I spent much of last week being driven along twisting dusty tracks in Rwanda, with some Congolese music jangling out from the radio, past fields filled with crops and occasionally banana or coffee bushes, while the scent of eucalyptus and mint hung in the air.
Kids ran out from their homes to wave, their eyes opening with surprise as they saw my reddening Irish flesh, glowing under the African sun after a long winter, and shouted ‘muzungu’ (white man). Even the adults did a double take and then nodded solemnly in greeting.
While there is a modest tourist industry to the north where gorillas can be seen along the slopes of the Virunga mountains foreign visitors are a rarity in Rwanda, particularly in the areas where I was travelling – Kamonyi district a couple of hours’ drive from the capital Kigali and in the Huye district in the south of the country close to the border with Burundi.
It is the second time I have travelled with the Irish international development agency Trócaire (I was in Nicaragua four years ago). Once again I was brought into areas and into contact with people that it would be impossible for an independent traveller to reach.
On Friday I sat in a large room with a group of 40 women in a hilltop village about 40 minutes drive from Butare in Huye district. They were part of a reconciliation project, funded by Trócaire and included women who lost their husbands and other members of their family in the 1994 genocide in which one million people died. Other women in the same group were left to fend for themselves and their families alone because their husbands were in prison for taking part in the genocide.
Euphrasie’s husband was convicted under one of the ‘Gacaca’ courts (traditionally local forums to resolve disputes between neighbours) which were set up in the wake of the genocide. His neighbour accused him of being part of a mob which used machetes to slaughter a child. Other members of the mob who confessed said Euphrasie’s husband had been with them and he was found with the child’s watch.
However, he denied taking part and said he had been at home when the attack took part. Euphrasie told the court that he had not been at home and her husband now blames her for his being in prison. He was sentenced to 19 years but his wife fears his release because under the country’s laws she will not be allowed to refuse him coming into her home.
Euphrasie sat for us to have her picture taken beside a spritely 64-year-old called Cancilda whose husband and son were both killed during the genocide. She was not sure how or when they died although she suspects that a neighbour who had been “like a father” to her son and with whom he was hiding may have betrayed him to the maurading Interahamwe (the Hutu paramilitary gang which turned on their Tutsi neighbours and moderate Hutus who failed to take part or tried to help the Tutsis or had intermarried with them).
Cancilda fled her home and made the 40km journey by foot to Burundi as the genocide gathered pace. She said she saw many people being killed and was in constant fear of her life.
She told me: “There was killing everywhere. I could see people being killed and thrown into rivers. We were drinking water mixed with blood”.
While reconciliation between women such as Cancilda and Euphrasie is inspiring and there are many other examples there are others who have refused and there is still a tangible tension bubbling under the surface.
Against this backdrop is widespread poverty with most people in rural areas depending on subsistence farming. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and the pressure on land is intense. Overproduction means that each year it is losing the soil capacity to feed 40,000 people each year while the population continues to grow.
Both male and female children share equal rights and so when they inherit their parents’ land it is divided equally among them, and with an average of three children per family this means increasingly diminishing plots for each generation.
I met several farming families who were dependent on the land they farmed to feed themselves. Crop rotation has been encouraged and terracing in their fields to improve irrigation and help prevent soil erosion but a poor crop will inevitably mean hunger.
During a visit to one family I saw a filthy child tottering aimlessly around their yard, its belly distended, eyes glazed and a layer of dried mucus along its upper lip. I thought it was a girl but couldn’t be sure.
While the family we were visiting were obviously poor their children were bright-eyed and laughing with delight as we showed them their pictures on digital cameras but this wee one plodded aimlessly about the place and stared blankly when I tried to engage it. A Trócaire worker took one look and said the child was suffering from malnutrition.
Through our translator I asked the woman of the household about the child. She said it was a boy called Dani who was about two (the child she was holding was also two and the difference in their physical health was stark). She said Dani’s father had been a senior official in the regional cooperative but had stolen money and abandoned his wife and seven children. Dani’s mother was unable to work because she had to look after her children.
We were told the child had been fed at the local health centre but it was clearly not enough. When I asked the woman if she thought Dani would live she sighed and shrugged. It was not a heartless gesture for she was clearly struggling to feed her own family, but it suggested an inevitability and there was helplessness in her face.
I saw Dani on the first day of my visit and in a vastly overpopulated country dependent on subsistence farming can only assume that it is not a unique story.
I’m still writing up my reports for a series which should run in The Irish News over the next few weeks.