they couldn’t be in Rwanda was because they were chased from the country. But the desire to have a country again was strong, so after the genocide, they came back and started from scratch.”
What prompted Natacha’s parents to flee the country was the 1959 massacre of Tutsis. To help maintain control, Rwanda’s Belgian colonisers elevated the Tutsi minority to a position of dominance over the Hutu majority. After stoking divisions and playing Hutu and Tutsi against one another for decades, the Belgians handed control to the Hutu majority shortly before Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, leading to frequent massacres right up until the genocide in 1994. As the international community looked on but refused to act, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel army made up mostly of exiled Tutsis led by Paul Kagame, invaded from Uganda to end the genocide and take control of the country.
When Natacha returned to Kigali, she didn’t recognise it as the lost paradise of her parents’ stories. Instead she found a crippled city, riddled with bullet holes. But defying all expectations and overcoming fears of more ethnic conflict, Rwandans – both Hutu and Tutsi – started working to rebuild their home. Today’s artistic resurgence is a product of that.
“I lived through this transformation of Kigali, and of Rwanda,” Natacha recalls. “It’s amazing to see a city transformed. It seems like it’s growing with you, somehow. All the bullet holes are gone and you can see all the new buildings. It’s like looking at a country removing its scars – some kind of plastic surgery, for a very, very damaged face.”
On the other side of the hill, the brightly painted Ivuka was the first artist-run cultural centre. “I call Ivuka the womb of contemporary art in Kigali,” explains programme director Charles Kizito. Since its foundation by Colin Sekajugo in 2007, Ivuka has run art sessions in orphanages and projects on HIV awareness, as well as providing the seed for a handful of associated centres now blossoming across the city.
In 2012, Ivuka began a yearly project bringing together 300 young people with genocide survivors. “People would begin to paint and things would progress from dark images to brighter colours,” Charles explains. “It just happened naturally. We weren’t forcing people to express themselves. We put supplies in front of them and they just did their thing: like informal art therapy, I guess.”
“What makes Rwanda rich today is the diversity,” explains Natacha. “You have many Rwandans after the genocide coming back from Congo, from Burundi, from Uganda, even from Europe. Thousands of people came back with that luggage, which helped establish Rwanda as a melting pot of people with double-cultures.”
Natacha founded Marakuja to help catalyse this movement, supporting new expression by offering exhibition space, creative workshops, support and mentoring, and the recording space Eric is working on. “I don’t believe in just speaking,” Natacha explains. “Words are powerful – I can not demean words because I am a poet – but I am a woman of action. I’m fighting to give younger artists the opportunities I never had and to allow them to survive through their art.”
Rwanda’s phenomenal transformation has been reflected in huge personal changes for Eric, too. His album Entre Deux (recorded in English and French) explores the many contradictions and dichotomies in his own life, such as reconciling the contrast between today and his early years, growing up in a squalid refugee camp in neighbouring Congo. “Like they say, every inspiring story comes from pain,” he explains. “During my childhood, I starved. I got sick; I almost died. I saw death, I saw cholera. I saw refugees, I saw bombs. When misery’s all you know, you can’t dream. What I’m making today is to remind people that it’s so easy to forget.”
Eric claims he was lucky. An aunt paid for schooling in Congo-Brazzaville, which allowed him to take advantage of new opportunities – professionally and artistically – since returning to Rwanda. Still, he takes a far more outspoken view on Rwanda’s development. “I’m happy to mention we all have jobs because of our connections,” he explains. “The country’s like Instagram: beautiful to watch, but the substance… When you travel outside Kigali, the reality’s totally different.”
Anjan Sundaram, a writer who coached journalists in Rwanda from 2009, captures this other narrative in his book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship. He sees the 2010 election as a pivotal moment. “The election was a masterpiece of authority,” Sundaram writes. “The vote passed in an ambience of total serenity. No negative incidents were reported in the country: there were no protests, no complaints, no boycotts or demonstrations. […] By the end of the election, the old guard of news journalists had been done away with: killed, imprisoned, exiled or, by fear, converted into [supporters].”
