Articles by: Beatrice Spadacini

  • Life & People

    He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

    The love affair between ordinary Kenyans and the International Criminal Court is finally blossoming into a full-fledged passionate romance.

    After months of uncertainty about whether or not ICC Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo could begin investigations on the culprits of the January 2008 post election violence that rocked the country and resulted in more than 1,130 people being killed, and over half a million internally displaced, there is finally a green light to proceed.

    (Details on the abuses during post election violence can be found in Ballots to Bullets, a HRW report that documents how lives were lost due to organized political and ethnic violence.)

    A team of experts from the ICC was in Kenya last week to pave the way for a visit next month by the ICC Prosecutor. They met with members of civil society organizations, human rights bodies, as well as the Attorney General of Kenya and other senior government leaders.

    This is a major victory for ordinary Kenyan citizens and, most importantly, for the victims of post elections violence who feared that once again impunity would prevail over justice.

    The majority of Kenyans however remain skeptical that even the ICC can make a lasting difference with their corrupt politicians who prefer to steal together and protect one another instead of looking out for the common ‘wananchi’ or ordinary ‘person’ in Kiswahili.

    Besides, things are not that straightforward now that Mr. Ocampo can officially begin his investigations in Kenya. For starters, victims of post election violence and witnesses need to be protected.

    There are indications in the media that thugs are threatening people if they dare to reveal something potentially incriminating for high-level officials, business people who financed armed gangs, and top security force members who abused their powers.

    Fortunately, the ICC has offered to activate its own Witness Protection program to safeguard those coming forward with incriminating evidence. It is common knowledge that one of the toughest challenges the ICC would face was to convince communities to overcome their fears of reprisals and give evidence to the court.

    Secondly, the question is whether the Government of Kenya, specifically the President and the Prime Mionister, will actually hand over those who will be named and shamed to the ICC. Even though Kenya is a signatory to the Rome Statute of the ICC, the desire to protect fellow politicians will remain a strong pull.

    Just the other night I was reading an article by George B. N.  Ayittey, a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation, entitled An African Solution.

    He argues that compromises like ‘Governments of National Unity’, similar to the one that is now in place in Kenya, never really seem to work because they are imported, Western solutions and not African solutions to African problems. He says that Western jurisprudence focuses on punishing the guilty while in contrast, “the African notion of justice mandates restitution, forgiveness and reconciliation to restore national harmony.”

    Professor Ayttey’s views are critical for understanding whether the ICC investigation in Kenya will indeed make a difference or not in the long term. On the one hand, the ICC is indeed modeled after a Western concept of justice but it is also true that ordinary Kenyans are fed up with impunity and that their leaders have so far been unable to address this issue in a satisfactory manner that restores social cohesion prior to the next round of elections in 2012.

    So far all attempts to establish a special local tribunal to try perpetrators of post election violence have been slow to materialize and have been caught up in bickering over details on who will be appointed to spearhead this initiative and who will ultimately make the final decision regarding a guilty verdict.

    Personally, I just wonder how the women I interviewed during post election violence feel about the process of justice either through the ICC or the local courts. Many had been raped or beaten during the mayhem and they were afraid to come forward due to reprisals.

    Though not much will change in their lives if justice is indeed delivered once and for all, perhaps others will be spared such abuses in the next round of elections.

  • Facts & Stories

    When the Odds are Stacked Against You

    Khadra is from a minority group, lives in a settlement for displaced people in country that is formally at war, comes from a very poor family and at the age three was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. What do you think are her chances of making it to five years of age? Personally, I think they are pretty slim unless she gets immediate medical attention from a specialized healthcare facility, one that does not exist in this part of the world.

    Khadra and her parents live in Somaliland, the northern part of Somalia that has declared itself an independent Republic in 1991 after the fall of Siad Barre’s regime. Although this region of Somalia is now relatively safe—compared to South Central where conflict has been at the order of the day or to Puntland (the Westernmost tip of Somalia) where kidnappings have become frequent and so have pirate attacks on cargo ships—it has no international recognition and is therefore doomed to remain both politically isolated and economically stunted.

    The international community sends humanitarian aid to Somaliland but cannot recognize it as a full-fledged nation. International treaties stipulate that the people of a country that wants to split up must agree on some form of secession and independence internally before they can be recognized by external states. Unfortunately, South Central Somalia has been unstable for the past 19 years and without a central form of government recognized by all. This makes it practically impossible to arrive to an internal agreement about Somaliland.

