The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide
Alphonse’s mud brick home rises from a clearing in the banana grove off the narrow dirt road that runs through his village in Nyamiyaga in Rwanda’s Southern Province. It’s a modest dwelling: the living quarters—a few dark, stuffy rooms—are separated from a small barn from which pigs and chickens come and go by an unevenly paved courtyard. It’s here, in the shade cast by his house, that we sit. Alongside him on a homemade wooden bench—so close their shoulders are touching—is Brigitte, his neighbour. They sip the local moonshine, sorghum beer, from the same straw as they recount how, during the 1994 genocide, he killed her family.
When I ask Brigitte how many family members she lost, she counts them out on her fingers. ‘Seven siblings—three brothers and four sisters—and both parents. But I’ve never been able to count my extended family—there’s too many. I don’t even want to count.’ As she recalls how she fled the village in the early days of the genocide, Alphonse sits passively; he knows the details, but has nothing to add. But when Brigitte begins to recount the details of the last time she ever saw her family before Alphonse led them off to be slaughtered, he occasionally interrupts and corrects her on the details.
Prior to the genocide their families had been neighbours and friends; they attended village ceremonies and worshipped alongside one another. Theirs was a peaceful community that had been spared much of the ethnic violence that had plagued Rwanda since 1959. Alphonse, a 62-year-old Hutu, says that for most of his life he never bore any ill will towards Tutsis. There was even a time, he tells me by way of illustrating this point, when a Tutsi gave his family a cow. (There is a long tradition of this practice—known as gutanga inka, which translates as ‘sealing a bond of friendship’—in Rwanda.) ‘But slowly the education system started separating Hutus and Tutsis,’ he explains. This is an odd remark from someone so long out of school and, not for the first time, I can’t help but think it sounds rote. But Brigitte, as if taking Alphonse’s lead, adds substance to his comments.
Now 37, she lived the cultivation of the anti-Tutsi ideology in schools across Rwanda. She speaks more decisively, as someone who, no matter how much she may want to, can never forget those formative years. ‘The relationship [between Hutus and Tutsis] was good until 1990. But things started to change slowly in the schools—they used to sing songs that threatened Tutsis,’ she says. When I relate this to a Tutsi friend, three years Brigitte’s junior, he tells me that his first memories of school are similar; he remembers the principal coming into his classroom with a list of students, reading out the names of Tutsis, forcing them to stand and castigating them in front of everyone.
But, as an explanation for why the genocide took place, this seems insufficient; there’s an incongruity between this image of a peaceful, idyllic village life prior to 1990 and the unrestrained brutality that befell it during the genocide. It’s incomprehensible. Perhaps unfairly, I find myself doubting the veracity of the picture they paint and questioning whether their memory of that time is accurate. Not because they seem to be lying, but because it’s impos-sible for me to understand how a community can go from having ethnic harmony to genocide in the space of just a few years.
Their account is also at odds with what was happening in other parts of the country. The genocide—while far larger in scale, better organised and more effectively carried out—was not an aberration; ethnic violence was one of the defining features of postcolonial Rwandan society. It was the consequence of the Belgians’ decision to radically remodel society along ethnic lines. They came with pseudo-scientific theories about height, cranial size, nose width and the shape of one’s eyes: these, they claimed, could be measured and the results analysed to determine whether one was a Hutu or a Tutsi. In 1933–34, these divisions were further cemented with a census. The results—85 per cent Hutu, 14 per cent Tutsi and 1 per cent Twa—became the basis for the issuing of identity cards, which entrenched the divide and implemented a kind of apartheid system.
The Belgians exacerbated the myth of Tutsi superiority by employing them in the roles they needed filled by non-Europeans. Over time, this Tutsi minority became Rwanda’s elite. They were also, proportionally, far wealthier than Hutus. Rwanda is an agrarian society and in pre-colonial and colonial times wealth was widely measured in the number of head of cattle one owned; traditionally Tutsis were the cattle-owning class, while Hutus worked the land. For decades, Hutu resentment towards Tutsis—whom they widely saw as collaborators in their fellow countrymen’s subjugation—grew. When the Belgians left in 1959 the country transitioned first to a Tutsi monarchy then to a Hutu-majority republic; but with the colonial police no longer there to enforce their discriminatory order, ethnic violence broke out almost immediately. Since independence, localised violence had flared up intermittently: Tutsi massacres dot Rwandan history. But from 1992, anti-Tutsi propaganda became increasingly virulent and, with that, so too did the attacks on Tutsis.
