Rwanda — Could it happen again? James Kimonyo, Rwandan ambassador to the United States, warned the colloquium about the dangers of denying the genocide. Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Achebe Colloquium: Calling attention to African issues

The 2010 Achebe Colloquium on Africa focused attention on three African nations — Rwanda, Congo, and Nigeria — and on the crucial issues impacting the countries, the continent, and the world.
By Deborah Baum  |  December 4, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Josh Ruxin is not only a humanitarian, scholar, and professor of public health — he’s also a bartender in his wife’s restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda. As he’ll tell you, all his jobs are connected.

In 2006, Ruxin moved to Rwanda to lead two development initiatives. He and his wife found themselves talking to two survivors of the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. The Ruxins asked the women, “How do you get through every single day not absorbed by hate?” The women replied that they were busy being students and working two or three jobs each, so they didn’t have time to hate anymore.

Ruxin and his wife got to know more Rwandan friends and soon found that unlike these two women, many locals had idle time. Idle time to hate. That’s what spurred them to start a restaurant. They figured the best way to diminish the hate in Rwanda would be to keep its people busy by creating jobs. Their restaurant, Heaven, is now thriving, serving up international fusion cuisine and helping the local community.

Ruxin told this story during the opening panel of the Achebe Colloquium on Africa, an international gathering of students, scholars, distinguished guests, and diplomats from around the world. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor at Brown University, organizes the event annually. This year’s two-day colloquium focused attention on the issues of Rwanda, Congo, and Nigeria.

Concern and love for Africa: Chinua Achebe “made it clear from the outset that his concern was to bring issues involving Africa to the attention of the world,” said President Ruth J. Simmons. Concern and love for Africa Chinua Achebe “made it clear from the outset that his concern was to bring issues involving Africa to the attention of the world,” said President Ruth J. Simmons. After welcomes from Achebe, President Ruth J. Simmons, and Adebowale Adefuye, Nigerian ambassador to the United States, the colloquium began with a panel on the topic, “Rwanda — Could it Happen Again?” It featured human rights activists, scholars of humanitarian and conflict studies, and James Kimonyo, the Rwandan ambassador to the United States. The panel agreed that Rwanda has made important economic and social progress in the years since the genocide, but some said that the country must be careful of those who are denying the horrors.

“The last stage of genocide is the denial of genocide,” said Kimonyo. “What we have seen is a systematic denial of what happened in Rwanda done by the very people who committed the genocide, in cooperation with their supporters. There has not been enough attention from the international community to address that. As much as we see denial as the last part of genocide, it’s the beginning of another cycle if it’s not checked.”

Following a second panel on the challenges of strengthening democracy in Rwanda, Margot Elizabeth Wallström delivered a keynote address. Wallström, the U.N.’s special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict, spoke about how sexual violence has become a “weapon of choice” in conflict, because it is cheap, silent, and effective. “Sexual violence does not need bombs or bullets, just cruel intentions,” she said.

Wollström also urged women to be active participants in the peace process following a conflict. “Lack of a reconciliation process which includes women might jeopardize the long-term stability of a society after a conflict is over,” she said. “No peace agreement engineered solely by men will ever be legitimate as long as laws effect the lives and livelihoods of women.”

The afternoon’s discussions focused on Congo, a country with enormous economic resources, which were both strategically and geographically at the center of the largest war in African’s modern history. Known as “Africa’s World War,” it involved eight countries. More than 4.5 million casualties have been reported, mainly from starvation and diseases, according to colloquium materials.

“For over 120 years, people have suffered much more than they have ever benefited from the natural resources of their country,” said Alafuele Kalala, a former presidential candidate in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The wealth of Congo is a curse for the people of the Congo.”

Though the war formally ended in 2003, the country is still trying to recover from the crisis. Colloquium participants discussed – at times, passionately — how to resolve the crisis, the impact on the country’s population, and the economic stakes involved.

Saturday’s lineup focused solely on Nigeria – specifically, the country’s ongoing battle with government corruption and looted funds, political transparency in upcoming elections, and the ongoing environmental crisis on the Niger River Delta.

“Each of these issues and matters explored are critical to our understanding of these three African nations and our ability to impact positively future relations with these countries,” said Simmons. “Globalization means that improved democracy in Rwanda, resolution of the conflict in Congo, and mitigation of the environmental disaster in Nigeria will affect not only these African countries, but the rest of the continent and in fact, the rest of the world.”

Simmons also thanked Achebe for his leadership bringing these issues to the forefront.

“His dedication to doing this, his concern and love for Africa, his respect for the potential of this enormously important part of the world is to be applauded. I thank him most sincerely for representing, for so many across the world, all that is great about the continent of Africa.”