Umuzungu! Umuzungu! Konnichiwa? Ni-hao? …?


Front Page of the New Times - Rwanda's newspaper: 150,000 Supporters at Kagame's Rally in Gicumbi

Since I’ve arrived here, people have been intensely curious about my ethnicity. After giving my name, I am nearly always asked, “Where are you from?” By this point, I’ve given up answering “Chicago.” Now, I just skip to the real object of the question and state, “My parents are from Taiwan.” Sometimes, I have a little more fun, and I ask, “Where do you think I’m from?” The answers I’ve received have been … well, interesting. Japanese. Malaysian. Thai. Half-Hawaiian. Filipino. Korean. People really have no clue. In fact, most of them don’t guess Chinese or Taiwanese because I don’t look like many of the Chinese internationals that they have seen in Kigali who are there for business.

Ethnicity seems to be an important marker of my identity, however the ethnic markers “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are words that you do not hear often, if at all, in Rwanda – they are the words shrouded by lowered voices and whispers, uttered in dark corners away from music-blaring FPR trucks that incite the ecstatic cheers of thousands clad in red, white, and blue. They are the words of “divisionism,” they are part of the language of “pro-genocide” – and yet, even though they are not spoken, they are tangible concepts that people acknowledge and allow to affect their interactions with others. For all the government’s claims that ethnicity does not exist in Rwanda, people are still very much cognizant of it and fearful of its power.

Kagame, Kagame EVERYWHERE

On my second day of teaching, my students asked me what I thought of Rwanda and after answering vaguely that I’ve enjoyed my time here thus far and that I am excited about the elections, I thought to ask them what they thought of their own country. Three students immediately raised their hands and began to profess their love for Kagame. One of them, a female student, became especially passionate when she discussed how people were previously defined and discriminated against by their height and the shape of their noses, but that these things were no longer important. She also talked about how women have been empowered since 1994 and that they now have more rights and opportunities to educate themselves and run their own businesses. I listened to the vocalized support of Kagame and commended the students for practicing their English, but my attention was not so much on the rehashed lists of Kagame’s achievements as much as the pervasive silence of the rest of the classroom. While the three students gushed their undying love for Kagame, I couldn’t tell whether the other students were silent because they were letting their peers express opinions with which they were in agreement, or whether they had reservations that they could not or would not vocalize.

The August 9 election is approaching and everywhere you go, Kagame’s face looms down at you – from billboards, frames on classroom walls, restaurants, hotels, entire pages of the newspaper, etc. However, beneath the bright colors, the jubilant singing and emotional testimonials, you hear the whispers – whispers of people [removed for now] when they do not join in the cheering, whispers of a dead journalist and an opposition leader found beheaded in a river, whispers of tensions within the political party. It is widely acknowledged that Kagame will win the election by a landslide. However, the fear is not about the election itself so much as the possibility of unrest within the political party and the potential turmoil that would result if anything were to happen to Kagame. It has been 16 years since the genocide, but the events of 1994 have impacted such a large portion of the population that people are still very wary of the tenuousness of the country’s stability and security.

According to the Warden message I received from the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, there is “no indication that these elections will be marked by violence. Nonetheless, the U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. Citizens residing in or traveling to Rwanda monitor and stay abreast of the news and developments throughout the elections.”

As reassuring (or not) the Warden’s message is, I won’t lie that I’ve grown more cautious and careful about what I say on this blog. Perhaps some of you have noticed that I have not posted as frequently in the past week as I have been accustomed to doing. The truth is that I’m not sure how wise it would be for me to express my stance so explicitly on the internet where it can be easily found and traced. The freedom of expression that I firmly uphold and exercise is not a freedom that is supported in Rwanda and frankly, I am much more aware now of the restrictions and measures that are taken against this freedom than when I first arrived.

Nevertheless, here is my post and I promise many more to come as the heat from the upcoming election intensifies.