I’ve developed a cynical vein against foreign media reports on Rwanda that can sometimes make me miss unbiased remarks in some of them. Conscious of that, I tried to pick interest in the blog of an American journalist that I happened by, whose first post excitedly announced the journalist was visiting the “enigma” that is Rwanda for the first time.
Nick Aster said he was part of a dozen editors here to explore the “enigma” by observing it and talking to ordinary Rwandans and practically all officials. He would divulge the “enigma” to his countrymen/women and the world. (“Enigma” is not his word but is a term of choice for a “newfound colleague”.)
The post received delirious comments, with two urging him not to risk a “death sentence” saying anything negative and five encouraging him to leave behind the baggage of “alarmist reports” he might bear so as to give his own, authentic views. In spite of myself, I also felt some excitement rising.
Surely, these journalists on the ground would observe what Rwandans see and know as their country, and report it as such. That would help them avoid the temptation of other reporters who always fall back on the apparently inexhaustible “alarmist stock” that has been ‘stored’ by some rights advocacy groups and media watchdogs for anyone interested in understanding this “enigma” to draw from.
So, I eagerly waited for the second post on his blog. And sure enough, within 24 hours it was up, its title loudly enquiring: “Rwanda, a Sustainable Singapore of Africa?”
So fast, I wondered, has he gone around the country? But I didn’t want to dampen my excitement and continued to read. He had been “immediately struck by the complete lack of third-world stereotypes” he had expected. In place of those, he had seen an orderly country; a people busy at their work; a heavy presence of foreign investment; busy construction activity; presence of many NGOs; the lot. Rwanda, he averred, is “Africa’s crown jewel of stability and economic growth.”
Then out of nowhere, it came: “But as my newfound colleague, Andrew Meldrum, writes, there is a “stepford wives” aura in the air that begs the visitor to peek under the hood at a quiet, yet simmering political discontent.” “Stepford wives”? Wikipedia assured me the term is derived from a novel and is used in popular US culture to refer to “a person who submits meekly to authority and abuse.”
So, Rwandans are a timid lot who cannot dare raise a finger when their rights are being trampled on. Are these the same Rwandans who only 21 years ago rose to fight the dark forces that had for long divided them? Who have reconfigured their society into a continuously less discordant people who are now working together to build that “crown jewel”?
If it were not a case of confusing a few self-seekers with the majority of Rwandans, it would make for strange bedfellows!
But Aster was not done yet and he gave the whole works: the full range of gagging and oppression tools usually cited by any Rwandan political aspirant or outsider similarly inclined who has a bone to pick with this government. By now, even the most unschooled peasant in Rwanda can recite that list without thinking twice (even if it only provokes bemused laughter among fellow Rwandans and is known to be a figment of the imagination), so often has it been repeated. A list not seen, felt or uttered but must be “under the hood”!
Amazing then, how this Nick Aster genius can discover all this conformist torment suffered by Rwandans within less than 12 km of the airport and after only a brief view of the “Audacious and – not Green but – Green(ish) Master Plan” of Kigali!
But, oh, yes, there is the small matter of Reporters Without Borders ranking the country “near the bottom of the barrel for freedom of the press” that he throws in for illustration. And with it, perhaps unconsciously, “his own, authentic observations” are thrown out through the window. Aster must ride the tiger and risk that “death sentence”.
But who am I to comment, being one of these “stepford wives”? So, I checked for different views by Aster’s “newfound colleagues”. Tom Paulson, known for being balanced, nevertheless only dwelt on what other commentators say and seemed not to have formed his own opinion, except that the country “remains a bit of an enigma – like a fleeting glimpse of a gorilla in the mist.” Andrew Meldrum, whose opinion I’d sampled, could only conclude that everything about Rwanda “has an unspoken history.”
Three blogs too many and I stopped checking. Compulsion being what it is, however, I found myself reading one story from Tom Paulson and another from Andrew Meldrum towards the close of their ‘study tour’. Even then, however, my question lingers: did these guests learn anything about this country? Or will they stick to their old baggage and risk their reputation, Lantos-Human-Rights-Commission-like?
Today is day zero for their departure. Having been entertained by the head of that “enigma”, yesterday, even after risking that “prison sentence”, hopefully the unbending dozen have seen the light shone on that “enigma”. Since their voice is inaudible, Rwandans can only hope.
Whatever the case, my cynical streak is back in place.