Seeds of Change in Rwanda

Seeds of Change in Rwanda
We step inside Nyamata church and my guide, Josh Ruxin, points out the wall where babies were smashed up against the brick. “You can still see the blood,” he says. More blood, wide dry brown stains, covers the altar cloth. Against a side wall, I find two new-looking closed coffins covered in cloth, a stack of 20 more, empty and expectant, and an open sack scattered with ribs, femurs and broken skulls. “Oh yeah,” says Ruxin, looking over. “Thirteen years later, they’re still finding new bodies round here every day.” We walk around to the front of the church where a raised white-tiled plinth is scattered with dead flowers and plastic wrap. In its center is another stairwell. “If you want the full tour … ,” Ruxin trails off. I descend. At the foot of the stairs is a narrow corridor. The walls are lined with shelves, floor to the ceiling, stacked with neat piles of bones and skulls. “There’s 50,000 people down there,” says Ruxin, when I emerge.

The Hutu slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda between April and July 1994 was so quick and wholesale, it has proved impossible to find all the dead or separate their remains. It is estimated that Rwanda lost 800,000 people in 100 days. Perhaps 2 million took part in the slaughter, this in a country of 8 million. The genocide museum in the capital Kigali concludes its description of 1994 with the words: “Rwanda was dead.” As a Tutsi area, Nyamata was a crucible of the killing. It was where, in a series of practice massacres after 1990, that the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, honed their calculations of the optimum rate of dispatch. Come April 1994, around six out of every 10 people in Nyamata were killed, though again, no one is sure of the exact figure. A few miles from Nyamata, a sign at a second massacre site reads: GLISE NTARAMA: +/- 5,000 PEOPLE.

A holocaust colors everything that follows, alters the essence of a nation. And it fosters a lasting mystery — an incomprehension over how man could behave so inhumanly to man. At his offices in Kigali, President Paul Kagame says: “Hutu fathers killed their own children because some of them resembled their wives, who were Tutsi. How do you explain that?” Nations that haven’t just peered into the abyss, but lived in it, have a tight grasp on the price of failure. Those that survive are duty-bound to do everything to avoid a repeat. So when Columbia University public health and development expert Ruxin, 37, arrived in Rwanda and asked where to set up the Millennium Villages Project, a program to end poverty in 80 villages across the world, Kagame’s government gave him an office 100 m from Nyamata church.

Rwanda’s unbending approach since its holocaust has led it to some remarkable successes — and embroiled it in controversy. What’s undeniable is that Rwanda is forging a remarkable path to development. Last week the country was named the most improved sub-Saharan nation on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, ranking factors such as transparency and human development over the last five years. If yesterday Rwanda was Africa’s great tragedy, today, to many, it is its great hope. “This is not just a nation that’s emerged from the ashes,” says Ruxin. “It pulled itself up by its bootstraps when there weren’t even any boots. Now it’s achieving a level of recognition that makes other countries salivate. It’s a place of real hope.”

Francine Mukantarengwa is describing how she survived the genocide when my translator breaks down. “Fourteen people in my family were killed,” she says. “The brother of the killer of my family — he hid me.” At this point, the interpreter, a former fighter with Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front , starts weeping. I let Francine go. She’d already told me about her life after the genocide. “I was abandoned,” she said. “I was alone and I had nothing.” And now? “Now I have goats, I have two cows, I have built a house. I have 700 coffee trees. I’m even putting money in the bank.”

Francine’s new prosperity came from the lush terraces in the southern mountains of Maraba, through which Texas A&M University agronomist Tim Schilling had driven me in his pickup an hour earlier. Rwanda is tiny and landlocked, an oasis of rain, lakes and volcanoes in the heart of Africa. Its slopes are home to mountain gorillas and the furthest source of the Nile. They are also, Schilling says, “where God would have chosen to grow coffee.”

Five years ago, no one had heard of Rwandan coffee. It sold for less than a quarter of some speciality coffees and it didn’t take an agronomist to figure out why. “It tasted crap,” Schilling said. “Worse. It tasted of potatoes.” Schilling, 54, was tasked with reviving Rwandan agriculture for usaid. So with almost 40% of the country farming coffee — more than 3 million people — he became a coffee expert. The key to a good cup, he discovered, was processing and speed. The sooner and more expertly coffee cherries are processed — stripped, washed, sorted and dried — the better the coffee. In 2003, for $120,000, he built Rwanda’s first coffee-washing station on a stream next to some farms in Maraba.