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The Paper Bag President

Posted by speedskating-online on January 27, 2009 at 12:36 PM









Written by Beorn Nijenhuis

Dutch speed skater



With a wink and a wave my parents have flown to Rwanda. After a harrowing 24 hour marathon spent in four airports crisscrossing the continents of Europe and Africa they have arrived in Kigali. From all my mother was able to tell me during my short phone conversation with her, their first impression was Rwanda is nothing like what they had expected. Yes, the heavy enveloping tropical heat was a given, but otherwise it's been one pleasant surprise after another.


Of course, the immediate and unassailable observation is that, for the next six months, they will be the almond chips in Africa's bowl of chocolate ice-cream. Standing out as they do in crowds, they are inevitably pointed out and called after with the title Muzungu, which stands simultaneously for white and wealthy. So far, my Muzungu parents have delighted in the vibrant colorful clothing flashing all around that crowded canvas of black faces.


One might expect a vibrant cacophony of sound to accompany the color, however they report that, besides an amazing concert of morning bird song, Kigali is strikingly quiet. Even with a whole airport full of newly arrived passengers, the halls whispered with a rustling silence. One wonders if this subdued atmosphere, so uncommon in the drumming, dancing and pulsing African culture, is a stillness born in the wake of genocide. Maybe somehow the wild terror of the recent mass-murder is answered now in an overdose of calm civility that, sometimes, verges on the downcast. It isn't difficult to imagine, when you remember that the Hutu and Tutsi must now coexist in peace beside each other, even when unpunished and untried rapists and murderers live within meters of their former victims? families. The willpower needed to maintain self-control in such circumstances is amazing, and a little stoic silence is the least you can allow them.


In any case, this stillness is not the only way that Rwanda has chosen the path of iron discipline and reform in the face of former chaos. The city of Kigali is cleaner and better organized than it has ever been, or my parents could have ever hoped for. Yes, there are a few forsaken patches where the new infrastructure has not yet touched the place, but those are more like tumors of poverty on an otherwise healthy body. Whether they are malignant and spreading, or malign growths receding in the face of progress, my parents are not yet sure.


Whatever the general prognosis, there are many glimmers of hope for this burgeoning African country and its surprisingly clean capital. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, who fashions himself as somewhat of an enlightened despot, has implemented some very interesting policies that some western cultures may think about emulating. As my parents have discovered, Rwanda is plastic-bag free. All people must provide their own bags when shopping, and they must all be biodegradable. The plague of polyethylene bags, that are normally a staple food for many growing garbage heaps all over the world, are banned in Rwanda. And why not? The amount of energy, pollution and environmental havoc that superfluous plastic causes our world is immense. We may fall back on the excuse that we in the West have learned to recycle our plastic, but like carbon credits, it seems to be more about buying peace of mind than buying a solution. The CO2 produced by the power plants that feed recycling factories may destroy our planet far more quickly than landfills full of Wall Mart bags. Much better to get rid of the entire concept of plastic bags to begin with, and that is exactly what this plucky little country has done.


Many question the political approach of Paul Kagame. Everyone knows Africa has had its fair share of corrupt, despotic, tyrannical and downright nasty leaders. There is, however, something to be said for a strong and steady force of leadership at the helm of a country still reeling from such an incredible explosion of bloody violence. Especially if that leader is democratically elected.


From what my parents have so far been able to report, Kigali is a pleasant surprise in far more ways than a disappointment, however as avid readers of the classics, including Conrad's Heart of Darkness and (for this article more pertinent) Lord of the Flies, they will withhold judgment on whether they believe these new glimmers of hope spell a definite sea change in the cultural mind of Rwanda. It remains a fascinating question for all of us; whether "the dark root of the scream", that so recently rallied a people to engage in such a brutal massacre, can ever be washed away along with the dirt in the newly cleaned streets of Kigali.

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