My name is Amon Munyaneza. I was born in Uganda a few years before or after you, depending on how old you are. My parents left Rwanda in the 50s and settled in Uganda, first as refugees, and later as locals trying to blend in.
Growing up, I desperately wanted to belong. I wanted to feel like this place, the only place I had known in my life, was home to me. But it never felt like home. At first it was the stories that my parents told of the hardships and the unbecoming reception they had to endure as refugees.
But since I spoke the local language very well growing up, I felt I could blend in. Except that I had one thing working against me. If you had seen me playing with the other kids in the community, or sitting in a classroom at my primary school, you wouldn’t tell I was Rwandan.
I didn’t have different skin color or anything that could single me out. So, what is it that was working again me, you ask. I had a very strong Rwandan last name. That was my big disadvantage trying to blend in.
So, every time I said my last name I could see someone’s eyes grow wide, then a little smile, followed by, “Ah you are Rwandan.” That term, for a people like us who didn’t have a country, wasn’t our favorite thing to hear.
Being kids we definitely hadn’t developed that thick skin to take it all. And those who tried, the stigma around being a foreigner and a refugee worked against them every day.
In the 70s and 80s, the group that preceded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a fledgling group of refugees who had had enough, decided to start negotiations with the then Rwandan government to allow us to go home.
But that old government didn’t want to hear a word of it. So, the refugees formed what’s now the RPF, took up arms, and launched an offensive on October 1, 1990. Along the way in 1994, a plan that had been hatched for years to exterminate us was put in action.
By the time the RPF took over power on July 4, 1994 to stop the genocide against the Tutsi, close to a million people had been killed. A lot of young people in the RPF also lost their lives fighting for our freedom.
Two of my childhood best friends died on the frontline, advancing fast to stop the genocide, and hopefully save a few remaining lives from the grip of the militia. I will always remember them.
When the RPF took power in 1994, and I was finally allowed to hold a Rwandan passport, I was very proud. I thanked God many times that I hadn’t changed my last name to fit in.
I am so proud of my name now; so proud that I am accepted by my own people; so proud that my children can live on their great grandparents’ land.
I am very grateful to the Rwandan leadership that has created a government of national unity that has united all Rwandans irrespective of their perceived differences.
The younger generation may not remember the trauma and the pain of being stateless; the emptiness of having no access to your roots; the stigma of being looked down on because you have no place to go. The new generation of Rwandans has grown up in equal opportunity.
It’s beautiful that our children are growing up with a positive identity. But the disadvantage with this is that they may forget what it took for us to be proud of the sound of our names again. To listen to your name being called and not cringe.
They may forget how much blood and sweat it takes to get your country back once you’ve lost it. And with that, they may undervalue the strides and the path we are on.
I pray that this generation will keep their eyes wide open. That nobody and nothing will ever take them away from building a country, a community, and a society they can proudly leave for their children and grandchildren.
The writer is a management and growth consultant serving companies in North America and Africa. He is a graduate of the University of Rwanda and Multnomah University in the USA.