• • •
On 6 April 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it approached Kigali International Airport. It provided the pretext for the genocide to begin; yet, despite the cataclysmic consequences it would reap, doubt still remains over who carried out the attack. The main suspects remain the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF), led by the current president, Paul Kagame, who had recently signed the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement to end the three-year Rwandan Civil War, with the Habyarimana government and the Hutu Power, a supremacist group angered by the president’s decision to negotiate with the RPF. Before the debris could be collected—some of which landed in the grounds of the presidential palace—and a proper investigation conducted, roadblocks were set up in Kigali and Tutsis and moderate Hutus who refused to participate in the slaughter were murdered in the streets.
As the Hutu militia, known as the Interahamwe, went about their ‘work’—the euphemism commonly used for killing Tutsis—in the capital, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and incitement to commit genocide throughout the country. That’s how Alphonse, listening from his village about an hour and a half from Kigali, first heard about what was happening. It was these broadcasts, he says, that drove him to take up arms and participate in the genocide: ‘There were teachings going on on the radio. We were listening and we started to kill Tutsis and burn their houses.’ Earlier he had told me that it had initially been difficult to overcome his ‘fear’ and that he’d been ‘afraid to murder’. But now, walking me through how events unfolded, he’s keen to emphasise the influence that propaganda played and thus alleviate some of his own responsibility.
‘We did take the decision to kill Tutsis,’ he explains, ‘but it was really them who killed—they had been sick.’ For a moment I can’t work out to whom these pronouns are referring; they seem to be uttered without context, as if he is simply substituting ‘they’ for ‘we’. As he continues, I realise that that’s exactly what he’s doing: he had killed Tutsis, but that was not really him. He’d been brainwashed. That person, he is saying, was a génocidaire, but I, the person sitting before you, am not that man now, nor was I that man before 1994.
Brigitte sits alongside him, unmoved, occasionally distracted by the various people—Alphonse’s wife, children from the village—walking through the courtyard as he explains why he’d been driven to murder her family. Then she explains.
At the beginning of the genocide she fled with her family and the other Tutsis from the community to the small church in their village. Just 15 years old then, she talks about a pervading sense of chaos: Hutu villagers were burning their Tutsi neighbours’ homes, but when she speaks it’s as if she’s trying to capture the confusion of finding oneself stuck, for the first time, in an unknown world. ‘Everything was changing,’ she says. They consulted the parish priest and, after just one day, decided they would be safer outside the village, so they fled to the largest church in the diocese, St Paul’s in Mugina.
Tutsis throughout the country had the same idea. Rwanda is a deeply religious society; at the time of the genocide it was, per capita, the most Catholic nation in Africa. In the past, churches had always been places of sanctuary when ethnic violence broke out; the killing and torture, no matter how bad in the village, usually stopped at the church gates. Churches were a metaphysical rather than a physical barrier. And there was an expectation that this would again be the case in 1994.
Assuming that their stay would be brief, many arrived at St Paul’s with their animals in tow. In poor, rural Rwanda these are often the only things of value people own; their livelihoods depend on protecting these assets. When Brigitte and her family arrived, there were already so many people there that they were spilling out of the church and filling the surrounding grounds. People from neighbouring villages continued to flock to St Paul’s and, with Rwanda burning all around them, Brigitte and her family gathered with Tutsis from surrounding villages, waiting for the killing to stop and praying they’d be spared.
For weeks they waited—scared and under constant threat. Brigitte doesn’t fill her account with memories of how they passed their days during that period; instead, she seems to concentrate all her reflections on their primary preoccupation—surviving. ‘Different groups of killers were coming from all different directions,’ she says. As they all converged on the church, something continued to hold them at bay. It was no secret that a group of Tutsis were taking refuge there, yet the genocide halted at the gates of St Paul’s. That changed on 20 April when the Interahamwe murdered Mugina’s mayor who, despite being a Hutu, had offered the church as a place of refuge and promised to keep the Tutsis there safe.
