Tuesday, February 1, 2011
National Heroes' Day
Today, the first day of February, is Heroes’ Day here in Rwanda. It is a national holiday dedicated to respecting and remembering all of the courageous soles that gave so much of themselves in order to better this country in time of hardship. And Rwanda has had a lot of hardship. Just so you understand where these veterans are coming from, here is the gist on the history of a broken nation:
Rwanda has an oral tradition, so its history was never written down before Europeans arrived. The Portuguese arrived to the Eastern African coast (present day Tanzania and Kenya) around 1500. They retained general control of the area, including trade routes, until Arabs dominated the area starting in 1700. Slaves started being taken from present day Rwanda in the 18th century. For the next 200 years, approximately 50,000 slaves would leave Zanzibar Island (where all Rwandan slaves would likely have been detained) per year.
In 1890, Eastern Africa was broken up between German and British control. Germany took control of present day Rwanda and Burundi. From 1890 to World War I, Rwanda was colonized.
Then during World War I, battles erupted between the Germans and Belgians on Rwandan soil. After the war ended, a League of Nations mandate declared that Rwanda-Burundi be under the administrative control of Belgium. This decision is a major reason why one of Rwanda’s national languages is French, why there are direct flights from Brussels to Kigali, and why the famous “Hotel Rwanda” was a hotel owned by a Belgian airline at the time of the genocide.
The Belgian government decided to start a system of differentiating Rwandans into intelligent, ruling Rwandans (Tutsis) and lesser, laboring Rwandans (Hutus). Rwandans developed identification cards with a line specifically for their “ethnicity.”
The 1950s were a period of independence in Eastern Africa. Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo were all pushing for independence from colonial powers. Increased resentment towards Tutsis continued due to their preferred status and different viewpoints on a path towards independence. After the attempted assassination of Kayibanda (Hutu), the “Hutu Revolution” resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 Tutsis, with an additional 150,000 Tutsis fleeing to neighboring countries.
Belgium decided to split Rwanda and Burundi, and Rwanda was officially independent in 1962. Unfortunately while Rwanda was independent, the country did not change from its colonial past with ethnic matters.
In 1990, a Tutsi-led group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front started a civil war in Rwanda which eventually led to the devastatingly tragic genocide in 1994.
This year's Heroes' Day will be celebrated under the theme 'Let's be brave in our determination to develop Rwanda'.
Some of the Rwandan heroes remembered today include Major General Fred Gisa Rwigema , remembered for being a patriotic and charismatic leader who sacrificed his life to liberate Rwanda. Also King Charles Leon Pierre Mutara III Rudahigwa, remembered for being patriotic and expanding and protecting the kingdom's territorial integrity and its people.
Other heroes include Michael Rwagasana remembered for promoting national interests, and Agatha Uwilingiyimana, the former Prime Minister who strongly opposed the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. She was killed by the militias.
No country on Earth has ever made such a comeback as Rwanda has. In just about one decade the civilians which now refer to themselves only as Rwandans, have developed plans for education, business, policies, and infrastructure. Not only have they developed plans, but they are carrying them out with success. It’s apparent that this nation still has a long journey ahead of them, but they are as ambitious as ever. I’m proud to be a part of it. I once asked a friend here how to translate “you’re my hero” into their native language of Kinyarwanda, and she told me it was impossible to say because in this culture a hero refers only to someone that was killed for their courage. Well, in American culture anyone that possesses courage and has the gumption to act on that courage is a hero. Every citizen of this country working towards a better tomorrow, my colleagues, neighbors and friends; everyone is a hero to me.