On “Hotel Rwanda” and Concerned Grandparents

I watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time today, after months of prodding from my parents and friends. Although I haven’t quite decided how I feel about the film, there was one particular scene that caught my attention.

*Excerpt taken from Hotel Rwanda (2004): Shooting script. Written by: Pearson, Keir, fl. 1991-2007; George, Terry, 1952-. Electronic Edition by Alexander Street Press, L.L. C., 2009.Screenplay by Keir Pearson and Terry George, Copyright © 2004. Reproduced by permission of Newmarket Press.


Jack sits at the bar, talking with BENEDICT KIRANJA, a Kigali journalist. Paul is nearby.

JACK: So, what is the actual difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi?

BENEDICT: According to the Belgian colonists, the Tutsis are taller and more elegant. It was the Belgians that created the division.

JACK: How?

BENEDICT: They picked people. . .those with thinner noses, lighter skin. They used to measure the width of people’s noses. The Belgians used the Tutsis to run the country. Then, when they left, they left the power to the Hutus. And of course, the Hutus took revenge on the elite Tutsis for years of repression.

Behind them David, the reporter, speaks with General Bizimungu.

BENEDICT: Am I telling the truth, Paul?

PAUL: Yes, unfortunately.

The film discounts ethnic difference and subscribes to the current Rwandan government’s assertion that Hutu and Tutsi ethnic identities were the product of European colonial discrimination rather than identities with a historical basis. As Kenneth Harrow observes in “Un train peut en cacher un autre: Narrating the Rwandan Genocide and Hotel Rwanda,” this approach reduces the narrative of the genocide to a “classical binary struggle between good and evil” which has significant implications in terms of understanding the reasons behind the genocide. If there is no visible distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, then “there is no viable ground currently for the Hutu extremists’ hatred, then the difference that has to be constructed to account for the real reasons for the genocide is between those who are evil and those who are good, executioners and victims, rather than between those occupying different positions of economic advantage, or those whose difference has an historical basis,” says Harrow. In other words, this approach fails to recognize the intricate matrix of political, historical, social, and economic factors behind the mounting tensions and fears that led up to the 1994 genocide.

This approach is the counter-narrative to the conception of the genocide as the product of “ancient tribal hatreds,” which stems from a Western understanding of Africa as inherently uncivilized and naturally disposed to conflict and violence.

After watching Hotel Rwanda, I received a call from my mom, who told me that she had just gotten in a huge fight with my grandparents. Apparently, my grandparents had sent my mom an article about a girl who had been gang-raped in Africa (not sure which country) and were furious that my mom was still allowing me to go to Rwanda. “What kind of mother are you?” they demanded, “How could you let her go? She’ll be gang-raped.”

Although a large part of my motivation for this project stems from a desire to teach and an eagerness to finally go to the country that I have studied for the past three years, I am also motivated by a desire to dismantle many of the fears and prejudices about Africa that are widely held by those who are close to me. I hope that through this project and this experience, my grandparents and many of my friends will no longer view Africa as “one Africa” riddled with barbarism, conflict, and primitiveness. I hope that they will no longer accept media presentations of Africa as “the other” and view Africa as a continent of jungles, diseases, and misery. I have been challenged in my own perceptions of Africa through my studies at Northwestern, and I know that these revised perceptions will continue to be challenged and dismantled once I get to Rwanda. My hope is that the clarification of my own beliefs and perceptions will also impart some clarification on the views of those around me.