Why we must look beyond the stereotypes

When most people, who are not African hear or read about Rwanda, what comes to mind, are images from Hollywood as depicted by the movies that have been done about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

When most people, who are not African hear or read about Rwanda, what comes to mind, are images from Hollywood as depicted by the movies that have been done about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

When I met somebody and he told me he was from Rwanda, I saw images of black people running for their lives, dead bodies everywhere, tanks, destruction and the remains of the victims of the Genocide, as displayed in the media especially in the west as we see them.

All this was because of what I had been conditioned to believe, through Hollywood and the western media.

Growing up in Latin America, all I thought of Africa, was a big continent with warm weather, inhabited mostly by black people, rich in natural resources, wild animals, many tribes and with a lot of colourful things.

Of course the images we see on western television, of poverty and violence form a great part of our imagination about Africa.

The only reference, I have had for the life of Africans was in my own country Colombia. Black (Africans) people in my country live on the pacific coast, and they mostly eat fish and coconut rice.

More to this, they are music lovers and are generally happy people.

The women are beautiful and have more children compared to other races. Religion is central to their lives, and it is men who mostly go out to work while women take care of the home.

This is all that came to mind when I met someone from Rwanda. And I think this is the general view of many in Latin America, though now I know that it is largely misleading. 

The first thing, is to immediately think of Rwandans, as survivors of the 1994 Genocide, and then try to understand their culture from what we know about black people that live in our countries.

What many of us do not understand, is that although our continents and countries are so far away, Africans and Latin Americans, have a lot in common, than we think.

We are both, affected and viewed from negative stereotypes in many cases. With Colombia for example, people automatically associate our country, with drugs (especially cocaine) and a few movies they have seen about people being kidnapped and then taken to the jungle.
We have never experienced Genocide as was the case in Rwanda. But we have also had a conflict and it is still ongoing. So, when one meets people from Rwanda, you are always tempted to ask how it was to be in Rwanda during the genocide, and if they lost close relatives during the time.

Later, you get to realise that we are similar in many ways. This is besides what is associated with us, being from poor countries  and the conflicts we have all been through, but also there is some blood connection and our cultures are not very different.

A friend from Uganda used to say that Latin Americans are “people from nowhere” and I think it is largely true.

We have had so much cultural influences and we are a mixture of; native Indians, the natives of America; the Spanish, who conquered and finally the Africans who were brought as slaves and later intermarried with the natives. The implication, is that we are from everywhere and hence nowhere in particular. 

I now realise that we may be people of different backgrounds, but we are all the same. So if someone asks me now what I think of someone when they say they are from Rwanda, I will have to ask first: Is it before or after I met Rwandans, for the first time?

At the same time, it is apparent that the country is undergoing a lot of changes in terms of development and social progress, and meeting people from Rwanda, you get to feel that there are many who are determined to participate in ensuring that the future is a better one, and it would be unfair to always associate such a promising country with the past.

The author is a journalist based in Colombia