Rwanda Strives to ?Redeem Its Dark Past

Since I left Uganda 12 years ago, I have had a couple of opportunities to go back — thanks to my musical activities. But most of my trips to this East African nation — dubbed the “Pearl of Africa” — have been brief. So this summer, when I knew I was going to be in Uganda for an extended visit —two months and three days — I tap-danced. There is something blissful about smelling the brown Ugandan soil after those sporadic thunderous rainfalls, eating yams and drinking that crisp passionfruit juice. But at the same time, even oceans away, it is difficult to ignore the troubles that have afflicted parts of the region — Rwanda and Northern Uganda in particular. Consequently, though my visit was naturally focused on catching up with family and friends, I felt compelled to visit Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. ?? As the bus for the eight-hour trip between capitals took off, I became aware of a growing sense of trepidation. After all, Rwanda is a country that not long ago suffered a brutal genocide. The frequent accidents that occur on the Kampala–Kigali road triggered another kind of anxiety. Especially near the Gatuna (Uganda-Rwanda) border, the already narrow road snakes through a mountainous terrain whose twists and turns are picturesque, until one sees the tumbled cars, buses and trucks on the other side of the cliffs. While according to American standards, our bus was at times mere heartbeats away from an accident, we nonetheless arrived in Kigali safely. As I roamed the streets of Kigali, a hilly metropolis situated in the center of Rwanda, I was constantly haunted. Maybe it was because my Ugandan compatriots, fearing for my life, had warned me not to go there. Maybe it was because my Rwandese friend, pointing at a perfectly tidy street in Kigali, whispered, “At that corner, they murdered a lot of people.” The Kigali Memorial Center tells it all. The pictures of missing people, apparel from dead bodies, skeletons, machetes and other rusted metal objects that were used to slaughter people — it was all somehow too horrific to take in. It seemed more like a movie than reality. But the mass graves I saw at this genocide memorial completed the story. The question that haunted me then, and still haunts me now, is: how can a country with such scars move on? A great part of Rwanda’s promise lies in its overwhelmingly youthful population. Also, many international organizations are flocking to this tiny landlocked country to make a difference. One of the groups active in Rwanda is the On The Frontier (OTF) Group, which fosters competition in developing economies and emerging markets. I briefly met with Mr. Eric Kacou, the OTF Group’s Regional Director for Africa, who noted that the rate at which things are happening here is unbelievable. Businesses are burgeoning and there is a nascent sense of civic order: unlike many cities, especially in developing countries, where trash rules, Kigali is unbelievably clean. Motorcyclists are required to wear helmets. Plastic bags are banned. The list of examples of progress goes on, but one, in particular, stands out: Rwanda is the first country in the world where women outnumber men in the Parliament. This is a promising sign of change, especially for Africa, which is by and large still a male-dominated society. It is difficult to predict the country’s political future, but for now, it is fair to say, as some have concluded, that Rwanda has seen a great light. Noting that there is really no music school in Rwanda, I knew I needed to make a contribution during my time there. At the Anglican Saint Etienne Cathedral, where I was staying, the rector, the Rev. Sam Mugisha (with whom I grew up singing and playing soccer in Uganda), organized a workshop for the Prince of Peace Choir, one of the youth groups at the cathedral. Keyboard, drums and guitar are the main accompanying instruments at the cathedral, which lacks an organ. We worked on basics with the choir: breathing, posture, warm-ups, pitch and solfege. Basic materials such as books, folders and instruments, are lacking, but the choir doesn’t let those hindrances deter their service to God. Here, I was reminded of the value of a minimalist approach to life: to make the best use of the little one may have for the greater good. It was also here that a young man in the choir asked a question that lingers with me: When are you coming back? For more information on the Kigali Memorial Center or the Off the Frontier Group, visit their respective websites at and Patrick Kabanda, a native of Uganda, is the School Organist and an Instructor in Music.