The génocidaires, armed with grenades and firearms, but most carrying traditional weapons, the machete—the ubiquitous symbol of the Rwandan genocide—the most common among them, blasted their way through the church doors and went about killing those trapped inside. As those who had taken refuge were unarmed and weakened by the weeks spent with little water and food, the Interahamwe met minimal resistance as they went about murdering men, women and children indiscriminately. Militiamen continued to return to St Paul’s over the course of the next week to finish off the slaughter and ensure no-one escaped. By the time they left for the last time, around 30,000 Tutsis had been murdered.1 By Brigitte’s estimates, only 30 people survived. Amid the chaos, she fled back to her village. ‘We didn’t know what to do … we didn’t know where to go,’ she says. ‘When we got here, our house had been burnt down and we slept where it had been.’ On that patch of burnt earth, Brigitte was once again reunited with her family. For two days they camped there. They knew that the killers were still hunting any surviving Tutsis; they knew that, in their small community, everyone knew everyone else’s ethnicity. But they didn’t know where the immediate danger lay, or whom they could trust or where they could go. So they waited. ‘After two days, Alphonse came and took my entire family down the road and killed them. That’s when I lost my family. My sister was with my grandmother and a group of killers were accompanying them. They threw my grandmother down the latrine and my sister got away and fled to the Congo,’ Brigitte says, abruptly bringing her account to a close.
That road, which accommodates all traffic coming in and out of the village, became, for Brigitte, a constant reminder of the horror she’d experienced during the genocide. She couldn’t leave her house without seeing it; she couldn’t go anywhere without walking it. It was on that road that, after the genocide, she’d pass her Hutu neighbours—including Alphonse—who had participated in the mass killings.
Alphonse was eventually charged and convicted for his role in the genocide; he served 12 years in Rwanda’s overcrowded prison system. After his release he returned to the only place he’d ever known, his small village in Nyamiyaga. But he found reintegrating into the community difficult: ‘We [the perpetrators] hid, crossed the road and changed direction when we saw survivors. When they saw us they were traumatised again—they couldn’t believe that we were people.’
In Rwanda, particularly in small communities, interactions that would be incidental anywhere else in the world can be profoundly difficult. And there isn’t a part of the country that the genocide still doesn’t touch—it’s all-pervasive. Rebuilding Rwandan society after such trauma is an experiment without precedent in modern history; there is no established path to follow or model on which to base decisions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a country that’s so deeply religious, the Church’s teachings have played a significant role in fostering the kind of reconciliation that’s at the centre of President Paul Kagame’s post-genocide nation-building project.
Indeed, an unashamed religiosity permeates much of what Brigitte and Alphonse say about their relationship today. Back in 2012, Alphonse sought forgiveness from Brigitte. Initially she found it hard to forgive the man who’d murdered her family, but after some ‘training and healing’ she decided to grant it. Today their ‘journey of reconciliation’ continues and, together, they share responsibility for raising a cow.
They were invited to take part in a program called Cow for Peace, run by a non-denominational Rwandan NGO, Christian Action for the Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA). When I first heard about it my interest was piqued by what seemed like an unapologetically practical attitude to reconciliation, rather than just talking about the redemptive power of forgiveness. I was curious to see what results such an approach was yielding. But I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something gimmicky about it. It sounded like a kind of new-age take on restorative justice—the kind of thing that’s rhapsodised by those invested in it, but dismissed by those who see it from a more critical distance.
When I met with CARSA’s executive director, Christophe Mbonyigabo, in his Kigali office, it soon became clear that the Cow for Peace project is neither of these things: the cow is what makes the program unique, but it’s really just an auxiliary element to CARSA’s Bible-based approach to reconciliation. The cow doesn’t facilitate reconciliation, Mbonyigabo explained; rather, it’s only given to those who’ve already reconciled and whose relationship is deemed sufficiently strong to overcome any future difficulties they may encounter. It provides financial benefits to the perpetrator and to the survivor—as well as the entire village—which Mbonyigabo believes is important because, while reconciliation is ostensibly CARSA’s main focus, he also wants to see many of the development issues that afflict much of rural Rwanda addressed. He argues that reconciliation needs to be tackled ‘holistically’, that ‘because poverty is one of the biggest obstacles to reconciliation, these issues must be addressed together’.
‘The biggest obstacle?’ I asked, immediately thinking of half a dozen other impediments that, for mine, seemed far greater. Many people, survivors and offenders, he continued, trace the root cause of their poverty back to the genocide. This is unsurprising since it can so often seem like a kind of year zero event in Rwanda’s national consciousness. Survivors lost everything in 1994; they’ve had to rebuild their lives from nothing and many, for quite obvious and understandable reasons, simply haven’t been able to. They blame those who killed their friends and family and their anger and frustration are often compounded when perpetrators return to the community after serving time in jail and appear to be happy and prosperous. Many offenders, on the other hand, have been forced to repay victims for the property they destroyed during the genocide. Many have been driven into poverty and resent survivors because
This sounded at once perfectly reasonable and somehow odd; perhaps because I’d never thought about this vast human tragedy through an economic rubric before. Nonetheless, I made a note to ask those now raising a cow as a result of the project about the nexus between poverty and reconciliation.
