The View from the Top

Up here, civilization spreads like a blanket of rooftops and manicured green spaces across Kigali’s undulating hills. It’s grand view of the country from the gated top of Parliament Hill: to the north, the main thoroughfare that runs through Kacyiru neighbourhood, dotted to high rise apartments and hotels, a few embassies and foreign offices. To the south, the ever-evolving convention centre, still in construction with scaffolding wrapped around one dome-shaped building. Progress, in the shape of tall cranes crowned with Chinese company logos.

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The Parliament Building at the top of the hill: seat of the nation’s legislative branch, which includes Senate (upper chamber) and the Chamber of Deputies (lower). 

I’m at this auspicious vantage point to meet with the Rwandan Women’s Parliamentary Forum (which uses the acronym FFRP from the French title) to discuss the possibility of English classes for members of the Forum. It’s an unusual day for me – then again, unusual is slowly becoming my usual. After meeting several representatives from the FFRP, the sort of women’s caucus for the nation’s legislative branch, I’m on the hill for the sort of meeting that calls for high heels, hair down, and a sleeveless wool dress that becomes more and more form-fitting in the rising humidity and clear sunlight of the morning. It calls for another rare luxury as well: a taxi driver.

My taxi driver Evariste pulls up to the security at the bottom of the hill, just off of the main road that connects the airport to Mumugi, the downtown. One officer checks the car – under the body with a mirror, in the doors and all of the possible hidden spaces, while Evariste and I pass through the usual exercise of metal detectors and log book signatures. Security allow me through in return for my passport, and instead of a Parliament visitor badge, my Embassy identification bounces against my stomach. Back in the taxi, up the hill.

He leaves me at the entrance and a woman greets me, touching the inside of her elbow as she shakes my hand: the sign of respect. When I learn her position, a few minutes later when seated at a meeting table, I realise that the gesture should have been reversed: she’s a senator and highly ranked in the FFRP, a well-spoken and genial woman who studied in Sweden and commands the room with a gentle firmness. It’s a humble room where the FFRP meets, with tiled floors, a fresh coat of white paint, shelves full of binders, and a 90s copy machine jammed into a corner behind the meeting table. The women’s titles roll easily off their tongues in their introductions, and I am properly impressed as we move succinctly through logistics: number of participants, meeting times, topics. The women shake my hand at the end and thank me for my time and lead me back towards the elevator and the exit. I take a few minutes to survey the building.

It’s not a remarkable building- perhaps some part of it is gilded and dressed with pomp, but you wouldn’t know from the exterior. In fact, this is purposeful- after our meeting, Speciose, my contact from RWPF, answers my questions about the scars that mar its exterior, visible from the road far below. I noticed the marks on the building from my first days in the country and always wondered.

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Intentional reminders of the past: Mortar scars from 1994 

It’s as I thought: five-foot wide chunks blown from the sides of the building are two decades old, the damage of mortars fired from the military camp controlled by the Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR), attached to the government that carried out the genocide. Rwanda Patriotic Army, the rebel group lead by now-President Paul Kagame, had 600 soldiers in the capital, holed up at the Parliament, later reinforced as Kagame’s forces ripped through the country to bring the hundred day genocide to an end. It’s a rare relic of Rwanda’s tumultuous past. It’s not that the genocide is somehow silenced – it pulses beneath everyday conversations and daily life, but to see such a deliberate reminder of war in a city reborn and reconstructed and more often reminded of its past only in white-tiled memorials.

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A reward poster: eight fugitives still sought for their connection to the planning and execution of the genocide. Hung at the Gisenyi/Rubavu coach stop a kilometre from the DR Congo border

It’s as I thought: five-foot wide chunks blown from the sides of the building are two decades old, the damage of mortars fired from the military camp controlled by the Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR), attached to the government that carried out the genocide. Rwanda Patriotic Army, the rebel group lead by now-President Paul Kagame, had 600 soldiers in the capital, holed up at the Parliament, later reinforced as Kagame’s forces ripped through the country to bring the hundred day genocide to an end. It’s a rare relic of Rwanda’s tumultuous past. It’s not that the genocide is somehow silenced – it pulses beneath everyday conversations and daily life, but to see such a deliberate reminder of war in a city reborn and reconstructed and more often reminded of its past only in white-tiled memorials.

A building that looks back, while those within its walls look ahead. Despite its past, Rwanda has some of the most progressive policies in regards to gender equality, especially for representation in government.

Sure, laws aren’t the only agent of change when upending cultural attitudes about women and their role in society, and it’s a worthless agent when unaccompanied by development in economics, education, and social change. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t erase racism in the U.S., life isn’t all rosy for women in Rwanda: they continue to face domestic violence and the highest instances of poverty in the country. Colloquially, I’ve heard people say that women might be 64% of the Parliament, but they hardly speak during the government session: a reflection of the traditional role for women in Rwanda.

Sure, laws aren’t the only agent of change when upending cultural attitudes about women and their role in society, and it’s a worthless agent when unaccompanied by development in economics, education, and social change. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t erase racism in the U.S., life isn’t all rosy for women in Rwanda: they continue to face domestic violence and the highest instances of poverty in the country. Colloquially, I’ve heard people say that women might be 64% of the Parliament, but they hardly speak during the government session: a reflection of the traditional role for women in Rwanda.

Dinah Musindarwezo, head of women’s rights group FEMNET surveys the situation: “Of course, deep social changes take time, especially when dealing with communities where education levels are still low. But it’s clear how, pushed along by political leadership, there is a change of attitudes in people toward women in Rwanda that I do not see in almost any other African country” (thanks, Nat Geo).

Maybe English has a role here, and maybe that’s something I can contribute. Language is best when used outside of the classroom: Rwandan parliamentarians communicating with their East African colleagues, using the lingua franca of the EAC: English. English to advocate for what is needed to change, to present themselves as an example. In this room full of women, in a scared and once-crippled building, you can see the start: when change begins at the top, there is the opportunity for it to roll downhill – into schools, businesses, homes.

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Kigali skies at sunset, Parliament Hill invisible in the left quadrant of the image

More on this, as it comes. From back at the bottom of the hill…

~ L

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3 thoughts on “The View from the Top

  1. So glad to hear from you AND that U R in a position to help in a needy situation. God bless and be with you. L & Ps. Gt

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. Dear Leanne,
    I like the way your prose draws us along the rooftops to that view from Parliament hill, through security and its details, then on to social niceties as well ( touching the inside of the elbow). You expand the temporal view, reminding us of a slaughterous past. $5,000,000 reward! Will it ever be claimed? Then on to an important meeting in the ongoing (worldwide) effort to assert woman’s equal humanity. You tell a great tale.
    While Kapuscinski’s observation, that the world teaches humility is true (although the man himself, fascinating as his travel tales are, was no slouch in making his presence felt) you should most surely allow yourself a little pride, humble or otherwise, in what you are doing. Change does begin at the political top, but as it rolls downward, as you put it, through businesses and homes, there is no more important stop than at the school. Education lasts.
    Power to you, Leanne, and those fortunate enough to learn from you.

    tom craig (Jennifer’s Englishman)

    Like

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