Rwanda’s road to sustained peace is grounded in its post-genocide return to the use of its indigenous language and culture, Kinyarwanda, to develop. Rwanda, unlike most African countries, has always had one majority language and culture, as Jacqueline Musiitwa explains.*
As a lawyer, I worked for years in Rwanda for both private and government clients. The use of language in law is important; not only can it can make the difference between winning and losing a case, it can help define much bigger things, such as the way a nation is governed over time or the way people interact with one another.
I have few memories as vivid as watching the news of the 1994 Rwanda genocide from my home in Zambia as a child. It was, and remains, difficult for me to comprehend how close to a million people could be systematically killed in 90 days. But it did make me realise the power of words, both for good and evil.
My interest in the peculiarities of language and the law sparked my curiosity about how language in Rwanda is helping to drive development. This was grounded in the greater question of how African countries can find solutions to their problems rooted in their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds rather than relying on foreign models.
The Belgians divided and conquered Rwanda by creating false divisions and competing power structures between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities. The result was years of animosity that resulted in genocide. After the genocide, to inspire a renewed national identity, Rwandans eliminated the use of ethnic identification and reintroduced a variety of traditional Kinyarwanda concepts into daily life. Rwanda is now using Kinyarwanda words to communicate a shared vision, and to mobilise action, inspire, and foster a common identity and agenda.
The word, kwibuka, (to remember), was very present in Rwanda as the mourning period of the 20th anniversary remembering the genocide played out. But Rwandans recognised that remembering the genocide is not enough; they have committed to the world’s promise of “never again” by invoking Kinyarwanda words and putting into practice the traditional Rwandan concepts they represent.
For example, Rwanda has brought back umuganda, which translates into “coming together in a common purpose to achieve an outcome.” In traditional culture, members of the community call on their family friends and neighbours to help them complete a difficult task.