• • •
Survivors and perpetrators first come together as part of a three-day workshop run by CARSA that focuses on trauma healing and forgiveness. It was during this process that Alphonse asked and was granted forgiveness by Brigitte. ‘It came’, he tells me, as if it were something divined from God, ‘very early.’ Initially, he found it very hard to ask for forgiveness because he was still consumed by guilt. But once he did, it helped: ‘Talking and telling the truth helped with overcoming the shame,’ he says, as if that were some kind of achievement. The more Alphonse speaks, the more uncomfortable I become with his framing of the reconciliation process: it obviously requires both parties to be willing participants, but it’s not a process that can ever be in any way equal. When he begins to speak in general terms about how he felt the process helped Brigitte, I momentarily assume that he’s going to take a more rounded view of things. As a perpetrator, he says, ‘[talking] helped survivors because they got a new image of the offender; that he can be a different person—a better person’.
But even this is self-serving: in effect, he’s citing the perception of himself and his improved standing in the community as a benefit to Brigitte. He has, in a sense, been rehabilitated. For Alphonse, the practical consequences of not reconciling were—although he doesn’t portray them as such—little more than annoyances: he felt guilt and shame, which made daily life difficult and, as a result, he would try to avoid those whose families he had killed (and those he’d tried and failed to kill). There are, of course, potential problems with large numbers of people feeling isolated and alienated in an already fragile community, but these weren’t immediate. So, when he tells me that village life has dramatically improved as a result of his and Brigitte’s decision to reconcile, I can’t help but feel I am hearing it from the wrong person.
Brigitte also mentions that Alphonse claims to be a different man today than he was in 1994, but she seems mostly driven to reconcile for religious reasons: ‘With CARSA’s teaching and healing I have become convinced to forgive; forgive people from your heart is what God said. Even the offenders humbled themselves—they said, it wasn’t us, we were manipulated by the government.’ Later she speaks about not forgiving almost as a burden: ‘The Bible tells us to forgive. In church, you are worshipping with others and your heart is reminding you that there is someone you haven’t forgiven.’ Much of this is in line with CARSA’s approach: in rural Rwanda, where formal education is limited, the one text everyone knows, whether they can read or not, is the Bible. Forgiveness is a less abstract concept when, for example, it is explained through the parable of the prodigal son. This approach also lends weight to the idea that forgiveness is important; after all, the Bible is meant to be the word of the Lord.
For génocidaires though, religion poses some challenges and has a different utility. They have committed the gravest of sins and, in light of that, religion can instil both hope and despair. If they choose to repent, they’re offered salvation. If not, it’s eternal damnation. This has always seemed a rather sinister form of blackmail to me (not to mention an ineffective way of encouraging moral behaviour) and, as well as underlying all Christian faith, it seems to have coloured some of the post-genocide decisions Alphonse has made. ‘We are all created by God; we all have the same blood. When I think of God, I think we have abused God’s love. I have always believed in the love of God,’ he says. Alphonse’s God is merciful and there is, therefore, still hope for him. ‘God’s love’—His willingness to forgive the worst sinners if they’re truly repentant—has provided him with a kind of moral roadmap for the future. One wonders whether a survivor’s God could ever be quite so merciful and gracious.
Curiously, whenever the conversation comes around to religion, the standard rote way many Rwandans have of talking about the genocide disappears. This is, in part, because the government has pushed the official narrative so hard. Today, those who challenge it risk being accused of ‘genocide ideology’, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years. But I also think the usual frames of reference in which to ground one’s thinking are inadequate—the Rwandan genocide was unlike all other genocides in the manner and the scale with which friends, neighbours and family killed one another. They usually did it in the most personal of ways—with a machete. So much of the analysis about the causes of the genocide seem insufficient and circular and, after a while, almost clichéd. But when it comes to squaring the genocide with one’s faith, I never hear the same response twice. Perhaps that’s because people are more comfortable with faith being, on some level, ambiguous. Whereas in the material world, there’s a constant struggle to be definitive.