    Then there is regional politics. Ethiopia is the only country that has a liaison office in Somaliland because they are in favor of secession and want to piss off Eritrea, which is against a broken up Somalia and is supportive of anti-government groups destabilizing the situation in South Central Somalia.  Other nations prefer to stay out of this particular issue while putting pressure on different players behind the scenes. Khadra is a de facto hostage to a complex political situation that offers no concrete hope for a solution in the near future. She is also a hostage to the cycle of poverty.

    Kadhra’s family is dirt poor and there is no doubt about this. They live in a makeshift shelter made of wood twigs, plastic sheeting, used clothes and flattened out tin cans. These shelters are extremely basic and fairly standard accommodations for hundred of thousands of internally displaced people in Somaliland.

    I met Khadra through a local organization called Gashaan Women and Development for the Internally Displaced People of Somaliland. The chair of this organization, a woman called Saynab, took me to the settlements to show me what she does when she collects information about human rights abuses and about the needs of internally displaced persons.

    “I see many cases like Khadra’s. I feel powerless because I can only document them but cannot really offer much help. It breaks my heart but if I don’t come here and report these cases there is absolutely no hope for these people. I want you to help me find assistance for people like Khadra. Please advocate for the displaced people of Somaliland, please help us get our voice out there.”

  • Facts & Stories

    Human Rights Scholar Makau Mutua delivers ‘Straight’ Talk on Homosexuality in Kenya

    Nairobi, KENYA (16 February, 2010) – Never once did Distinguished Professor Makau Mutua, renowned human rights scholar and activist, mince his words during the two presentations he made in Nairobi earlier this week on the sensitive but timely topic of Sexual Orientation and Human Rights. On the contrary, ever so gracefully, he managed to be firm, direct and equally provoking with two diametrically opposed audiences: human rights activists in the morning and a cross section of the general public in the evening.

    “It is useless and hypocritical to fight one form of oppression and discrimination while supporting another,” he said as he explained the concept of anti-subordination, one of three key ideas he introduced for developing a strategy to fight abuse and reduce powerlessness. “You can be sure that someone who is a racist, is also homophobic, sexist, misogynist and hates poor people,” he added as some members of the audience were starting to feel visibly uncomfortable in their chairs.

    To the human rights crowd that attended the morning session, Professor Mutua also the dean of the University of Buffalo Law School, underscored the need think about how a claim becomes a right in order to map out an effective strategy for successfully addressing systematic discrimination and life threatening behavior towards people with different sexual orientation in Kenya, Mutua’s native country, which he referred to as a “deeply conservative, a reality that breaks my heart.”

    Mutua reminded human rights activists in Kenya that they have normative obligations to fulfill as rights-based agencies. “You can’t pick and choose what rights to focus on. When you fight for liberation, you fight for total liberation of the human condition; you fight against all forms of discrimination,” he said while urging activists to address homophobia in their midst first and foremost as they embark on yet another struggle for promoting human rights in Kenya.

    His lecture came just a few days after a raid on planned gay wedding in the coastal town of Mtwapa that resulted in the arrest of five suspected homosexuals. This event, widely reported on Kenyan media, unearthed public venom towards the gay and lesbian community spearheaded by leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities who, among other things, have called on the government of Kenya to investigate government institutions that provide medical services to homosexuals and close down facilities that cater to them, including hotels and bars. 

    “I don’t trace homophobia to the African culture,” said an impassionate Mutua. “I trace it to Christian and Islamic cultures.” Furthermore, he said, “We are all imprisoned by our fears and stereotypes.” Most people who are anti-gay, he ventured to say, never really think about their own sexuality because, “Maybe they are afraid of what they would find out. What happens if you embrace or kiss someone from the same gender?”

    While the discussion with human rights activists in the morning focused on strategy, the evening session inevitably led to remarks often heard in the mainstream discourse on why Kenya should not uphold gay rights. “In Africa homosexuality is not accepted because this is how we have been brought up,” said a young woman in the Q&A evening session.

    “If you say that sexual orientation is an expression of desire, what do you say about pedophiles or murderers? Are they not also following their desire to sleep with children or to kill people?” asked a slick-talking lawyer who, “begged to differ with the notions put forth by the distinguished law professor.” Someone else was keen to quote scriptures from the Bible that ban homosexuality to make the point that religion does indeed condemn such, “immoral acts.”

    Other panelists came to the rescue of dean Mutua’s arguments in the evening session, most notably Revered Michael Keminchi who has been an Anglican minister in Kenya for the past 30 years and who heads a ministry that advocates for the full acceptance and inclusion of gay, lesbian, transgender individuals and their parents. “To deny acceptance and inclusion of our brothers and sisters on the basis of scriptures, is to refuse contextual, historical and critical interpretation of scriptures,” he said. “It is to practice religious bigotry and intolerance, which add up to homophobia and it is also to forget the purpose for which God, in whatever religion it interacts with us, is to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.”

