Democracy, Crisis, and the Moral Imperative in the USA and Rwanda (and Why I Play Music on the Street in Rwanda)

Despite the great cultural and economic differences that exist from one region of the world to the next, there is still this unifying principle: Every nation on earth might benefit from a drastic change in perspective, from time to time. There is no region or people that has achieved perfection. Here in the USA, it is more and more popular to acknowledge that our high degree of consumption has placed an unsustainable burden on the earth’s natural resources, and so we need to adjust our minds and lifestyles to consume less, waste less, and recycle more. Over in Rwanda, there is not much problem with consumption. On the contrary, dire poverty has left many Rwandans unable to afford their basic needs. They too, though, are in the midst of a huge shift in their collective mindset. Rwanda is overcoming deep ethnic divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The disease of bigotry must be flushed from the minds of the people, and they must embrace those they used to hate, not just for the sake of inter-ethnic harmony, but to be unified in the national quest for economic development and the rise from poverty.

So just how are new perspectives formed? First, the old point of view of must be examined and adjusted or abolished. We must view ourselves as if we are passive observers and play the role of critic. In a sense, we must escape ourselves, creating a certain distance from which we can more objectively see our own minds. Music is often acknowledged as a great form of escape. When we listen to music, we might achieve a greater distance from our own perspectives and habits, and after the performance, as we return from our imaginations back to real life, maybe we won’t fit so neatly into the mold we left of ourselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.” This summer I will go to Rwanda and play music on the street to help the people there escape old hatreds and bring the spirit of forgiveness and solidarity closer to the surface. I too, though, will be undergoing a transformation in which my perspective will shift greatly, as it already has since I first started the Parade of One project about a year ago. I will be relying on improvisation to guide myself and others to a new experience of one another. In this essay, I’ll be returning to themes of how music can help flush out old mindsets and build community, and the way that improvisation, in particular, can help forge new identities. But along the way, I will also be acquainting my American readers with recent Rwandan history and the current presidential race there.

Rwanda is a small, landlocked African nation that is still recovering from the worst trauma in its history: the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, a severe blood stain on the history of mankind very similar to the Holocaust in Europe. Nearly one million innocent lives were taken in one hundred days. The perpetrators of the genocide aimed to eliminate all members of the Tutsi ethnic group, and they made serious progress in that mission. The genocide was caused by manipulative leaders in the Hutu Power movement who preached the dangerous and unfounded belief that the two main ethnic groups in Rwanda are not equal, that the minority Tutsi are inferior to the Hutu. The Hutu Power philosophy would eventually be summed up in the Kangura, a popular propaganda newspaper which published the Hutu Ten Commandments in 1990. Intermarriage was condemned; it was considered treason to conduct business with a Tutsi; the Tutsi were to be barred from holding office, and only Hutu were permitted to be school teachers, to name just a few of the guidelines for the believer in Hutu Power.

Neither Hutu nor Tutsi are indigenous to Rwanda. The cattle herding Tutsi migrated from the north, and the farming Hutu came from the south. Both ethnic groups speak the same Kinyarwanda language though, and there is no religious division between them. It was not until colonial rule that tensions between Hutu and Tutsi started to simmer. First the Germans, then the Belgians imposed a system based on the bogus European racial thought of that time (eventually embodied by Nazi Germany.) The colonial powers saw physical features of the Tutsi minority that they felt made them superior to the Hutu, so they imposed a labor division that favored Tutsi, and even relied on the Tutsi to help enact policy. At the same time, the Belgians were very quick to support the Hutu massacres against the Tutsi that emerged in the final days of colonial rule, probably in a desperate attempt to hang onto whatever power they still wielded in the region.

After independence from Belgium, backlash against the colonial rule resulted in the sudden dominance of the Hutu Power movement. Rwanda only had two presidents between independence from Belgium in 1962 and the genocide of 1994. First, Gregoire Kayibanda, who is often called the founder of Hutu Power, ruled until 1973, when his defense minister Juvenal Habyarimana ousted him. Habyarimana continued to enact bigoted policies, so the Tutsi minority was forced to endure discrimination and even massacres. Many Tutsi refugees fled to neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania.

On April 6, 1994 a plane carrying President Habyarimana was hit by a missile as it approached the runway in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It is still unknown who was behind the attack. The president was coming back home from Arusha, Tanzania where he had been forging a power sharing agreement with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and other opposition parties. The RPF was formed abroad by Tutsi refugees and Hutu political dissidents. Their aim was to be repatriated in Rwanda and gain full citizenship and equal rights. Tensions between the RPF and Habyarimana’s government had inflamed into a civil war in 1990, so the agreement that Habyarimana was finalizing in Tanzania aimed to end the violence through the sharing of power, an idea much detested by Hutu Power hardliners in his government.

The still mysterious assassination of Habyarimana led to an extremist Hutu Power government ruled by military leaders, igniting the Genocide against the Tutsi which would take nearly one million innocent lives. Civilian Hutu militias aimed to eliminate the Tutsi, and killed men, women, and children with no regard for who was a civilian or combatant. The most prevalent method of execution was by machete or nail-studded club. Eventually, the RPF defeated the genocidal government by way of military force, ending the genocide. Finally, the process of democratization and the slow rise from civil war, dictatorship, and poverty could begin.

