The Catholic Church: When an apology isn’t an apology

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Even though the church sent no body to do harm, we, the Catholic clerics in particular, apologise, again, for some of the church members, clerics, people who dedicated themselves to serve God and Christians in general who played a role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi”.

As reported by both local and international media, the above sentence was part of a multi-page communiqué, co-signed by all the Catholic bishops in the country, which was read out in all he parishes across the country on Sunday. The statement FINALLY acknowledges that church members planned, aided and carried out genocide.

The problem is, in my opinion, this statement not only comes decades too late but it also changes nothing to be honest.

First of all, the question that I need to ask is this, why this statement now? Its been 22 years since the horrors befell our country. Why didn’t this mea culpa come when the wounds were fresh? I feel that this ‘apology’ would have made much more sense then. I might be overthinking is, but was this communiqué simply an acknowledgement that Rwanda has changed for good and for always? Were the bishops biding their time, holding on to the hope that their old ‘partners’ would return, making such an ‘embarrassing’ apology unnecessary?

Secondly, if you read the carefully worded communiqué, you realise that the bishops aren’t actually apologizing for the Church’s actions and omissions. This isn’t an institutional apology that we are getting. This isn’t the voice of the Vatican. This is simply an acknowledgement that’s the Church’s priests and nuns participated in the killings. Ho hum. We all know that; a simple examination of the Gacaca records could show that. Why aren’t the bishops apologizing for not speaking out during the killings? Why are they not apologizing for not going on the radio, as a Church, and denouncing the plans being hatched to commit genocide? Why are they not apologizing as an institution for not giving more support for their members who bravely pushed back against the killers?

In his long reign as pope, Pope John Paul II formally apologied for the following; the legal process against Galileo Galilei, Catholics involvement in the African slave trade, the Church’s role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, the injustices committed against women, the violation of women’s rights and for the historical denigration of women, the inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust.

This is in addition to an apologies for the execution of Jan Hus in 1415, for the sins of Catholics throughout the ages for violating “the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and (for showing) contempt for their cultures and religious traditions; for the actions of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204, the Catholic sex abuse cases, the Church-backed “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children in Australia and for the behavior of Catholic missionaries in colonial times in China.

Anything about the massacres in Ntarama Church? No. Anything about the gun-yielding Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka? No. It’s been two popes now since John Paul II breathed his last and still the silence from the Vatican is deafening.

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The idea that only Church members are in the dock, and not the Church itself, is ludicrous in my opinion. Something about the Rwandan Catholic Church, and its teachings, made genocide possible. Perhaps it White Fathers and their views on Hutu and Tutsi that skewed the Rwandan church. Maybe it was Archbishop André Perraudin and his Kabgayi minions that poisoned the well. Whatever it was, the rot in the Church revealed itself in its horrendous splendor in 1994. And for the bishops to pretend that the issue was a few bad ‘apples’ and not the institution itself is a fallacy of the highest order.

So forgive me if I don’t get excited about Sunday’s communiqué. It is simply a waste of everyone’s time. We need to demand more. The Church must fess up.

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The Trump lesson: Information is the only buffer against those threatening everything we have built

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So, the next president of the United States is the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. I will let that sink in for a minute.

A Trump presidency wasn’t something many non-Americans were excited about; I mean, not only would he probably annul many of the international trade deals that opened the US markets to goods from developing nations, his administration would also probably terminate many of the environmental deals that aimed to slow down global warming. .

Trying to understand the rise of ‘The Donald’ in the US gave me pause for thought. As I watched the Trump tsunami gather more and more strength, I kept asking myself, “Why were the poorest of the poor voting against their own best interests”? “Couldn’t they see that this man was simply using them to further his own political career?” “Couldn’t they see that if he won, the people who would benefit the most from his policies are the very people that they are railing against”? “Didn’t they understand that globalization was a GOOD thing”? “Didn’t they understand that clean energy was the only way that they could guarantee a future for their great-grandchildren?”

You know I’m a firm believer in the reasonableness of the The Average Joe (or in our case, the Average Umutoni). What most people want in life is to simply give their families the opportunity to prosper the best they can. It is as simple as that. Every choice they make is based on that one singular goal.

The problem is, for that goal to be reached, certain choices need to be made. And all these choices being made are all based on one thing; good and accurate information.

When you look at the average Trump supporter, you’ll notice just how weak on the facts that they are. I mean, they actually believed that he was a self-made man, who would build a wall across the entire US-Mexico border and ‘make America great again’.

When his Republican rivals called him out on his policies, saying that they were untenable, his supporters ignored them. When the traditional media called him a liar, a hypocrite and unworthy of the presidency, his supporters plugged their fingers in their ears. I found it fascinating that despite the wall to wall election coverage, the average Trump voter was as ill-informed as ever. What had gone wrong?

I understand that there were various factors to explain the rise of Trump, but is my opinion that the Trump phenomenon is simply a symptom of the disconnect between the establishment and the poorest segment of the population.