    Finally, anthropologist Jasper Imungi of the University of Nairobi, reminded an increasingly restless audience in the evening session that, “nobody has a monopoly of knowledge, ideas and speech.” Adding that in Kenya, “some people abrogate themselves to be the mouthpieces of others and constantly use words like Kenyans have, Kenyans don’t, Kenyans do. As an anthropologist,” he said, “who gives you the moral authority to set the moral prefix?”

    In a poignant conclusive remark, Professor Mutua said that, “Culture is the last refuge of the scoundrel. People who are burned out of arguments always run to culture. But let me remind you that there is not one single culture. There are many and cultures are dynamic and always changing.”

  • Life & People

    Give Back the Cow!

    Once again I find a way to return to Rwanda. This time I am with a film crew. Our job is to collect stories that reflect the work of a given aid agency over the past 25 years.  As we drive from location to location I have the opportunity to take in the beauty of the lush countryside. I gaze up and down the multitude of rolling hills and take in the shades of green that permeate tea plantations and banana groves.

         Charles, our driver, turns up the volume of the radio. It is in Kinyarwanda but my ears perk up anyways and for a brief moment a strongly wish I could understand this language. It would give me an essential instrument to try to decipher this culture.  I recognize President Kagame’s muted but firm voice. I ask Charles what is going on. Is he talking about the 5 Rwandan soldiers who were recently killed in Darfur, I ask?

         “No, it is the 7th national dialogue,” he responds. “They are held every year and all senior civil servants from around the country are required to participate. They must present what they did throughout the year and answer questions.” Damn, if only I spoke the language, I think to myself yet again. I am determined to persuade Charles to be my translator.

          Apparently, one of the Presidential directives of the past year was to ensure that all poor families be given a cow. “It is not about being generous and doing people a favor,” the President had said. “Every Rwandan family has a right to own a cow.” But recent dialogues have revealed that not all the needy have received one. Some local government officials appear to have diverted cows to less than needy families, de facto enriching the haves and impoverishing the have-nots.

         “I am giving everyone who has received a cow and yet is not poor a few days to return it immediately,” warned the President over a live radio broadcast of the dialogues that are also streamed online and followed by members of the Diaspora. “I simply want these cows to be given to the poor as originally planned. Leaders found to have wrongfully distributed these cows should also be held accountable.”

         A toll free number has been set up for people to call in. Text messages are also arriving. Everyone, anywhere, can call in or text their questions to the President of the Republic or any other civil servant. One young girl rings and asks what happened to the 10,000 Rwandan Francs (US$ 20) contribution her family gave towards the building of a local secondary school. Money was collected from everyone but no school was ever built. 

         The President first calls on the mayor of that area and then on the provincial governor. “None of them is giving an adequate answer,” translates Charles for me. “The President has told both of them that they are responsible for letting people know what happened to the money that was paid and to the promised school. They were asked point blank to get to the bottom of that issue.”

        On a personal level, I find the process amazing. I wonder what it would take for leaders in both Kenya and Italy to act like President Kagame, to hold others accountable and to encourage this level of transparency. Yes I know. Not everything is perfect in Rwanda but hell here is a guy who is overtly asking public officials and their friends to return cows that were not meant for them!  

         Can you imagine how many arrears Kenyans would have if their leaders returned all that was wrongfully handed out? Let me not even start with Italy. Our very own head of state has a dubious path to the top.

  • Facts & Stories

    Kenya Post Election Violence: A Shared Pain is a Half Joy

    Louis Moreno Ocampo, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor, came on an official visit to Kenya 10 days ago where he was welcomed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Things seemed to go smoothly at first with high level meetings set up to discuss the possibility of initiating investigations of the masterminds of the post election violence that left more than 1300 Kenyans dead and hundred of thousands displaced in early 2008.

    The ICC has repeatedly stated that investigations carried out in The Hague would need to complement a national justice process that addresses the root causes of the violence and prosecutes those who carried out the violence. The ICC is after all a court of last resort. It is up to Kenyan leaders to put an end to impunity. Unfortunately, there continues to be a lack of political will to initiate domestic procedures to set up a local tribunal and truth and reconciliation commission. This past week another version of a Special Tribunal Bill was thrown out of Parliament due to a lack of quorum and most probably a boycott from senior politicians.

