Ghost land

There are places that are frightening because at just about every corner you can sense oppression, you feel the fear in the air, air that seems thin, as if everyone were suffocating. In such places, people scurry along without looking at one another, words spoken in public are hushed, a world of whispers, where outspokenness is something for a courageous few. There are places where such scenes unfold, as the iron fist of tyranny is manifest at every street corner, the police are a terrifying instrument of maintaining order, not law.

Internalizing oppression

There are other place where the oppressors are not apparent, where the oppression is so ubiquitous, so internalized as to be invisible, where people have, or so one might imagine, identified so strongly with the aggressors that everyone is an aggressor. A state of affairs that is surely inconceivably unhealthy for the population. In one of these other places, killing fear walked the land, the killers extinguishing life with a bullet to the skull, piling up the corpses like so many mementoes. Only to fail in their genocidal intentions. Indeed, genocide itself is always a fantasy of the oppressor, as there is (thankfully) no instance in human history where such has been successful, where an ethnic group has been completely wiped off the face of this earth.



In one such place, plastic bags are banned, a seemingly sensible move to protect a fledgling environment otherwise rent by the blood that soaked into the earth. At the same time, such a prohibition is symbolic of an accepted internalized yearning for complete order, for obedience to moral code that prevents any iteration of past barbarism. In this place, all the cars seem to be cleaned regularly, to have good tires and to stop at traffic lights. In such a perfect world, the ex-pats who are all working on projects to do good can cycle to work, despite the oppressive heat.

Perfection is not godly

In this country, namely Ruanda, Arica’s most densely populated country, all the gardens, and there are many of them, in fact almost every institution has them, look perfectly tended, well-kept, like those strange men who are constantly combing and jelling their coiffeurs to make certain not a single hair is out of place. The blades of tropical grass all seem to have been cut to some normed height, a sign that there is some standards organization that rules almost all aspects of life. Not surprisingly, the cassava and maize fields within the city limits of the capital Kigali (now home to a tenth of the population) and there are many of them, are all set out in perfectly straight lines, as if the poor smallholders who still own their particular little patch, used a string, two sticks and a right angle to get things in rows.

Out on the street, not is a motorcyclist in sight, let alone a paying passenger on the back of a motorcycle, who does not wear a helmet. Despite the incredible spread of the bikes as a simple mode of transport – some Indian businessman bagged the monopoly on importing them. Perhaps he imports the helmets and drinks with the lawmakers who impose ruinous fines on those caught without one, but such an assumption would be cynical. All the steep streets the bikes, motorbikes, cars and small trucks toil up and down are not only precipitous in part in this the country of a thousand hills, but perfectly swept each morning, any unsightly existence, any dust-and-dirt particles brush-panned away. And the picture is no less elegantly surreal off the streets. Even in the carpentry yards, chippings and sawdust are gathered up and whisked away. As if people get a guilty conscience if there are any blemishes anywhere. The roads are mostly well paved, the signboards announcing the donor-agency-sponsored projects that line them all, like the fields, at almost perfect right angles.


Perfect development

Nature here is ancient, many of the trees are monocotyledones, the elephant grass, the frangipanis, the acanthus, the palms, etc. But that old world is swiftly giving way to a population intensity unprecedented even in Africa, and to a firmly controlled environment of build, build, build, be it health programmes to counter Type 1 diabetes, or blanket and highly praised primary-school coverage for all (it manages to turn out illiterates all the same. One tiny pockmark on this perfect face: Parliament still bears a few bullet-chipped marks on its walls from 20 years ago, retained to remind those within of what price parliamentary assembly can have. The lip-service gloss over everything else seems to be working. At the end of the main avenue stands Fortress America, the embassy, architecturally lording over the ministries that run either side of the road that leads away from it. They are interspersed by embassies and hotels where the exchange rates are completely unlike those set by the central bank: not that anyone evidently complains, as in a system where all aspire to be correct and atone for the past, who would wish to complain. Everything has its place here, no one dare step out of place and raise his voice – or hers, for that matter. Next to the exit from the Gents in one such hotel, the prostitutes with their super-high-heels and ultra-tight-skirts stand or sit, but without stating their case at any volume. They have their place, go about their profession without upsetting any balances.

The hotel band plays happy music, foreigners come and go with the flow of donor money assuaging donor guilt and not having intervened when murderous madness ruled the streets. The only thing that gives anything away that the order is precarious and had to be kept by inner and outer force is a heavily armed paratrooper standing at a key crossroads. And an equally heavily armed private security guard, female, lurking on a balcony of one of the main memorials to make certain no doubt that no one treats a memorial wrongly.

Here, after what happened 20 years ago, life did not return to normal. There is nothing normal about normality here. There is a frighteningly omnipresent wish to always invoke that past’s horrors while at the same time being over-perfect in the present. It is a form of denial that makes one shudder, so oppressive is the official policy of being ‘correct’ about everything, about maintaining order. Beneath the surface of this model nation, the divide between rich and poor widens faster than in any other African country. The country imports wares it could itself produce, so that the import/export traders make more; even palm oil is brought in, though there are plenty of palms, even coffee is purchased from outside, though there could be plenty of coffee, the conditions are ideal. Perhaps the palm trees or the coffee trees refuse to grow in perfect straight lines, since the climate so encourages rampant, verdant growth.

Nightmare of efficiency

Ruanda today is a lived waking nightmare. Do-gooders mingling with doing-gooders. The past commemorated everywhere with memorials, society held together now by an oppressive inner wish for perfection. There is a ubiquitous and compulsive lack of creativity, a compulsive orderliness that is inhuman and stifling. The current population live as ghosts of what they themselves could be. Genocide didn’t kill all the bodies, but it killed all the hearts.