Some Rwandans I speak with refuse to speculate on the mystery of how God works, but most seem to have combined what they’ve learnt in school or church with their own pop-theology. One young man, a genocide survivor, tells me that: ‘The battle between good and evil—between God and the devil—is always going on. The genocide is just an example of when the devil won.’ But no-one I speak with—unlike Primo Levi, who famously said, ‘There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God’—disputes His existence. Atheism doesn’t have a monopoly on free thinking, but it ought to make one slightly uncomfortable that the Church’s teachings are so often thrust forward as the authoritative way of navigating the darkness that hovers over Rwanda. In some parts of the country, genocide was preached from the pulpits. Clergy betrayed their congregations and took part in acts of torture, rape and murder. In other words, faith is not enough to guard against it happening again.
But then, what is? In light of her history, it’s easy to bet against Rwanda. This is, in part, racist. The West is so attuned to thinking about Africa as a place of disease, famine and war; we rarely hear of its successes and it is, in a media landscape that largely ignores the continent, hard for many to conceive of them. But it’s also an inability to understand how a society anywhere in the world could put itself back together and flourish after the horrors that gripped Rwanda for those 100 days in 1994. So one needs to be cautious when criticising Rwandan society today. That’s not to say that Rwanda is above reproach; indeed, Kagame’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses at home, as well as Rwandan interference in the Congo and, more recently, Burundi, should be more widely condemned. He has also recently led a successful campaign—following in the footsteps of many other African dictators—to have the constitution changed so that he can extend his term in office, meaning he could potentially be in power until 2034. Despite this, he continues to be feted by world leaders: in her recently published book, In Praise of Blood, Judi Rever writes that ‘one would be hard pressed to find a more radically violent regime that is as internationally admired and showered with praise as the government of the Rwandan Patriotic Front’.
Kagame, perhaps more than any other leader in the world, exerts extraordinary control over daily life in Rwanda, but in Nyamiyaga these geopolitical machinations seem a world away: there, people are just trying to live together in peace and build a future that’s not crippled by the past. And, for Brigitte and Alphonse, their faith has clearly been central to that. They speak authoritatively about the reasons the genocide occurred, about why it unfolded the way it did, about reconciliation and about their future. They have, after all, lived it for the past 24 years. But their tone—their certainty—reminds me of my own religious education, courtesy of the Sisters of the Resurrection. It was prescriptive; critical thinking and interrogating the facts were shunned and faith—an unquestioning acceptance of what was being taught—was celebrated. Brigitte and Alphonse seem to understand the genocide too well. They have all the answers. After meeting them, struggling to make sense of their story and the genocide more generally, I keep returning to another of Primo Levi’s ideas: speaking of the Holocaust, he said, ‘Perhaps one cannot—what is more, one must not—understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.’
But surely a level of understanding—or at least an illusion of understanding—is required if survivors and perpetrators are to now live side by side? And that’s what Brigitte and Alphonse seem to have arrived at with the narrative of government manipulation and large-scale Hutu brainwashing. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how any other ‘understanding’ would allow victims to welcome perpetrators back into their lives. But they don’t just exist alongside one another; their contact isn’t accidental or incidental. They chose to take part in CARSA’s workshop, to meet regularly and take on the responsibility for rearing a cow. They have to see and interact with one another on a daily basis and, perhaps more significantly, their livelihoods are now entwined in a way they weren’t before the genocide.
Their newly acquired cow presents a significant ongoing financial windfall for them both. The money Brigitte and Alphonse have made from the sale of milk and manure has allowed them to buy other animals—they’re now raising pigs too. This is a lot to turn down, which is essentially what Brigitte would be doing if she were committed to hating Alphonse for the remainder of her life. But that wasn’t all that was at stake when she was making her decision. ‘For survivors, talking about it [the genocide] helped,’ she says, ‘because we got to know where those we lost are buried and we felt comforted by knowing that—we felt peace. And we can’t live forever, anyway.’ In other words, to refuse to engage in any dialogue with your family’s killer would be to refuse access to this information.
It seems wrong that, even now, it’s the victims who are forced to make all the sacrifices. But I suppose that is, to some degree, inevitable: their loss can never be replaced; their suffering can never be erased. Similarly, in a country in which so many people were implicated in the genocide, traditional notions of justice—notions of what constitutes a free and fair trial and standard sentencing procedures, for example—can’t apply; they simply can’t be implemented practically. There are no perfect solutions in Rwanda; there are, perhaps, not even any just ones. But there can be solutions that foster peace and guard against further ethnic violence. Yet they’re all untested and, therefore, not without risk.