    It now seems that the Kenyan Government is declining to refer the post-2007 election violence cases to the ICC. This leaves no other options to the Prosecutor except for invoking his own powers under article 15 of the Rome Statute to move on his own initiative – or proprio motu powers – to open investigations. Kenya would then become the first case in the history of the ICC to be investigated in such a way as opposed to being referred to by the current Government (a State Party to the ICC) or by the UN Security Council. On multiple occasions, Ocampo has stated that Kenya would serve as an example of justice to the rest of the world.

    But the point is that ordinary Kenyans already lack confidence in their judicial system, which is why an overwhelming majority of them is favoring prosecution by the ICC. Unfortunately, this route will not solve all the root causes that led to the violence in early 2008 and cannot be the only venue to justice. I feel there are overwhelmingly high expectations towards the ICC.

    A journalist friend last week suggested that perhaps if investigations on those who are accused of masterminding the violence begin at The Hague, this would invariably spark the domestic process. “After all,” he said, “no one wants to go down by himself or herself.” Fair enough, I thought, he may have a point but I think he is overly optimistic. Although the names of the people who are accused of masterminding the political violence contained in the envelope that was handed over by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the ICC have not been officially made public, they are fairly common knowledge.

    A report entitled On The Brink of the Precipice: A Human Rights Account of Kenya’s post-2007 Election Violence published by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, clearly documents episodes of violence throughout the country and in Annex One provides a detailed list of the ‘alleged’ perpetrators, complete with their background, the allegations made against them and the supporting information. Quite a number of Members of Parliament are listed here, not to mention community leaders, school principals and radio stations accused of inciting ethnic violence.  No wonder there seems to be a lack of political will to initiative domestic prosecutions. A whole lot of people would stand trial and many would go down together. ‘Mal commune mezzo gaudio,’ we say in Italy. In other words, a shared pain is a half joy.

  • Facts & Stories

    Rwanda, Kenya, Italy: Bridging Landscapes and Realities

    Three weeks ago I was on the back of a motorcycle riding up and down the hills of Kigali, the capital city of
    . I was on a recognizance mission, trying to figure out whether or not to move my family there and start up a private business. A week later, I was stuck in a traffic jam in
    , a jam caused by a herd of cattle crossing the highway and grazing on the sidewalk, the only patch of green in a sea of dry land and dust. The cattle looked bony and emaciated. A young Maasai boy pushed the herd towards the side of the road to avoid the cars and ease up the jam. This week I am in
    Milan, Italy—my hometown—where everything looks pristine and sanitized. There are rows of glittery shops, herds of people (instead of cattle) on a mission to buy the latest trendy item on sale and a never ending choice of fashionable outfits. A pair of shoes costs an average of 200 Euros. I am after all, in one of the fashion capitals of the world.


    It generally takes me at least one week to come to terms with the different landscapes of my life and the emotions I feel as I travel from one country to the next.
    Rwanda is rapidly growing, with a 7% annual gross domestic product. It is a central African country ripe with opportunity but still dealing with the ghosts of the past;
    is once again experiencing extreme drought and a minimum of three days of power rationing in the capital city where I live.
    Italy is caught up by endless chatter about the sexual habits of our Prime Minister. Even a Kenyan newspaper picked up on this story and made fun of PM Berlusconi through a political cartoon. Some of the people I meet here in Italy are more interested in what so and so said about their PM than the fact that today is World Food Day and that, truth be told, there are more than one billion people on the planet who go hungry every day.


    So, I ask myself, if is it possible to bridge this reality gap between Africa and Europe or
    Africa and the West? Connecting the dots is, in my opinion, challenging. I often feel like a participant observer, a traveling anthropologist, engaged but at the same time detached. I cling to what connects me to each and every one of these cities; these countries. It is only by writing that I am able to pull together some thoughts and to create the time to reflect. I don’t have the ambition to arrive to a conclusion, least of all, a solution on how to bridge this gap. There are few people in Europe who have the time to listen to what is happening in
    Africa. But the mental gap is often too large to bridge it through a casual conversation. When curious individuals want to know more about Kenya, Rwanda or
    Africa in general my goal is to provide brushstrokes of a far away reality, at the risk of oversimplifying and stumbling upon clichés. Sometime, I dare to suggest books or websites that they can turn to for more information.


    I admit that I have a similar problem when I return to Kenya and talk to Vicky, the young woman who works in my house or to Nelson in
    , the student who keeps a photo of our family hanging on his bedroom wall. How can I explain
    ? What it is like to walk through the streets here, stroll into a store and listen to what is on people’s mind? This remains a challenge for me.

