Marylebone Journal interviews the High Commissioner

Marylebone Journal interviews the High Commissioner

Twenty-five years ago, Rwanda was torn apart by an explosion of genocidal violence—and for many people in the UK, that was when perceptions of the country became permanently set. The Journal visits the Rwandan High Commission to hear about the efforts being made to reshape our impressions of one of Africa’s most beautiful and fascinating countries  


It was 25 years ago, in April 1994, that the paradise of Rwanda—a country blessed with staggering natural beauty—turned into a living hell. Over the course of just 100 days, it is estimated that over a million Rwandese people, mainly from the Tutsi ethnic group but also including many moderate Hutus, were butchered by the forces unleashed by a genocidal Hutu regime, while the United Nations hurriedly withdrew its peacekeeping force and the world stood impotently by.

For most of us in the UK, our perceptions of Rwanda have been entirely shaped by that short-lived but shocking explosion of violence, known formally as the Genocide Against the Tutsi, the seeds of which were sown during Rwanda’s colonial era, when the region’s ethnic divisions were promoted and exploited by European colonisers. But the horrific events of 1994 are only part of Rwanda’s story. In barely a quarter of a century—despite the depth of the trauma, despite the survivors’ inheritance of a stagnated economy, crippling inflation and prisons full of genocide suspects—this small east African nation has somehow found ways of gradually healing itself. Survivors and perpetrators have come together through a journey of reconciliation, and communities have been rebuilt and strengthened. Along with its incredible natural beauty, biodiversity and wildlife, Rwanda now pulses with energy, creativity and innovation. Yet I only really know about the genocide.

“That is very typical,” says Her Excellency Yamina Karitanyi, high commissioner for the Republic of Rwanda to the UK and non-resident ambassador for Rwanda to Ireland. “And we understand and appreciate that, because it was a point in history that questioned humanity.” With Rwanda now striding confidently into the future, you might imagine there’d be a reluctance to dwell too much on such a harrowing past, but Yamina is unflinchingly open in discussing it. “Honestly, we don’t shy away from that history,” she says. “In fact, we are often told that we overdo it. The reason we’re not shy about talking about it is because we’ve emerged from it and are no longer in conflict with ourselves. We are still healing—that is not over, the healing process continues—but we are a reconciled nation, a unified nation and a nation that is trying to ensure that we never go back to what we experienced.”

Her Excellency Yamina Karitanyi, High Commissioner for the Republic of Rwanda to the UK

The weight of this recent history has shaped the role of the Rwandan High Commission on Seymour Place. As you’d expect, its key functions include offering the usual range of consular services, as well as working to strengthen bilateral relations with the UK and Republic of Ireland, but what sets it apart from most other embassies and high commissions is the degree to which it is so actively involved in promoting Rwanda and trying to change perceptions of both the past and the present. “At the high commission, we try to educate our audiences about how far Rwanda has travelled since 1994, but also about how we even got to the troubles that produced the Genocide Against the Tutsi, so there’s the historical perspective to explain. It didn’t just happen. There was a very clear journey that led to the genocide and also a very clear journey that took us away from the abyss. We’ve travelled the two extremes.”

Engaging Arsenal fans
One high-profile example of the high commission’s promotional work is the Visit Rwanda partnership with Arsenal football club. Launched at the start of the current football season, this three-year project aims to increase tourism, investment and football development in Rwanda. “As a country, we have to come up with innovative ways to market ourselves as a place to visit,” says Yamina. “The Arsenal deal is one of many initiatives designed to ensure our voice is heard. It’s still early in the process, but we know it’s already successful in the sense that people who only know Rwanda as a genocide-torn country are now clicking on the website to try to understand why Arsenal is partnering with Visit Rwanda.”

Rwanda is Arsenal’s official tourism partner and the club’s first ever shirt sleeve partner—which means the new Visit Rwanda logo features on the sleeve of a shirt that is seen 35 million times per day around the world. Visit Rwanda also gains global exposure through branding on matchday LED boards, interview backdrops and stadium tours, and by engaging Arsenal fans around the world through the club’s social media channels—for example, with videos of Arsenal legends Lauren and Alex Scott getting up close and personal with the Rwandan mountain gorillas on a trip during Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla-naming ceremony. The Arsenal deal also presents an opportunity for Rwandan officials to engage with the club’s top tier sponsors. “It’s beyond tourism: we want to tap into the circles that Arsenal has, for them to explore business opportunities in Rwanda.”

The partnership will see Arsenal’s training staff host coaching camps out in Rwanda, to support the development of the game for boys and girls. Football, the country’s most popular sport, is playing a crucial role in the nation’s journey of reconciliation. Many of the young people reached by football organisations in Rwanda are orphans of the genocide or children of perpetrators and exiles. The government believes that football can create bonds, build self-esteem and engender a sense of belonging. “Sport is a unifier,” says Yamina. “We have used it to bring communities together and to heal the nation.”

A beautiful country
Successfully encouraging Europeans to visit Rwanda has both a reputational impact and an economic one. Tourism is Rwanda’s largest foreign exchange earner, and it’s easy to see why: with its rich culture and heritage, the country is fast becoming a destination for safari, nature hiking, bird watching and even professional cycling. You can trek up the mountains to visit the gorillas, gaze at the magnificent Isumo waterfalls, creep along a walkway high above the rainforest canopy or explore Lake Kivu by kayak.

