Our Interns

Brett Popplewell ,
Carleton University Graduate


Brett's Blog

Dancing at the murder scene,
in search of the new Rwanda

Two days into a three week stint in Kigali I found myself dancing
at the scene of a brutal murder.

Sipping a beer in the Passadena bar atop one of the city’s many hills, I watched joyfully as a pair of skilled dancers jumped and jived across a circular cemented dance floor. Their coordinated dancing made for a captivating scene, but beneath their beauty lay a dark history. This is no cliché. The dance floor itself marked the very spot where the bar owner’s brother was murdered 12 years earlier.

The image of a young Rwandan couple entertaining a crowd of locals and foreigners with their dancing prowess is not one many people in Canada would envisionwhen picturing Rwanda.

In recent years, most of the news from Rwanda that has reached the average Canadian is news of bloodshed.

Books like Shake Hands with the Devil and We wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families have immortalized in print Rwanda’s violent past while movies such as Hotel Rwanda and even Gorillas in the Mist, the story of Diane Fossey’s research and murder in Volcanoes National Park, have etched a violent image of Rwanda into the psyche of the average Westerner.

Media savvy Canadians are familiar with the tale of the murder of 10 Belgian soldiers and the image of thousands of Rwandan refugees living in exile to escape the genocide.

A Tutsi woman being slaughtered in broad daylight on a Kigali street by her machete-wielding murderer is the most famous piece of film many Westerners have seen from Rwanda. This footage, captured by a reporter perched on a nearby rooftop, was broadcast across most western news stations. For many Canadians it is the only true footage they have seen from Rwanda that is untouched by the hands of Hollywood.

These images and stories have led many Westerners to perceive Rwanda as a violent country, its people divided by racial hatred created by European colonial powers.

But western perception is 12 years behind Rwandan reality.

Rwanda is no longer the battlefield it once was. Today Rwanda is in a state of reconstruction and remembrance. The mass graves and the stench of rotting flesh have been replaced by solemn genocide memorials and a genuine feeling that hope and prosperity lie in the country’s future.

Unlike some of its neighbouring countries, Rwanda is home to many peoples united in peace. The streets of Kigali, though watched over by police brandishing AK-47s and billy clubs, are safe for Rwandans and Westerners alike.

The West may have failed to protect the estimated one million lives lost during the genocide, but most Rwandans do not look at Westerners with hatred but rather with a curious eye.

As a foreigner in Kigali the worst I’ve received is a constant reminder that my white skin makes me a “muzungu” or “well-off white man”. But being well-off in Kigali doesn’t mean you’re unwanted. It just means you stand out.

Back at the bar, I’m trying to blend into the scene as I pour back another drink and speak with a Rwandan friend.

She’s recounting the events of the 1994 genocide. She tells the type of stories Westerners associate with Rwanda. Stories of pregnant women being butchered – their unborn children cut from their wombs and stomped on.

She tells me of the bar owner’s brother – one of the many Rwandans whose life was cut short by a machete’s blade. I learn how he was killed and eventually buried beneath the very spot where a woman is now shaking her hips to the beat of a drum.

I’m still overwhelmed by the horrid tale when a Rwandan woman approaches me and asks for a dance.

As we dance, our feet glide over the scene of a man’s murder and I think how odd a tribute this is. Then I realize Rwanda is no longer a murder scene. It is a memorial to those who died and a country trying to overcome the genocide by celebrating the good in its history and by building a united future.

For me, Rwanda is a place to dispel perceptions and embrace a largely untold reality.




    © 2006 Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication DESIGN: SMDESIGN