  • Facts & Stories

    KENYA: Here Come Kofi Annan Yet Again

    Nairobi (5 October, 2009) – Today Kofi Annan arrives once again in the Kenyan capital of
    . His mission has not changed since the last time he was here, a few months ago: to urge the Kenyan leaders to go ahead with the promised reforms. Among them is the dismissal of a few top Kenyan officials – read the Attorney General and the Chief Justice – due to their dubious track record in pursing justice and prosecuting those responsible for the post election violence that rocked the country in early 2008 and those who have been implicated in major corruption scandals.


    Until not too long ago, I could spot on the back of Matutus—small mini buses that serve as the main mode of transport for the majority of Kenyans—posters of Kofi Annan. Below his picture, the images read “the peacemaker” or “the mediator” because of the role the former Secretary General of the United Nations played during the post election violence in
    and his support for the current coalition government. As of late, those images have become rarer.


    Is it because Annan’s presence nowadays has become slightly more uncomfortable? After all he is coming to
    to remind the very same coalition government he supported in 2008 to be accountable to its citizens, to be true to its word and to implement the promised reforms. Annan has become a thorn in the back of the Kenyan government and perhaps he is less popular than he was one year ago because now he won’t let
    off the hook. In addition to being a prominent African ‘elder’ he is also a representative of the international community.


    Apart from the removal of a few top government officials, Annan is also here because of the need to prosecute those responsible for the post election violence. He is the one who just a few months ago turned over a ‘secret’ envelope with the names of those suspected of fueling post election violence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in
    The Hague
    . It is really no longer a secret that the list of suspects includes prominent politicians (at least four MPs) and business people. Apart from the outright naming the MPs everything else about them is common knowledge.


    The ICC’s goal is not to replace justice in
    but to ensure justice is indeed accomplished and unfortunately, the current Kenyan government is not keeping its word. The deal was to create a local tribunal that would prosecute those responsible for the death of 1300 people and the displacement of hundred of thousands. Almost two years after the contested elections, there are still thousands of people who live in camps for the internally displaced. Unfortunately, more than one deadline for setting up a local tribunal has been missed. It is fairly obvious that the current Kenyan Government is unwilling to address the issue of impunity.


    So here comes Kofi Annan yet again. Ever so patient, ever so focused, he comes to remind the Kenyan Government that it is time to get serious and to stop playing games. Will he manage to persuade the current leadership to get down to business? In a bold move, the women of
    tried to do that not too long ago. They had called for a sex strike and appealed to all women, including the First Lady and the wife of the Prime Minister to abstain from sex until their male leaders got back to the business of governing the country. It was a clever move that did result, among other things, in Parliament reconvening. Will Kofi Annan announce a new strike of some sort? What will it take for Kenyan leaders to truly act as LEADERS?

  • Facts & Stories

    RWANDA: 15 Years after the Genocide. Is Healing Possible?

    It took the International Criminal Court in Tanzania 15 years to convict one of the masterminds of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Colonel Théoneste Bagasora. But just on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the genocide that saw more than 800,000 people brutally murdered in less than 100 days, this verdict came as a great victory for the people of this small land locked nation in central Africa.  

    Colonel Bagasora was among those who supported and armed Hutu Power, the militias that systematically killed hundred of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, including the then Prime Minister and other prominent cabinet members.

    His long awaited for conviction represents yet another step towards the healing of a nation that is eagerly striving to move forward and to become a model African country. * (See Rwanda at a glance table)

    Every year during the month of April, the people of Rwanda, led by their President Paul Kagame — a former leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that put an end to the likes of Bagasora and liberated his country from the grip of the genocidaires — dedicate time to remember the dead and the events that led to 1994.

    In Rwanda the color of April is purple.

    It is the color of mourning that adorns wristbands, wreaths and tombstones. Bracelets that read ‘genocide, never again’ are worn by Rwandans and visitors alike in an attempt to honor the memory of the dead and to declare that what happened in their country 15 years ago is simply not acceptable, nor justifiable, under any circumstance. 

    Every April there are prayer vigils, proper burials of bodies that are still being found in mass graves scattered across the country-side, formal speeches and informal breakdowns. It is not uncommon during mass gatherings to witness survivors of the genocide experience panic attacks as they revisit the horrors of the past and confront their personal memories.

    All of this is deemed necessary for the healing of the nation.

     “Reconciliation is not magic,” says Rt. Rev. John Rucyahana, Bishop of the Shyira diocese in Rwanda and Chair of the Rwanda Prison Fellowship.