“Rwanda is a beautiful country,” says Yamina. “I call it ‘little Africa’, because you find everything that you would in any of the other countries.” Abundantly rich in biodiversity, with landscapes including volcanoes, mountain rainforests, sweeping plains and breath-taking lakes, Rwanda’s three national parks are teeming with wildlife. “We have about a third of Africa’s bird species in Rwanda. We also have the Big Five, having reintroduced lions and rhinos in the past five years, which are thriving.” And there’s good news too for the famous mountain gorillas, which are thankfully no longer critically endangered. “It’s a great testament to our efforts in conservation. The fact that you have former poachers who are now guides and proud to tell visitors how they are now playing a positive role in protecting the environment is wonderful. That’s one of the stories that for me summarises the principles that Rwanda carries forward.”

Kayaking on Lake Kivu, by Kingfisher Journey

Rwanda’s impressive progress in recent years may explain why Arsenal are so keen to be associated with the nation. “We have the highest representation of females in parliament in the world, 61 per cent. According to the World Economic Forum, we are the safest country in Africa. There is equal pay for women, and youth empowerment. We protect the wildlife as much as the population, reducing human-wildlife conflict, giving back 10 per cent of tourism receipts to the population living around the national parks so that they protect wildlife. There are many things we’ve done that would make organisations such as Arsenal want to partner Rwanda. It’s a good story.”

And it’s a story that Yamina is particularly keen to share with young audiences, by accepting invitations to speak at schools and universities. “I like to speak to young ones, because that’s where it starts,” she says. “If you can empower their minds into understanding what is possible, they thrive. I think for countries such as the UK, that are safe, secure and wealthy, some can take things for granted. The Genocide Against the Tutsi isn’t on school curriculums, but I think it should be, because it’s the most recent genocide. The young influencers, the leaders of tomorrow, should be made aware of it.”

Rwandan values
The Rwandan High Commission hosts fortnightly cultural sessions aimed at young Rwandans living in the UK. “A significant number of our diaspora have children who may not have experienced Rwanda,” says Yamina. “It’s important that we teach them the culture, language and dances. We teach them the good values of being a Rwandan and how to carry themselves in society; how to tell the stories of Rwanda, including the story of the genocide, but also about what Rwanda signifies today so they are proud citizens and not ashamed of that genocide stigma that is part of our history.”

Forging a sense of community is also an aim of the quarterly cultural evenings held for parents and their children. “Sometimes living away from home you get lonely, depressed, times may be hard. We always try to help where we can. It could be just by listening to them. It could be a mother struggling with a teenager who may have found themselves in with the wrong crowd. Finding other parents can help them navigate through.”

Being away from home is something that Yamina, who served as Rwanda’s head of tourism and conservation before being appointed high commissioner in December 2015, knows only too well. She was, like so many Rwandans, born in exile from her home country. Her early childhood was spent in former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, her parents having both been forced to leave Rwanda during the early 1960s in order to continue their education, during one of the many convulsions of ethnic oppression that foreshadowed the genocide. “Originally my father comes from the north of Rwanda and my mother from the south. I was born and grew up in the Congo and then moved to Burundi, finished high school there, moved to South Africa, then to the US and finally back to Rwanda after many, many years.”

What she witnessed on her return, as Rwanda’s people sought to reunite and reconcile, was a striking willingness from all parties to sit down together and find a route out of decades of turmoil. “And that’s how we emerged from the genocide, with survivors and perpetrators sitting together, agreeing to embrace and say: ‘The past is the past. We will now have to walk together to rebuild our country.’ But you need a coordinating and convincing angle to have a survivor agree to sit with a perpetrator—it doesn’t just happen naturally. You need the right kind of leadership; one that is caring enough to want to lift people out of poverty, out of pain, and take them to a better place. We were blessed to have that kind of leadership right when we needed it.”

Confession and forgiveness
Reconciliation has, inevitably, been difficult and painful—a journey of confession and forgiveness, one that according to Yamina required a return to Rwanda’s traditional, pre-colonial system of administering justice. “We looked at something that worked for us in the past. Before colonialism there was harmony in our society. How did that happen? We resolved problems by sitting on the grass and discussing issues. A group of elders, respected men and women in our society, would work to resolve conflicts. We went back to that way of operating, even to deal with the cases of genocide. We had 140,000 people in overcrowded prisons. You can’t keep them all in jail—for how long? And some of them were well educated men and women who could help rebuild the country. So, we decided that in the spirit of unity, we would only punish the masterminds, the ringleaders, because the others were, in a sense, also victims—as long as they were willing to repent. Had we not done that, had we relied on the legal system as we know it, it would have taken us 200 years to resolve the cases, because the system was inadequate.”

On Thursday 11th April 2019, the Rwandan High Commission marked the 25th anniversary of the genocide by holding a commemoration service at St Marylebone Parish Church. “The Rwandan diaspora, friends of Rwanda, MPs, members of the House of Lords and a few other invited guests joined us on that day,” says Yamina. “During the service we paid our respects, stated the facts of what happened, had a message from government and heard the testimony of a survivor. It was a heavy hour but an important one, particularly because as we speak about what happened, we also speak of where we are today. It is a story of renewal.”

I am curious to discover just what Rwanda means to Yamina—not as high commissioner, but to her personally. “For me Rwanda is a gift, because I finally have this country that I know wants me and loves me. And I’m not persecuted. I am welcome. I belong there.” And it’s a gift that is already being cherished by the next generation. “I see that in my own children,” she says. “When we came here, I thought they would get over missing Rwanda very quickly. But they haven’t, and it’s been three years. Their daily prayer is: ‘God, make mummy’s work finish so we can go home.’ I think it’s wonderful that they have that sense of belonging and are proud of where they come from. Our responsibility as custodians of that gift is to make sure that it continues to shine.”

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