The colonial era is a very controversial time in African history with historians, researchers, sociologist and economists debating both sides of the story. The debates continue as the wounds of the difficult times in the past have healed, but the scars are ever evident in the country of Rwanda.
Belgium colonised Rwanda in 1923. In the decades that followed, colonial oppression of ‘divide and rule’ politics dominated. The Belgian colonist divided the Rwandan population into two main groups. The Tutsi people, which means ‘rich in cattle’, each owned ten cows or more; and the Hutu people, which means ‘servant’ or ‘subject’, each had less than ten cows. They were even issued with identity documents to classify them individually. This artificial social engineering cemented the divide in a once united community. It all came to a head in 1994 when almost a whole generation of Rwandans were eliminated in a brutal war.
In a hundred days a million people were murdered by extremist Hutus – just for being Tutsis or moderate Hutus. The horror of this genocide has left a lasting impression on Rwanda and its people, but the rifts have healed remarkably quickly in some communities. The world did not believe it was possible, but in a country with one common language and a shared culture, which is unusual in African countries, reconciliation has helped the country move forward. There have been United Nations trials and local gacaca courts which have helped neighbors, friend and families deal with their pain and have led to forgiveness.
With the help of the international community, including private enterprise as well as the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and the United Kingdom, money was raised to develop a site to the north of the city. The site was specifically chosen as it is where 250,000 people from the war are buried and it has become a place for other victims to be laid to rest and remembered. The museum is an aspect of embracing tourism and raising revenue for the city, but most importantly it tells the world about this recent Rwandan history and houses permanent exhibitions about other genocide horrors around the world.
An experience at the Kigali Memorial Centre is emotionally draining. The visitor gets to be a part of the resting place of so many victims in eleven huge crypts, in the memorial rose gardens (the plan is to have a rose bloom for every victim), contemplating the Wall of Names and the highly emotive memorial to the children. Sculptures by Rwandan artist Laurent Hategekimana embrace themes of before, during and after the genocide. He has used local wood and a team of sculptors – some of them are themselves survivors of the war and some are relatives of the perpetrators. The emotion of a nation is clear in this artistic expression.
The exhibition is growing all the time as more people are gaining the courage to donate their photographs and memories. The exhibition is a very personal journey for the guests. Visitor can identify with individuals in this war - their stories of suffering and survival. The message at the Kigali Memorial Centre is very clear - we cannot let this happen again. We must take positive action to educate and empower communities around the world to understand the cost of ignorance.