    “It is a slow and painful process that has many ups and downs. It is our reality and we must move forward. We don’t have time to wait until all the healing is done. We must dig with one hand and do the work while we wipe away our tears with the other.”

    Reverend Rucyahana is also the founder of the Sonrise primary and secondary schools in Musanze, in the region of the volcanoes and the gorillas. The school, which opened in 2001, has more than 900 pupils. Three fourths of them are orphans, many as a result of the genocide but others from the scourge of AIDS.

    In 1994 the Bishop was on a teaching fellowship to America. When he saw images on TV of the bodies of his people floating on the Kaghera river towards Lake Victoria, he cut his mission short, returned to Uganda where he had spent 30 years in exile, and with ten pastors traveled by minibus to Rwanda.

    “Deep in my heart I knew that reaching out to the orphans was going to be necessary otherwise we would have lost yet another generation,” says Rucyahana as he stands in front of Sonrise School. “Here we fight the scourge of stigma by mixing children who are orphaned with others from well-to-do families. Our vision is to strive for academic excellence so that all the children can work towards rebuilding this nation.”

    It is ordinary people like Bishop Rucyahana who are spearheading extraordinary initiatives that are making a tangible difference in the slow and often difficult healing and reconciliation process of Rwanda.

    Another stepping stone in this process is the Gacaca, the traditional court system that in Kyniarwanda language literally means “justice on the grass.” These are community-based neighborhood tribunals that bring together victims and perpetrators of the genocide to expose those who did wrong and issue a collective sentence.

    Those who go through the Gacaca court system are not the high-level organizers and planners of the genocide like Colonel Bagasora but the common executioners, those who went along with the killing spree because of manipulation, fear and ignorance.

    The Gacaca system was reinstated by President Kagame after the genocide as an attempt to decongest the prisons and process some of the more than 200,000 people who had been arrested. As a result, since 2003, more than 70,000 prisoners have been released and reintegrated back into their communities.

    Some of the prisoners who confess in the Gacaca courts end up in one of the three experimental reconciliation villages in Rwanda today. Here they live side by side with survivors and Diaspora Tutsis.

    Mbyo village consists of 45 households. Aloise is one of the residents of Mbyo village. He spent nine years in Rilima prison. He was assigned a home here in 2003, after he confessed to the crimes he committed during the genocide.

    “I used to ask myself how could we live side by side with people we hurt so much? There was a wall of separation between us and them. We started by sharing meals and with the help of God it has been possible for us to live together. They accepted to forgive us. We were all in a similar position. We did not have homes. Everything had been destroyed.”

    Pastor Déo Gashagaza is one of the people who facilitate the reintegration of former prisoners into villages like Mbyo. One of his responsibilities with the Prison Fellowship of Rwanda is to council ex convicts and survivors alike, emphasizing the need to regain trust and learn to live together again in a new Rwanda.

    In some ways, says Gashagaza, it is easier for ordinary people to forgive one another then highly educated ones who often have stronger ideologies and beliefs. Ordinary Rwandans, he adds, especially those who live in rural areas, are poor and lacking basics like shelter, food and water. Poverty is a powerful equalizer.

    Sitting next to Aloise is Jeanette, who is in her early thirties. She is a genocide survivor. Her entire family was killed in April 1994. She was lucky to have found refuge in a church until the Rwandan Patriotic Front made its advance into Kigali and people ventured out of their hiding places.

    “I was introduced to Aloise by the pastor,” says Jeanette. “He had been freed from prison and I was afraid that he would finish me off. We began by making bricks together. Slowly, through the work of the church, we warmed up to one another. He asked us survivors for forgiveness. Now my children and his play together.”

    Gashagaza, a member of the Tutsi ethnic group, also visits the prisons to console people who only fifteen years ago were eager to slaughter him. He offers spiritual redemption through prayer and compassion. He organizes carpentry workshops for male prisoners, weaving and sewing for the females and sports tournaments for all so that none of the prisoners is “idle and prone to dwell on negative thoughts.”

    His courage and commitment are remarkable.

    Damas Mutenzintare Gisimba runs an orphanage in Kigali that is now home to 186 abandoned children. A portrait of him hangs in the Kigali Genocide Memorial. In 1994 he saved more than 400 people. He is a soft-spoken and gentle man who inherited the Gisimba Memorial Center from his father and grandfather and humbly carries on the family legacy.

    “They [the killers] tried to come in many times. The first time I gave them food. The second time I gave them money. Then I ran out of both and I just found the words. These are just children, I would tell them. Maybe they are your cousins. I take in everyone.”