A few weeks after leaving Rwanda, I emailed Christophe Mbonyingabo to ask whether CARSA had encountered any problems in uniting people with already troubled relationships over a shared asset; after all, I wrote, money is so often at the root of friendship and family breakdowns. He replied that they hadn’t encountered any problems and politely and not so directly suggested that I was, perhaps, seeing things from a Western perspective. In Rwandan culture, he explained, cows are not thought of as ‘money’ but rather as symbols of ‘value and wealth’. Cows have long been given by one person to another as a sign of respect and gratitude or as a wedding dowry. Indeed, when I told a Rwandan friend about the Cow for Peace project, he replied that it sounded interesting and remarked that cows were the ‘most valuable’ thing in Rwandan society—that they transcended their monetary worth.
But cows have also been a symbol of division in Rwanda. In the pre-colonial era, the division between Hutu and Tutsi was somewhat fluid, so a Hutu could become a Tutsi by acquiring cattle and, conversely, a Tutsi could become a Hutu if they lost their cattle. This changed when the Belgian colonial authorities arrived and claimed the ‘ethnic’ divisions were biologically determined. As the division within Rwandan society became more rigid and the inequality more pronounced, the cow became a symbol of the Tutsis’ elevated social status and prosperity.
In the lead-up to the genocide, much of the propaganda focused on the long-cultivated notion that Tutsis, who were referred to as Inyenzi (cockroaches), were ‘the enemy’ within and without the country, and posed a ‘permanent threat’. As the hysteria reached a climax, this perceived peril provided the motivation and the justification for genocide. But this is, again, an insufficient explanation for what happened in 1994; it cannot be understood as series of rational decisions based on hyped-up threats. For those 100 days, the id took over and nearly 1 million Tutsis were slaughtered. But the génocodaires didn’t just try to extirpate the ‘threat’, they also acted out their hatred of the Tutsi by slaughtering the symbol of their social status—90 per cent of the country’s cattle were killed.
It may just be that CARSA, by reconstituting the cow as a symbol of friendship, respect and unity, has found a unique way of contrasting the relative peace and social cohesion of pre-colonial society with the violence and division that characterised colonial and postcolonial Rwanda. And while the symbolism is not unimportant, it will all be for nothing if it doesn’t advance the cause of harmony between Hutus and Tutsis. Rwanda is still healing—it will take generations, not mere decades, to know if long-lasting and widespread peace in the wake of the genocide has been realised. Brigitte and Alphonse seem genuinely committed to guarding against the hatred, fear and mistrust that has proved so destructive in the past. These are conscious decisions and, vital though they are, the spectre of mass violence will remain until the ‘we are all Rwandans now’ line, so often uttered in Rwanda today—almost as if they’re trying to convince themselves—becomes so intrinsic that it no longer needs to be said at all.
• • •
In the heat of the afternoon sun we leave Alphonse’s house and travel a few hundred metres down the road to Brigitte’s home, where their cow is permanently stabled. I watch as Alphonse greets Brigitte’s sister and walks freely in and out of her house as he prepares to milk the cow. Then Alphonse’s son arrives, introduces himself and mills around Brigitte’s courtyard talking to her sister and gesturing to some of the other village children who are trying to steal a peak at the unknown mzungus. If I hadn’t spent the morning listening to them recount their shared dark history, I would have believed someone if they’d told me they were family. There is an ease and comfort about the way they move around each other’s space that gives the impression that it is—much like the cow—shared.
The milking demonstration is brief, though; they have to join the rest of the villagers who are gathering a short distance away for a ceremony to award another reconciled couple a cow. As we bump along the uneven road in the back of a four-wheel drive, Brigitte, beautiful in bright traditional dress, and Alphonse, relaxed in his leather broad-brimmed hat, joke and laugh in Kinyarwanda for the entire five-minute journey. I wish them well and they disperse among their friends, families and neighbours. Their story is part of a much broader tale, but all these tales are interwoven. Therefore, their success is not just personal but also communal. How one defines ‘success’, though, is not entirely clear. Its meaning in Rwanda is different to anywhere else in the world. But whatever it is that Brigitte and Alphonse have built for themselves in this small slice of their country is something to be admired even if it can’t be fully understood.
Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12
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