You cannot choose whom you were born to but you can choose which person you want to be
Every time I read a book about Rwanda or experience its daily life as a regular visitor attending official and informal gatherings, or by travelling to the countryside and talking to ordinary citizens, I discover how little I know about its state and society.
It happened again in July when I traveled to Kigali to attend a youth dialogue event under the theme of “The promise of a post genocide generation.” It was organised by the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame’s organization, Imbutu.
Mrs Kagame is a person filled with warmth and grace who conducts herself with impressive modesty. She had told me about these youth dialogues but being there physically; to experience, was truly monumental.
It is difficult for me to capture in written words the emotional tone of that moment, the meaning of it, and the fullness of it. Youths stand up and give testimonies of death, pain, suffering combined with forgiveness and reconciliation that defy all human understanding.
And so it was that one of these who stood up to speak was Nelly Mukazayire. I have known Nelly for a while as one of the senior advisors in President’s Office. I am not immune to the stereotypes many people have about Hutu-Tutsi “distinctions” even though time and again I have been proved wrong.
Thus, because Nelly is strikingly good-looking, with stereotypical “Tutsi features,” I had always assumed her ethnicity.
So there I was, listening to testimonies about genocide, when she took to the stage. She told how her mother is serving a life sentence in jail for genocide. She spoke of how one day she saw an ad in the newspaper for a job in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
They wanted a person in research and economics with a master’s degree. But she did not have a Master. Many in her circle had advised her that a daughter of a genocidaire cannot get a job in OPM.
Her application must have been impressive since she was later short-listed and interviewed for the job. But she did not get it because she lacked the requisite academic papers. Instead, she got a government scholarship to study in America for a master’s degree. She was surprised by her fortune and suspected no one knew about her mother.
She studied, finished, and when she returned home, she applied for a job as advisor to the director of cabinet. One day, President’s office called her. She immediately feared it had something to do with her mother’s crimes. However, when she went there, she was interviewed for the job. When she went home, she told her husband the story and that she was scared.
Later the next day, Nelly called the lady who had led the panel that had interviewed her to explain herself. The meeting took place at a hotel. She told the lady that “before you hire me, I want you to know that my mum committed genocide and I cannot work in President’s Office”.
She then began crying and the lady from President’s Office began to cry as well. To her surprise, the lady told Nelly that President’s Office does a background check on all applicants for jobs there. They had done one on her and knew her background.
“We judge people on the basis of their record and conduct,” the lady from President’s Office told Nelly, “not on the basis of their parent’s conduct. From our background check on you, there is nothing in your record that shows bad conduct.” Nelly was shocked and returned home still skeptical. Later she heard an announcement on radio that she had been appointed a senior advisor in President’s Office. She could not believe her ears.
Nelly said when she reported for work at President’s Office, everyone received her well. There was never a moment when she felt alienated because of her ethnicity or her mother’s crimes. She was not just any ordinary advisor, but a senior advisor, not in any ordinary office but the office of the president – and her with a genocidaire for a mother.
As Nelly spoke, tears were rolling freely down my cheeks. I could not stop them; perhaps it was due to my own guilt in holding these stereotypes – even though subconsciously.
One John Baptist Habyarimana said he had visited Nelly’s mother in prison and told her about her daughter’s accomplishments. He said she told him that she feels proud of her daughter. She is happy to be a citizen of a country where her children are not judged by the crimes she committed but on their own merit.
Then another youth called Teo took the stage. He had lived in DRC for years and had fought alongside the rebel FDLR against the government in Kigali. In the camps, he was taught that Rwanda was unstable and if he returned the Tutsi would kill them.
But he got tired of fighting and decided to return home. When he reached the border, soldiers welcomed him warmly and they were a mixture of Hutu and Tutsi yet their ethnicity did not seem to be a source of conflict between them.
But his suspicions remained. He thought they would kill him once inside Rwanda; that the warmth at the border was only the treachery of the Tutsi he had been told about in the camps inside DRC. “But I was determined to die if only to return home,” he said, “Instead I was told the genocide happened when I was a kid and whatever I did, I needed to go back to school.
They took us to a transit camp and they told me of the new spirit of reconciliation in the country, but I did not believe them.” Later Teo was taken to a solidarity camp after which he was taken back to school.
And the testimonies went on all day with youths telling their experiences; some because their parents were all killed, others because their parents killed – and the stigma they have had to carry. By speaking out openly about this experience, they relieve themselves of the burden of stigma.
As I left Rwanda, I kept chewing on the words the First Lady had spoken in her opening speech: “You cannot choose to which parents you are born to but you can choose which person you can be”.
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