On Monday, I had coffee with two Rwandan diplomats in D.C.—bright young economic and cultural affairs types—and as we sorted through recent news, one of them suddenly changed the subject.
“Mr. Moran, what can I do to get American reporters to pay attention to something other than the genocide?” the diplomat asked. “No matter what the news is from Rwanda, it always comes back to bloodshed, and that’s just not the modern reality.
Indeed not. Since 1995, in the wake of said genocide, Rwanda’s economy has grown faster than most of Asia’s “tigers”—8.2 percent in 2011, according to the IMF, and an average rate during a period nearing two decades of more than 7 percent.
When she pointed this out to me, I pulled out my trusty iPhone and typed into Google, “Rwanda.” Before I even got to the “n”, Google helpfully suggested what its bot-brain felt would be the most useful set of results: “Rwanda genocide.”
Besides an interesting ethical question for Google, this raises some real concerns for Americans whose understanding of the changes washing over the planet is already stunted by generations of malarkey about “exceptionalism.” When it comes to global reality, we’re exceptional, all right: exceptionally ignorant.
As with Vietnam—which, by the way, is a country, not a war—popular American views of places like Rwanda, Bosnia or India—or even relatively close cultural cousins like Germany or Ireland—are shaped by outdated stereotypes, barely remembered “Breaking News” episodes and the well-meaning but often ham-handed efforts of Hollywood to raise awareness of, say, Tibet, Sudan, or the 2008 war in Georgia.
Not all of these efforts fall flat, of course. George Clooney did more to focus attention on the true problems of Sudan last week than all the world’s diplomats for two decades. Whether we like it or not, the north has a pipeline without which the south’s oil cannot get to market. Anything the U.S. can do to broker an accord—including encouraging China to act like the “world power” it aspires to be—is progress.
Still, this is an exception. Even after last week’s Joseph Kony-palooza, my bet is that what little Americans know about the country of Uganda comes from two films: Raid on Entebbe, a hagiographic Charles Bronson vehicle chronicling of the daring Israeli commando raid in 1976, and the more substantive Last King of Scotland from 2006.
And yet, Uganda, like Rwanda, has emerged as a bright story—at least in terms of the steady expansion of its middle class, a measurable reduction in both poverty and the pandemics that plagued it during past decades, and improving governance.
These countries are part of a growing list of success stories that get too little attention in the mainstream media. Look, as someone who has worked with Human Rights Watch for decades as an advisor and consultant, and before that as a journalist for BBC, NBC and other outlets covering the most tragic episodes in places like sub-Saharan Africa, I know how important a disinfectant “sunshine”—i.e., the media spotlight—can be on a repressive regime. And I still feel the net effect of "Kony 2012" is a positive: It leads to questions about a conflict few had noticed, and hopefully, to the enlighting of thousands.
And certainly, at least some of the improvement in African countries should be credited to the steady attention paid by HRW, Transparency International, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Amnesty International, and the official human rights arms of the United States, EU, and other governments.
But should “genocide” define Rwanda today, almost two decades after the horrific outbreak of ethnic violence there? For that matter, is “Africa” or even "sub-Saharan Africa" as useful way to even think of the myriad cultures and varied trajectories of the 54 countries and 1 billion people there? For intelligent people, I would argue not. "Asia," after all, includes miserable gulags like North Korea and Turkmenistan. As in Asia, in Africa the violent, misgoverned zones—Congo or Sudan, for instance, increasingly are balanced by enormous progress in places like Namibia, Botswana, and yes, Rwanda.
Pity the Rwandans—but not for the long-off genocide. Tragic as it was, Rwanda itself has struggled to move on. It’s time to recognize the progress as well as the grief.
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