Driving through the hilly countryside of Rwanda reminds me slightly of the drumlins of Ireland, but that is were the similarity ends. The roads are muddy tracks, the crops in the fields are maize and soya – and occasionally banana or coffee bushes – while the scent of eucalyptus and mint hangs in the air. In early February the temperature is 32 degrees. Kids run out from their homes to wave, their eyes opening with surprise as they see my reddening flesh, glowing under the African sun after a long Irish winter, and shout ‘muzungu’ (white man). Even the adults do a double-take.
On a Friday afternoon I sit in a large room with a group of 40 women in a hilltop village in the south of Rwanda, close to the border with Burundi. They are part of a reconciliation project, funded by the Irish international development agency Trócaire, and include women who lost their husbands and other members of their family in the 1994 genocide in which one million people died. Other women in the same group were left to fend for themselves and their children because their husbands are in prison for taking part in the genocide.
Mukamana’s husband was convicted under one of the ‘Gacaca’ courts (community forums to resolve disputes between neighbours) which were set up in the wake of the genocide. His neighbours accused him of being part of a mob which used machetes to slaughter a child. Other members of the mob who confessed said Mukamana’s husband had been with them and he was found with the child’s watch. However, he denied taking part and said he had been at home when the attack took part. Mukamana told the court that he had not been at home and her husband now blames her for his being in prison. He was sentenced to 19 years, but his wife fears his release because under the country’s laws she will not be allowed to refuse him coming into her home.
She sits to have her picture taken beside a spritely 64-year-old called Cancilda whose husband and son were both killed during the genocide. She is not sure how or when they died, although she suspects that a neighbour who had been “like a father” to her son and with whom he was hiding may have betrayed him to the marauding Interahamwe (the Hutu
paramilitary gang which turned on their Tutsi neighbours and moderate Hutus who refused to take part in the 1994 slaughter). Cancilda fled her home and made the 40km journey by foot to Burundi as the genocide gathered pace. She tells me she saw many people being killed and was in constant fear of her life.
“There was killing everywhere. I could see people being killed and thrown into rivers. We were drinking water mixed with blood,” she says.
While reconciliation between women such as Cancilda and Mukamana is inspiring, and there are many similar examples, there are others who have refused and there is still a tangible tension bubbling under the surface everywhere I go in Rwanda. Against this backdrop is widespread poverty with most people in rural areas depending on subsistence farming. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and the pressure on land is intense. Overproduction means that each year it is losing the soil capacity to feed 40,000 people while the population continues to grow.
I meet families who are dependent on the land they farmed to feed themselves. Irish-funded projects have encouraged them to introduce crop rotation and terraced fields to improve irrigation and help prevent soil erosion, but a poor crop will inevitably mean hunger. During a visit to one family, I see a filthy child tottering aimlessly around their yard, his belly distended, eyes glazed and a layer of dried mucus along its upper lip. While the family I am visiting are obviously poor their children are bright-eyed and excited at the ‘muzungu’ visiting their home, but this wee one plods aimlessly about the place and stares blankly. A Trócaire worker takes one look and tells me he is suffering from malnutrition.
The woman of the household says he is a neighbour’s child called Dani and aged two (the child she is holding is also two and the difference in their physical health is stark). She says Dani’s father had stolen money and abandoned his wife and seven children. Dani’s mother is unable to work because she has to look after her children. When I asked the woman if she thinks Dani will live, she sighs and shrugs. It is not a heartless gesture for she is clearly
struggling to feed her own family, but it suggests an inevitability and there is helplessness in her face.