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By Rama Isibo
After a decade of reading the same story on Rwanda, I sensed a pattern. Every story, every article follows the same pattern as if written by the same person, although the outlets are different, supposedly with different editorial lines, they all follow the same template without any variation whatsoever. I see the same with Uganda, it is always the same litany; dictator who wants to kill gay people for being gay.
Unless you know Uganda well then you’d believe that gallows are poised to hang gays. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called it “the danger of a single story” but it is also a set of smaller stories that are meant to define a nation. Rwanda is no exception, there is the obligatory template that journalists follow, most correspondents based in Kigali are a waste of time, you know the same template will be followed regardless of what you file. I have been told this by two American journalists based in this region, if they filed a story that departed from the usual spiel then it would not get published. Or if they wrote a nuanced piece then their editor will add the usual litany expected.
News is now there not to inform but to confirm what people already think. I am tired of falling out with correspondents for no fault of their own when they have to follow a template and little or no input comes from them, all they do is reframe the story. Whether it’s a story about coffee growers, orphans, the political climate or roller-skating in Kigali, it has to follow the same template. It seemed that as budgets are cut, outlets are relying on country templates to provide generic news and analysis in time with the digital age.
Obligatory nod to development
There has to be the salutary nod to development, all the progress blah blah blah. Talk about “tremendous progress under Paul Kagame” and “A nation rising out from the ashes of genocide” Blah blah blah. Talk of the big shiny buildings which the westerner thinks was built with aid money. Yes it’s all aid money, not the sweat of ordinary Rwandans but aid money, we have no other means of survival apart from aid? Child mortality down 90% blah blah blah, free healthcare blah blah blah, education blah blah blah, women’s empowerment blah blah blah, 64% women in parliament blah blah blah. 7 % growth for almost 10 years blah blah blah, GDP tripled in 20 years blah blah blah, almost all MDG’s were met or exceeded blah blah. All these must be mentioned to soften us up for the bomb coming later. Indeed the development is always clouded is sinister terms, as a sign of just how weird and un-African it is to have development. They say all the development is a rouse, a giant diversion from the sinister dealings of the RPF. This development shows just how devious the RPF is, using development to hold on to power.
Dark and troubled history
This development must be contrasted with the “Dark and troubled history” they never go into the history or the factors behind it but sweep over it as a cue to reader to say “You know?” This history is often simplified in a vacuous way. Rwanda’s history is distilled down to a paragraph “In 1994 the majority Hutu who make up 85% killed the minority Tutsi after the plane of the President was shot down.” The rest is blah blah blah. Then the customary “Rwanda has never come to terms with its DARK AND TROUBLED PAST!!” Without offering any solutions, the one solution they offer is “more openness” whatever that means. They find it weird that a nation which saw one of the worst events in history doesn’t want to talk about it. Every article ends with “if Rwanda is to maintain its progress it will have to face its………Dark and Tragic History. As if looking into the sun will cure our blindness.
Voice of the voiceless
The prize assets of the western media are “Freedom of speech” and “Political Space” though they never define these fully. It came to a head when the BBC clashed with the government over a documentary that presented a totally different version of reality to what happened in 1994. The BBC saw it as its duty to speak for the voiceless; this put them in the middle of the political struggle, not as an observer but as an active player.
Sometimes people are voiceless for a reason, the media no longer has a monopoly of information, before 4 or 5 TV stations and 10 newspapers ruled the media, there they had to let unsavoury views on. Now anyone can have a blog, youtube channel and you can get your message across better directly so unsavoury views don’t have to come on the mainstream media. What the BBC and other respected outlets trade in is conferring legitimacy on lost causes.
I have rarely seen a pro-RPF quote ever in a Western media, only opposition voices are quoted. I wildly disagreed with a colleague when he referred to an RNC spokesman as just a “Human rights lawyer based in London.” Like saying “I’m just a consumer and Coca-cola is crap!!” when you are VP of Pepsi without mentioning it. If they mentioned that the person was No.3 at RNC then his quote would have been useless. They use the West’s ignorance of Rwanda to misinform the public, to reinforce the template.
There are no good guys
After lionising and glorifying the RPF for almost 15 years, in around 2009 the media turned on Rwanda and this Govt, especially after the Nkunda rebellion in Kivu. Rwanda was painted as the former victim which thought it had the right victimise others. The logic was that all that pain had made Rwanda a very bad boy indeed, now other nations needed to be protected from Rwanda. It was no longer the silent victim but the aggressor who was letting stuff that happened 20 years ago affect them.
In short, it was a case of “GET OVER IT!!!!” RPF was milking the genocide, using western guilt at their complicity and inaction to get aid to help their people advance economically, how dare they? So now they are reviewing their tapes and repainting the Hero as the Villain, they were fooled and duped for 20 years into thinking the RPF was nice, shock horror. So if the good guys are not that good, then the bad guys were not that bad. There is always an attempt to “show both sides” the FDLR are killing an raping for fun but they must be negotiated with as a sign of political space. There are no good guys is because nations don’t have Friends, they have interests, whoever can cater for those interests is a good guy.
Watching documentaries on African countries is very much like watching a wildlife documentary, all the parallels are there. There is always a “Delicate balance” that could tip and war would break out, even when the story is happy they remind you of all the bad news at the end, after all the hope. “If this delicate ecosystem is not preserved then we might lose Tumbalala forever. It is believed that 90% of Tumbalala has been destroyed, and only our help can keep it alive” Aid is preserving this delicate ecosystem; one of the reasons they give it is to take it away to make a point.
Every piece will have “Vulnerability” and “The Rwandan Government is feeling circled” every piece has to reinforce the omnipotent power of the West in punishing the hubris of African leaders. In a time when Western nations are vulnerable, they seek to project this on African nations. “With the defeat of the M23, the RPF government is feeling ENCIRCLED” And “recent aid cuts have left the RPF feeling VULNERABLE.”
So we can expect more of the Rwanda template, as budgets are cut, attention spans get shorter, and the same narrative is repeated over and over. The usual litany will be spewed, the media will present Rwanda in Black and White, ignoring all the colour, all the nuance, the variety of voices. They will juxtapose two unopposed sides in the usual way and “ancient enmities” will rise again in their minds. These differences among us are what they use to gain traction, to make this a clash of civilization, which is just another word for tribal war.
If you read what they say you will think Rwanda is sinister, nefarious, oppressive and cruel. The truth is opposite, expats jog at midnight without fear, fun is allowed (sometimes) it’s safe with little crime, friendly people, hard-working people, loyal people, but none of that comes out. We are rarely humanised, just cardboard cut-outs of archetypes with predictable opinions. Rwanda has something to say to the world, we are not either victims or killers, pro-RPF or anti-RPF, we are just people with nuances and personal identities. Most people support the RPF status quo because it’s peaceful and development is booming, not because they are forced to. To dismiss this is to reject the no.1 rule of politics “People vote the way their stomachs tell them to vote.” So like Binyavanga and Adichie said, be careful when you just take a story at face-value. Listen, think, discuss, then come to a conclusion.
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