    One of the children who survived is 14-year-old Kevis. “He was found on the back of his dead mother, still alive, by a Red Cross worker who then brought him here to me. I knew all his relatives. When I tell him his story, he is relieved that I knew his family.”

    Many of the children staying at the orphanage are a result of the AIDS scourge that left many people, especially women who were raped during the genocide, infected with the HIV virus. It was a renowned policy of the Interahamwe militias to have men infected with HIV rape women during the 1994 genocide.

    According to a study conducted by the Association of the Widows of the Genocide (AVEGA), a government sanctioned organization that operates across the country, 67 per cent of the widows interviewed a couple of years after the genocide were infected with HIV.  

    Asumpta Umurungi is the Executive Secretary of AVEGA. She is a widow and one of the 50 founding members of the association that now runs health clinics, income generating activities and offers legal services across the country for the widows of the genocide. The peace baskets is one of the best known initiatives this group has spearheaded, one that is now part and parcel of the national reconciliation process.

    Umurungi says the term ‘peace basket’ was coined after one member of the original founding group traveled to Geneva to attend a peace conference in 1995. “When she offered the organizers a handmade straw basket from Rwanda, she told them to fill it with peace so that she could bring it back to her country.”

    Peace baskets can now be seen all over the country, on the shelves of boutiques in Kigali, in rural market places and even in the prisons. Their light pastry color and distinct pointed shape have become a symbol of post-genocide reconciliation while the project itself has taken on a life of its own and expanded way beyond AVEGA.

    A lucky break came when, for two consecutive years, they broke into the major US retail chain Macys. The baskets are usually made by groups of widows from both ethnic groups. “Working together promotes reconciliation,” says Umurungi. “Families whose relatives are in prison work side-by-side with those whose loved ones have been killed.”

    Weaving baskets generates much needed income for the widows, a forth of whom are still homeless as a result of the destruction unleashed during the genocide. From a group of 50 widows AVEGA has grown to more than 25,000 members.

     “I have no doubt that reconciliation can happen,” says Umurungi, “but this is a slow process. Sometimes you don’t even know whom to forgive. Other times you may meet people who are still hostile and this can set back the forgiveness process.”

    Perhaps one way to promote peace and reconciliation in a society that has been ripped apart is through the arts. This is where people find creative outlets to express their emotions and feelings.

    Carole Karemera certainly thinks so ever since her debut as an actress in Rwanda94, a powerful six-hour play produced by Philippe Tashman and directed by Grupov, a Belgian experimental theater. The performance toured Rwanda in 2004 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the genocide.

    “It was really intense. Thousands of people cried silently. It was one of the most powerful and difficult experiences of my life,” says Karemera as she recalls performances in the cities of Butare, Bisesero and Kigali.

    Karemera, who was born in Bruxelles from Rwandan parents and claimed her Rwandan citizenship in 1996, believes art and culture have an important role to play in the healing of the nation. She thinks artists have a responsibility to nurture and protect creativity in this new and fast-paced Rwanda.

    “In my opinion,” she says, “the genocide also happened because culture was eradicated. Through the arts we can create a vital space for feeling, reflecting and questioning. Art can help us share. People cannot carry such sadness inside.”

    For this purpose Karemera has established Ishyo, an association of women artists that aims to make culture accessible to everyone. One of their projects is Bibliobus, a traveling library bus that serves over 1200 children in Kigali.

    People often wonder whether reconciliation is truly possible in Rwanda given the events of 1994. As Bishop Rucyahana never tires of saying, “reconciliation is not magic and it is painful.”

    The real challenge now, according to Fatuma Ndagiza, the Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, is the healing of the individuals, which takes place at different times and on different levels.

    This is where ordinary people that do extraordinary work can make a tangible difference.

  • Life & People

    A Personal Account from Kenya

    Nairobi (17 January, 2008 ). Lately I am having a hard time focusing. I find myself easily irritable and chronically tense. My sleep is erratic. There are nights I sleep heavily as if I were under anesthesia and others when I am restless and wake up intermittently. When I am awake in the darkness of the night I find myself listening quietly for a sign of distress coming from my daughter’s room, which is next to mine.

    What was supposed to be the most important time in our lives, a time of bonding and mutual discovery is turning into a time of persistent worry regarding possible evacuation plans and the consequences of forced decisions on an adoption process that is half way through and far from being complete.

    Will I be forced to quit my job in order to stay with my daughter in Kenya? Will I manage to get her out of here if things get worse? Could we travel to another country in East Africa? Even Rwanda looks appealing from Kenya at this point in time.