Activists acknowledge that President Kagame has enjoyed broad support for rebuilding Rwanda since taking office in 2000 and he can point to a strong track-record of economic growth, social development, good governance and low corruption – which has allowed partnerships with foreign aid organisations to yield enormous fruit. But he stands accused of stifling debate and opposition voices. The December 2015 referendum on constitutional reform passed with a yes result of over ninety per cent and the amendment could see Kagame in power until 2034. His announcement to stand once again in the 2017 presidential election drew criticism from the US and the EU, who said Kagame should allow a new generation of leaders to emerge.
“In Rwandan society, people don’t talk about their frustrations… but one day they will show you in a way that you don’t want to see.”
Amid the patchwork of small landholdings that cover Rwanda’s famed rolling hills, life takes on a different pace to the rapidly developing capital. Outside the village of Mushishivo, Theoniste Rubarura is making his rounds. He’s wearing the distinctive anti-mosquito uniform of Community Health Workers, the backbone of Rwanda’s health system in rural areas.
Theoniste was elected by his village to become one of 45,000 volunteers trained to provide essential health services, such as TB, HIV, Malaria and diarrhoea treatment, alongside maternal and newborn care. “I wanted to save lives in the village,” he explains. His patients are covered by the Mutuelles de Sante health insurance scheme, which has helped achieve near-universal coverage and includes the poorest section of Rwanda’s population free of charge.
Fifteen years ago, the AIDS epidemic was a major destabiliser, but when the international community stepped up and released huge funds through the Global Fund and PEPFAR, Rwanda used the help to build infrastructure and expertise – allowing it to double life expectancy since 1994. As it frees itself from diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as AIDS, TB and Malaria, Rwanda is building the capacity to face new challenges, more common in affluent societies, like cancer care at the Partners in Health-supported Butaro hospital, constructed from volcanic rock near the Congolese border.
As Rwanda begins to free itself from the shackles of poverty and evolve as a fairer society, it’s having to deal with another new menace: the teenager. In a school playing-field outside Musanze in Rwanda’s volcano-dotted Northern Province, a circle of girls in handmade wooden glasses and headdresses are dancing, passing around energetic high-fives and chanting ‘arasobanutse’, or ‘she’s smart’ in Kinyarwanda. It’s a lively introduction to the 12+ Programme, which gives ten to twelve-year-old girls across Rwanda the chance to sit down with older mentors to talk about puberty, staying safe, starting businesses, such as raising animals or selling eggs, as well as sexual health.
12+ is supported by Ni Nyampinga (which means ‘the beautiful girl – inside and out – who makes good decisions’), Rwanda’s first print, online and radio youth media platform. The country scores highly on female political representation, but in other areas women still face huge challenges to make their voices heard. Both projects share the same goal of promoting female empowerment and encouraging girls to express themselves, defend against abuses and assert their rights. They were launched by NGO Girl Effect and are supported by UK DFID, but Nicole Isimbi, twenty, and Jacqueline Uwamariya, twenty-three, explain that their team of young journalists – and their devoted audience – have taken ownership. Nicole and Jacqueline are here to record a radio show with the girls, who quickly surround them in a mob. The girls are completely star-struck by Baza Shangazi, Ni Nyampinga’s fictional agony aunt and most popular feature.
Emma-Claudine Ntirenganya explains how she took on the role of Baza Shangazi to help break taboos, and mainly answers questions on menstruation, puberty, friendship and relationships: typical teen growing-pains. In a country where the concept of teenagers is just gaining recognition, she’s a new and highly valued source of information. “Until recently, Rwandan girls would be children one day, then become women the next and go straight to work,” she says. “We’re trying to make sure a teenage stage exists, especially for girls.”
“Parents think it’s a dangerous age, I think, and that’s what we need to normalise,” Nicole explains. “Through Ni Nyampinga we encourage adolescent girls to have fun, to feel free – not see those years as bad or stopping them exercising their rights.”
As the session draws to a close, I ask the girls about their ambitions for the future. One wants to be a doctor, another a Ni Nyampinga journalist. Then a small girl in a smart beige shirt and wooden mock-spectacles stands up and explains confidently that she wants to learn how to be president and rule her country.
