I am in Rwanda again. This time around I am staying for a total of 5 weeks. It is the longest time I have spent here thus far. This extended duration has afforded me the unique opportunity to immerse myself more deeply in the local culture and history. As part of this journey of discovery and exploration, I recently ventured to Nyanza, about 2 hours drive from Kigali, where the palaces of the former Rwandan king are located. Interestingly, they are two, colocated royal palaces at the site. One is a replica of the traditional palace used by the Rwandan king before Belgian rule, and the second is a ‘modern’ palace built by the Belgians for the Rwandan king as a ‘gift.’ The contrast between the two edifices is more extreme than night and day.
I found the replica of the traditional palace, with its intricate design, and deep rooting in the historical customs and rituals of Rwanda, to be a treasure trove of information. It gave me unique insight into what Rwanda was like in the past, before European colonization. The culture and mindset of the people. What they valued? (Cows with very large horns, for one!) How they structured their society? Without a shadow of a doubt I was left convinced that Rwanda had a very highly evolved civilization, with intelligent, strategic-minded rulers. And then around the turn of the 20th century they tragically encountered Europeans. First came the Germans and then the Belgians.
The ‘modern’ palace built by the Belgians looks more like a prison than the home of a king. It is cold and soulless. Devoid of feeling and any sense of connection to Rwandan culture beyond a few random pieces of art. Ironically, since it contains several artefacts actually used by the last Rwandan king no photographs were allowed to be taken at the ‘modern’ palace. Yet for me there was hardly anything worth recording there. I left feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness. I wanted to mourn the senseless destruction of a noble African culture. This was driven home further, when I learned from the tour guide that the last Rwandan king was killed by a poisonous injection administered by a Belgian doctor onstensibly due to his opposition to their colonial rule (interestingly Wikipedia claims that several dubious and conflicting explanations of his death were offered by the Belgian authorities). Yet Rwanda has apparently to this day never taken up this clear historical violation of its soveriegnty with Belgium. Imagine if the same fate had befallen the Belgian king. Wouldn’t all of Europe be up in arms about it? It might even have triggered a war much like what happened in Sarajevo which led to World War I.
So as I reflect on all that I have heard and seen I am left with a bitter taste in mouth, laced with sorrow and anger. I mourn the fatal encounter that the Rwandan people had with Europeans. The catastrophic destruction of their sophisticated and noble civilization that ensued is heartbreaking. In many ways it reverberates to this day through this land of a thousand hills. The shiny new tall buildings, fancy cars and drones flying overhead are but a shiny veneer that masks the underlying wreckage that history has wrought here. This triggers me to ask the age old question – What is the price of ‘progress’? Should ‘progress’ come at the expense of destroying the traditional social fabric of a people? Rwanda has paid a very heavy price for it’s ‘progress.’ I am not sure if it was worth it. Yet it is too late to turn back the hands to time. What has transpired cannot be undone. So as they write there new chapter in their destiny I hope they will not lose their identity in the name of progress. The past is not something just to be forgotten and cast away like the contents of a bedpan. There are elements of Rwandan heritage that deserve to be cherished and preserved for future generations.
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