    All these questions swirl in my head as I twist and turn in my bed at night. During the day I turn to yoga, meditation and classical music to find a semblance of peace. A tactic that is disrupted the moment I switch on the radio and listen to the BBC World or turn to the local TV news to see for myself the extent of the damage in Nairobi and the rest of the country.


    Periodic text messages from CARE security personnel on which roads in Nairobi are closed, location of street battles, gun shots and number of wounded also contribute to my overall feeling of distress. Though I appreciate knowing what is going on, I am tempted to switch off the phone, immerse myself in a book or put on my daughter’s itsy bitsy spider music CD.

    I also worry about one day having to explain to my daughter what is happening to Kenya now. Truthfully, I don’t even know what ethnic group she is from since she was found at the tender age of two weeks abandoned in Mathare, a Nairobi slum area that has repeatedly been in the news lately due to the post-election violence.

    I can only thank God that by a lucky twist of fate she is not living in Mathare now, as the country is rocked by violence and many innocent lives are lost while politicians are busy bickering about who exactly won the Presidential elections.

    Ever since the results of the Kenyan elections were made public on January 30th and immediately disputed by a large portion of the population, living here has become surreal. It is also been increasingly difficult to listen objectively to Kenyan friends and colleagues who have their own versions of the election dispute and opinions on how to solve the current crisis.

    I suppose it is inevitable to process their narratives through the prism of, ‘which ethnic group are they from’? And when that happens I feel ashamed, unable to come to terms with a reasonable explanation of what is really going on in the country today and knowing I am guilty of projecting my own Western biases on the current Kenyan crisis.

    Last week, as we drove back from a humanitarian assessment in the town of Eldoret, one of the areas in the Rift Valley that has seen a massive displacement of people fleeing from their homes and a horrendous murder of women and children burnt alive in a church, we stopped in Nakuru Park, normally a tourist destination for its spectacular population of pink flamingos living on the shores of the lake.

    After interviewing dozens of displaced families and witnessing the trail of destruction that swept through the town and its surrounding areas, we needed a moment of rest to recharge and reconnect to our inner selves.

    As we drove through the park, one of my Kenyan colleagues noticed that a white rhino was resting peacefully under an acacia tree not far from a male buffalo, also resting under an adjacent tree. Since this is considered a rare sight, he jokingly said, “You see, if they can manage to be next to each other, why can’t President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga find a way to settle their differences for the sake of all Kenyans?”

    It would be wrong to think that most Kenyans do not want peace. In fact, the contrary is quite true. Kenyans want peace but they also want justice.

    Many openly say that you cannot have one without the other, thus the need to re-tally the Presidential votes or have a rerun.

    As I dropped off my daughter Zawadi to kindergarten this morning, I stopped to observe a teacher playing with a group of young pupils. These children were all Kenyan, of African, Indian and European descent. Surely, among them there were multiple ethnic groups yet the atmosphere was serene and festive. A culture of mutual respect and cooperation must be taught early on, I thought to myself.

    The educational system has a big role to play in fostering peace.

    Children however, are the first ones to lose out from the current turmoil in Kenya. Due to elections and the ensuing violence, schools have closed early and opened later. Some schools have been destroyed and many displaced pupils find themselves unable to continue their studies.

    Journalists focus on where the action is and thus images of Kenya on TV screens abroad create the impressions that the entire country is experiencing mayhem. Although the situation is extremely grave, I think it is important to encourage friends and family who live far away from here to stay connected to Kenya and not to dismiss what is happening and what they see on their TV screens as yet another, ‘hopeless African tragedy’.

    As a person living in Kenya and working for an international aid agency, I have a responsibility to try to understand what is going on and to promote peace and reconciliation in any way I can. The question is, how best to do so?

    Besides supporting my own organization in responding to relief efforts forthe thousands of displaced people across the country, what can I as an individual do to foster healing and justice? And what can YOU do?

    I believe that we must promote a sense of individual responsibility and in depth analysis rather than fall prey to simplistic interpretations of current events. I also want to remind my Kenyan friends that they have the individual power to either promote peace and justice or to foster doubts andconsequently fuel violence.

    Like the white rhino and the buffalo in Nakuru Park, Kenyan leaders have a choice to either live peacefully together or to fight one another at theexpense of all other creatures living in the park.


    [Please search for three interesting essays that gave me food for thought yesterday as I searched for answers on the internet. Two are on (one is by Kenyan journalist Peter Kimani and the other one by historian and Africanist Gerard Prunier) and one by British reporter Madeline Bunting appeared January 14 on the Guardian newspaper.]