This is my final post about Rwanda for the Addison Independent. And now, back to the daily routine.
Last Thursday morning, after grabbing an omelet, a passionfruit, a couple bananas and a cup of coffee, I sat down to my second-to-last breakfast in Rwanda.
Minutes later, a large baboon loped through the swinging kitchen door, hopped onto the breakfast buffet and began stuffing bananas into its mouth amid shouts from the hotel staff. The chef at the omelet station charged toward the baboon, spatula raised high, and the baboon took a last handful of bananas and headed back into the kitchen.
Just two days later, I stared down at the stark brown patchwork fields of the Champlain Valley as our plane tilted in toward Burlington International Airport. Where I’d hoped there might be a snow-covered landscape, I saw no snow, no baboons or banana trees, no passionfruit vines or tea plantations. Just fields of brown, sloping up to snow-kissed mountains.
It’s not that Vermont isn’t beautiful. The Green Mountains, while they’re no 14,000-foot Rwandan volcanoes, are striking in their own right during most seasons. The dense, peaceful forests are a far cry from the hodge-podge of terraces and precariously tilted fields that reach clear to the tops of most hills in Rwanda. As it turns out, 11 million mouths and the country’s export markets demand a lot of whatever agricultural land is available.
Wander through any forest in Vermont, though, and you’ll see rocky foundations of old homesteads, decaying stone walls and wizened apple trees that remind us that there was a time not too long ago when this land, too, was more field than forest.
It’s true, Vermont’s dirt roads are mostly brown and not red, and the shades of green here are more subdued, less neon-hued. At home in Vermont, I’ve come to expect that I’ll have regular running water, steady electricity, a refrigerator, hot showers and flushing toilets, which are not necessarily givens in Rwanda. The pace of a Rwandan city is different than that of city here, with fewer stoplights, more diesel fumes, more pushing and pulling and haggling in the close aisles of the markets.
But beyond the cosmetic differences, the superficial luxuries of life here, the exhilarating chaos of cities there, at the root of it all, we’re all humans, more similar than we are different.
So would we here in the U.S. be capable of a genocide like that of 1994, when Hutu rose up against Tutsi and, in just a few weeks that spring, murdered well over half a million people?
Given just the right combination of colonial rule, repression, ethnic division, economic depression, struggling government, inflammatory media and who knows what else, I think any group would be capable of it.
After all, we here in the U.S. hold the memory of a genocide, though we rarely word it in such strong terms. Elsewhere in the world, we show up first in chronological listings of international genocides: “the American genocide, 1492-.” According to some estimates, that genocide may have had higher casualties than the Holocaust.
This is not a call to feel ashamed or guilty about lack of action. What’s past is past. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that in an increasingly connected world, there’s no excuse for retreating into our own lives, our own business, our own countries as people are murdered in the streets, fields, churches and hospitals over an ethnic, racial, sexual, national or religious division.
Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General during the Rwandan genocide, expressed his regret for the organization’s inaction in a 2004 memorial speech, concluding:
“May we all reach beyond this tragedy, and work together to recognize our common humanity. If we can accept that everyone on this earth, regardless of colour, creed, language or ethnicity is fully human — and, as such, fully worthy of our interest, sympathy and acceptance — we will have taken a giant step forward from dehumanization and toward a stronger sense of global kinship.”