Tag Archives: Rwanda

Wanja Muguongo on Exporting Homophobia

On November 1, Wanja Muguongo, a Yale World Fellow and the Executive Director of UHAI – The East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, spoke at Yale’s African Studies program’s weekly speakers’ series. She spoke about homophobia in Africa and the role of the West. I have been meaning to write a recap of what was said, and am finally doing so now for two reasons. Firstly and unfortunately, Uganda’s parliament is again revisiting the infamous anti-gay bill; in addition, an African Studies reading group which I have organized will be discussing Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” [pdf] soon, which is relevant to all of this as well. Below is my attempt to cover everything that Muguongo said at the event, which was cut short (hence the abrupt ending).

It’s important that you understand where I’m coming from and who I am, so a bit about myself and my beliefs: I manage a fund that supports NGOs, and we are a resource but also part of a movement. The conversation of LGBTI rights doesn’t take place in a vacuum; it takes place in a world of power and patriarchy. On top of this, I believe that band-aids don’t help, and that you need to tackle problems to fix them. Ending anti-gay laws doesn’t end hate fundamentally, but it’s a step in the right direction. We must also tackle sex workers’ rights by allowing them to fight oppression and patriarchy and change how society looks at sex. I believe there is way too much power in the world that is being used badly, and that normativity has always been a cause for bullying. I have chosen to endeavor to dis-empower bullies as much as possible. One of the things supporting power is religion being used as a mechanism of that power. Here, when I say religion I do not mean faith or belief, but the institution of organized religion. I have a problem with institutionalized religion as it is being used today.

Faith and belief are supposed to be kind and supportive, but when they are institutionalized they fail to do those things. Religion is about control and can be used to target outliers. We must contemplate what it means to be non-normative in a strongly religious community that supports hate and is intolerant. We tend to think of GLBTI/sex workers are people that are not of faith, which isn’t always true. Things are more complex than they seem. Continue reading

Rwanda isn’t a Model for Anything but Autocracy

About a year ago, I attended a conference about human rights in Africa.  One of the keynote speakers was a PhD candidate in justice studies who spoke mostly about the Arizona state legislature’s divestment related to atrocities in Darfur.  But she made an off-hand comment about Rwanda that made me double take. I’ll paraphrase it to something like “the streets are clean and the cities are safe, it’s come a long way since 1994!” It wasn’t the main point of her speech, so I shook it off, but not before writing a small post about my own thoughts on Rwanda. But it seems it might be time for another.

I attended an event last month where I saw Carl Wilkens speak. Wilkens is well known for being the only U.S. civilian to remain in Rwanda during the genocide, where he helped aid many Tutsis that were in hiding.  He had a lot to say about his work at the time and his personal story, and it was very moving.  I picked up a copy of his recently published memoir and hope to read it soon.  Hearing him speak, I could tell he cared a lot for Rwanda’s well being – he continues to do work there and seems to have a deep connection with the country.  Given what he went through, it’s hard to blame him.  During the Q&A portion of the event, though, I was struck by his strong support for the current regime there.

First, someone asked how Rwanda had changed.  Wilkens qualified that the government was somewhat overreaching and even used the word “autocratic,” but also argued that the streets were clean, crime was down, and people were safe.  He ignored that petty criminals are whisked away and never seen again and that the civil society and press are severely choked by government restrictions (both of which I mentioned in the aforementioned post).  Recently, the genocide survivors group Ibuka condemned Paul Rusesabagina’s Lantos prize.  Ibuka is one of the biggest survivor groups, but it has been aligned with the government ever since its more outspoken leaders were purged by Kagame in 2000.

And then someone asked what African country could be seen as a model for the way forwards. I was expecting something like Botswana, but instead got accolades for Rwanda again.  Wilkens explains that the Rwandan government was establishing infrastructure, citing efforts to lead an information-based economy in Kigali to lead the region. As some have mentioned, that can’t be the only solution.  An authoritarian government that stifles opposition cannot grow much further than Rwanda has.

Once you clean up your streets (by banning plastic bags and arresting people for begging) and shore up your border (by invading your neighbors and stealing their resources) and win “popular” elections (by intimidating and threatening opposition groups), you can’t call your country a beautiful model for new African governance. I’ve spent years learning about Uganda, and I sure as hell love a lot of things about that country. But in learning to love that country, I’ve also learned to call a spade a spade. No matter how close you are to Rwanda, it’s important to take a step back and call an authoritarian government what it is, with no excuses or apologies.

Re: Rwanda

In the past few weeks I’ve heard a couple of people applaud Rwanda for being a clean and beautiful country with no corruption.  Now, I only spent two and a half days there, but I have a bit of a rebuttal.  I mean, yes – the streets were very clean and the undulating countryside really is pretty – but I would hardly say that cleanliness leads to no corruption.

To me, a street without beggars and children just reminds me of something I read in a New York Times article about Iwawa Island.  The article details the fact that, in an effort to preserve the appearance of a developed country, Rwandan authorities routinely scoop up homeless and petty criminals and send them to rehabilitation centers without a trial.  Hardly a good thing to have on a country’s record.

And to say the country is not corrupt ignores the intense oppression the ruling party employs. The RPF win every election – because there’s virtually no opposition (all three opposition parties were ruled out of the elections this past August).  While I was there I read in the newspaper that the interim editor-in-chief of a newspaper critical of the government had been killed.  Two things worth noting: he was the interim chief editor because the former chief editor fled into exile; and the police arrived within minutes of the killing but never found a suspect.  Just after I left Rwanda, the vice president of an opposition party was found decapitated in the forest (officials arrested one suspect but released him soon after and haven’t investigated any further).

And then there’s the ethnic part.  Even though the RPF outlawed the ethnic identity cards that were a hallmark of the genocide era, there is still a stark contrast.  Hutus are marginalized in civil service.  And no Tutsis have ever faced justice for crimes committed in the civil war.  There are allegations that the RPF killed 30,000 civilians as they swept across the country – but the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s investigations have routinely been obstructed by the government.  This in addition to UN’s recent findings that the Rwandan government committed crimes against humanity (and maybe genocide) in the DR Congo.

I guess these are just some things to think about.  The country has a lot of potential, I just think it’s far from a great example right now.  Clean streets, sure.  But there are quite a few concerns that the government needs to look into if it wants to really be seen for its progress.