“Our generation are much more informed than the previous generation,” Nicole explains. “We’re helping to give girls the information they need and we can see from their messages that we’re helping to change their lives. Our generation is going to deliver a huge amount; we’re going to make a big change.”
NGOs and their signature white jeeps are everywhere in Rwanda – and in the packed Ministry of Health car park, they’re causing a logjam. Three local drivers are shouting at one another over the revving engines to reverse and break the jam.
You can still make out the commotion upstairs, where Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho is speaking frankly about the challenges posed by falling funding from the government and foreign donors over coming years.
She’s a trained paediatrician who has become a minor celebrity in development circles for the huge transformation she’s overseen in Rwanda.
“Open your eyes, your mind, believe what you see,” she says. “Don’t be like the journalists who say it’s too good to be true.” Her parting remark would have passed without a thought, were it not for a story in an old copy of The East African newspaper, sitting on the table outside the conference room.
An article reports that a former Rwandan military officer named David Kabuye is on trial, accused of ‘spreading false news, with intent to stir hate and revolt against the government’. He faced fifteen years imprisonment for telling inmates in Nyambege Prison that allegations in the documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story are true. Amnesty International later reported he was acquitted just days after appearing as a prosecution witness in a case against retired General Frank Rusagara – with both trials believed to be politically motivated.
The BBC film challenges the government’s official narrative of the genocide and argues that Kagame’s strong support from the international community has allowed the RPF to escape scrutiny over human rights abuses in the ’90s, such as revenge killings and the massacre at a camp for internally displaced persons near Kibeho. It also accuses Kagame of exploiting fears of further conflict to retain power, monitoring and controlling the Rwandan diaspora, and murdering defectors abroad. It led to the BBC being indefinitely banned from the country.
It’s amid this climate of enforced obedience that the nuanced stance of Eric, the rapper, stands apart. “What frustrates me is the hypocrisy of the people,” he explains. “Order and everything is alright, you know? But we are people at the end of the day. Military discipline works for some people but frustrates the rest. In Rwandan society, people don’t talk about their frustrations, but one day they will show you in a way that you don’t want to see. When people are quiet, it doesn’t mean they don’t have shit to say.”
Eric is critical of Rwanda’s neoliberal economic policy and the culture it has created, chasing big houses and SUVs. “The hypocrisy is that we’re copying a model, but we’re telling the people that everything is original,” he explains. “No, you’re copying from a model that’s failing.” He condemns the real estate speculation in Kigali, insecure contracts and young people being pushed into debt.
Dictators rarely make for lasting peace. On the other side of the border in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ultimately successful attempt to seek a third term sparked violent protests, which have led to hundreds of deaths, pushing the country to the brink of civil war. In Rwanda’s Untold Story, academic Filip Reyntjens, explains that without true peace, reconciliation between all social and ethnic groups, as well as full democratic participation, “Rwanda is a volcano… with the RPF sitting on top.”
With the international community looking on awkwardly as other avenues for debate and dissent are shut down, Rwanda’s artists have an important role to play in fighting for freedom of expression. But those willing to speak out, like Eric, remain in the minority.
“People wanna dance; they wanna sing and they want to drink,” says Eric. “But they don’t want to listen to a voice that challenges them, especially the status quo. I love Rwanda, but I think we can do better than this. Artists like me critique what’s happening around us. But we don’t want to destroy. It’s about building, you know? Everything I’m doing is so that when my son grows up, he has a chance to raise the bar.”
At Marakuja HQ, the pilau has been eaten and the studio is complete. With esteemed beatmaker Jay P at the controls, Natacha, Eric and their friends each drop a verse on the inaugural track, which they upload straight to YouTube as ‘The Free Song’. All in a day’s work for Natacha, but what drives her to put so much energy into building Rwanda’s fledgling arts scene? “Rwanda needs artists for the same reasons as elsewhere, because what is a world without music or painting?” she explains. “This is what heals you. Especially in a country where we had so much trauma. What other way than art? You need to write it out, you need to sing it out, you need to draw it out, sculpt it out. This is how we express being human, we have a soul and we can heal, through art.”