Some years ago when I told a European that I was from Rwanda, she stopped in her tracks, looked at me in the eye, and asked me if Rwanda was in Kenya, if it was far from the coast, and what sort of tourist attractions are there.
I mumbled an inaudible no, as she climbed onto a tour coach leaving me feeling extremely embarrassed. Embarrassed because, like the tourist, I also knew nothing beyond the name ‘Rwanda’ and my grandmother’s stories that seemed so distant.
A few years ago while on a sabbatical, another European woman asked me where I came from and when I said Rwanda, she gave me that familiar, heartbroken ‘oh’ look that people who got to know Rwanda during the Genocide always wear when you tell them you are from there. When we got to talk some more, I realized the look on her face had another meaning too; it was a rather perplexed look that wondered how someone who is obviously not savage can come from a country where a few years ago experienced an unprecedented human butchery in a short space of time.
In 2007 when I returned to Europe for a longer period, things seemed to be different. Forget the sorry look and the horror on the faces of well meaning people.
There were many things that had put my little country on the world map this time round; some extremely gratifying and some really worrying. Well, good things first: these days it’s not the Genocide that brings Rwanda into conversations over coffee but its leadership, its fight against graft and its efforts and leadership in issues such as good governance, innovations in justice, its post conflict recovery and the near-miraculous economic growth.
Then, there are the bad things, mostly related to the Genocide. There are people with more than modest means doing a lot of work to portray the country in bad taste no matter how well it does in many things. They are bent on destroying the country’s reputation at all costs. Unfortunately most of their blackmail finds its way in many homes and minds, more that the good that is being done by Rwanda.
Forget the bad things, as the adage goes; bad things come in threes but don’t last, but good things do. In this global world, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep some things to one self. The world is indeed becoming a global village at such a fast pace that you no longer need to foam at the corner of your mouth trying to explain anything. This is a world where a big number of people know about everything.
Unfortunately, knowing and understanding are two different things.
The global media is feeding homes and minds with raw information that one of my friends concluded that the information age is not giving us the option to digest what we read and hear. So, welcome to the global literal world, where metaphors mean very little beyond the words that they are.
When people read on the internet the negative and often untrue things that our kinsfolk post on blogs and websites about Rwanda, the target readership is that of a literal world and the first question is, which side are you on?
It’s not surprising therefore that even the most learned, those who are endowed with analytical skills and insatiable palate for empirical evidence in its very intimate details, buy into the hate enterprise without raising a finger.
It’s that bad, that when I discussed my research topic with an intellectual colleague who I have very high regard for, the first question was whether the topic was safe for me. What actually my colleague meant was, could I actually research and write on the economic determinants of identities in conflict and still be rational about my findings and give an unbiased conclusion.
I don’t know what sort of answer my colleague expected, but I surely think in a global world, the first thing that should be global is the earnest search for the global truth.
The writer is a Fellow of Economics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague in the Netherlands