I was very happy last week when I noticed that quite a few readers took issue with the opinions I spouted in my column. What I found slightly disheartening was just how many reactions were based on bad and/or incomplete information. This bothered me more a lot more than the people who labelled me arrogant and all sorts of names online because I felt that it could have been prevented.

Whereas I could have blame those people for their lack of a factual argument, I came to the realization that the only reason that they took their stances was because they simply didn’t have the necessary information to form a coherent and fact-based argument .

In many of my interactions with both Rwandans and non-Rwandans, I’ve realized that there is a ‘fact deficiency’ in many spheres of our conversations especially when it comes to government programmes and other ‘complicated’ topics.

This is, in my opinion, quite easily remedied. All that government needs to do is TELL people what it is doing and WHY it is doing it. And most importantly, HOW it will benefit them. I am not saying that that is not happening because that would be the furthest thing from the truth. However, there is a certain disconnect that we cannot afford to leave unbridged. The media has a huge role to play in this. In mature media markets journalists can do this all by themselves but here in Rwanda, a little ‘spoon feeding’ might be needed.

Donald Trump was able to use the existing disconnect to rally millions to his side. That is something that we can ill afford. The Rwandan establishment must do all it can to ensure that our people have the necessary information to know when a snake-oil salesmen is using them to further their goals.

When did PR become such a bad thing for Rwanda anyway?

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Posing with health insurance cards at a health centre in Kicukiro District.

Last week when I discussed the recent Economist article, ‘Look before you leap; The notion of leapfrogging poor infrastructure in Africa needs to come back down to earth’, I noticed that various commentators returned to a familiar trope; a narrative centered around the existence of nefarious Rwandan PR (Public Relations) ‘machine’.

The PR machine’ narrative is almost as annoying to me as the ‘western darling’ narrative that many subscribe to when commenting about this country. What is even more annoying is the fact that even those who should know better, like people actually living and working in Rwanda, get caught up in this falsehood as well.

To those that see Rwanda though PR machine-tinted glasses, our media savviness begins immediately on arrival. Visitors and returning citizens are met with friendly staff, orderly lines and electronic checks. Then they are ‘accosted’ with well paved roads.  Their eyes get ‘harassed’ by the brightness of working traffic lights and their noses are left unattacked by the smell of rotting garbage strewn on the street. “This is all a gimmick”, they say, “meant to mask the dire poverty”.

When Zipline launches the very first medical drone in the continent (if not in the world) in Muhanga, I saw it as an innovation that would help supplement the existing healthcare provision system by making emergency blood deliveries faster. Nothing more. Nothing less. What the cynics saw was a headline grabbing stunt that took focus away from more traditional modes of blood delivery such as vans and motorcycles.

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A drone at the Muhanga droneport ready to take off. / Faustin Niyigena/ The New Times

When some cynics look at the number of women in Parliament (and other branches of government), they believe that the world-beating numbers are simply window dressing, meant to paint Rwanda as a nation leading the world on gender relations. While what I see is simply an attempt by the framers of our Constitution to bring an essential segment of the Rwandan population into the political process.

There are many examples of this continuous back and forth, with each side trying to argue its point. But I would like to change the goal posts a little; I would like to start with the premise that Rwanda IS media savvy. That it indeed works hard to present itself in a certain light. So what?

When I leave my house in the morning, I make sure that I present myself in the best way I can. I brush my teeth, make sure that my shoes are polished and my clothes are pressed. I COULD show myself in my unwashed, filthy glory but I understand that the way that I present myself affects the way that I am treated. This same theory goes for nations as well.

Just look at how the United States presents itself to the world. Its president is the ‘most powerful man on earth’, it’s a ‘beacon for democracy’ and it’s the leader of the ‘free world’. Now if that isnt PR I don’t know what is. The United States, like any other country in the world, faces real challenges. Both its citizens and leaders realize that. But when it presents itself to the rest of the world, a certain narrative and image is presented.

So, yes Rwanda is media savvy. Yes, we show our best side to the rest of the world. And yes, it has benefited us. In a world where, on the whole, poor African nations are ignored except when their citizens are either killing each other or starving to death, we should be proud that we garner some positive headlines. In fact, it is actually amazing that Rwanda garners even the little positive press that it does. Remember that our sad claim to ‘fame’ is the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This is a testimony to just how successful the PR efforts have been. We have nothing to be ashamed of; rather we should be extremely proud.

If Rwanda’s development was predicated on PR stunts and ‘white elephant’ projects, then we would be in big trouble but the fact of the matter is, while we are thinking big, we are also thinking very small.

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The Kigali Convention Center by night

Ours is a country that can build a multi-million dollar hotel and conference center while at the same time putting in place councils for parents at the village level (umugoroba w’ababyeyi). We can unveil the first Airbus A330 in our region, while at the same time ensuring that the poorest among us is given a free Mutuelles de Sante card.

So, to those that call us media savvy, I say “why thank you. You are too kind”.