Now Rwandans have been living in relative peace and calm for sixteen years, even enjoying reductions in poverty. It is impossible to deal justly with every last perpetrator of the genocide, because they are such a large portion of the population. So in many cases, the killers and the families of the dead live side by side. They cope with one another, either through mutual avoidance or apologies and forgiveness. The killing has stopped, but the pain from the genocide is still immense. It is felt by both Tutsi and Hutu, and by both victims and perpetrators. There are those who were raped and the children of rape, who unwanted by their mothers, have become orphans. For others, there is the hard weight of guilt for having thought with the masses and committed murder; and even worse than the guilt, is the fear of retribution, that those they’ve harmed will seek justice. And still for those who mourn their friends and family, there is not only the immense loss, but this thirst for revenge that they must dismiss from their minds. Killers and victims are living among one another, and even if there is peace, the social difficulties are unspeakably immense.

Now, Rwanda is preparing for its second presidential election since this madness of genocide and civil war was extinguished. On August 9 2010, Rwandans plan to choose who will be their leader for the next seven years. It is within this collective mental atmosphere, a stew containing leftover bigotry from the Hutu Power era and intense feelings of guilt, betrayal, loss, fear, and the thirst for revenge, that Rwandans will decide what direction their nation will take.

When I play music on the streets of Rwanda this summer, my theme will be reconciliation. I think that when people enjoy a performance together, they can think together, believe together, and work together even if it is only to have a friendly debate about the quality of the performance. It is not just that music provides a form of escape, but that it can create a shared experience.  A performance, like a film, or a sports event, can create bonding moments between people. As we witness a performance, not only will we escape our old perspectives on life, but by sharing this experience with others, we will come closer to those around us, be they Hutu, Tutsi, Muzungo, victims, or perpetrators. Henry David Thoreau says this of music’s ability to ease pain and reduce hostility, “When I hear music,  I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe.” My hope is that through my music, I can build community and help people grow beyond their reservations about one another. Since the venue is the street, a public space, the performance is open to all segments of the population. It is not restrictive to different religions, economic classes, or ethnic groups, and so community can be built in a way that crosses social lines.

The political climate in Rwanda seems very hard to relate to as a contemporary American. But while I’m on this subject of escaping old perspectives and taking new ones, I’d like to examine a time when, like Rwanda, we too were troubled to the point of violence by internal divisions. I have related to the Genocide against the Tutsi before, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, but now I also feel that as an American, the post-conflict condition of Rwanda might be compared to our own Reconstruction era, after we fought against ourselves in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. It was a time when we were a nation full of victims and perpetrators and every stripe and color of moral ambiguity in between. I am drawing no parallel or moral equivalency between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi and the North and South in the USA, or any combination thereof. Furthermore, one of the worst and, perhaps, most common mistakes my readers will make is that I am comparing Rwandans and American slaves just because they share a skin color. In fact, the only similarity I seek to point out between contemporary Rwanda and Reconstruction era America is that in both cases, we learn that for peace to be maintained, hearts and minds must change. New perspectives of who we and our neighbors are must be formed. We will conclude that there are drastic dips, turns, and other fluctuations in the way we have perceived and administered democracy and the electoral process. Elections cannot always enforce the moral imperative. The electoral process, despite being designed to promote the moral imperative, at times can also thwart it. Adolf Hitler, after all, was an elected official. There is no particular recipe for the democratic protection of collective morality. Different times and circumstances call for different methods.

One of the premises of the US Civil War was the Confederacy’s insistence on the system of slavery, an institution that flies in the face of democracy’s central tenets, such as the equality of people. Yet there was a time when people would risk their lives to maintain slavery and the lifestyle it afforded them. There were other economic interests which also caused the war, but abolitionism was a very popular cause, and it is hypothesized that Lincoln could not have gained public support for the war without embracing the end of slavery as a goal.

The aftermath of the US Civil War, or what is known as the Reconstruction era, saw still more assaults on our current notion of democracy, despite the abolition of slavery. If we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan we will see that he introduced such ominous sounding concepts as loyalty oaths. Indeed if a southern state was to be re-introduced into the Union, approximately ten percent of the population was required to publicly take an oath of allegiance to the US and pledge to abide by emancipation. In addition to the assault on the great American value of free expression, what also stands out is that ten percent seems like such a small number. Many Northerners, more radical than Lincoln, thought this was way too lenient, but Lincoln saw the necessity of utilizing a concept which we still consider a cornerstone of democracy: compromise. Lincoln feared that a harsher policy would result in the southern states fighting back against emancipation, that pushing the advancement of racial equality in the USA could cause a regression to regional warfare.

As we will see, compromise, however democratic it sounds, did not suit the freed slaves so well. Far worse than the assault on free expression by the northern victors against the conquered south, were the anti-democratic laws enacted in the South to keep emancipated slaves as subservient as possible. Jim Crow policies enforced a separate educational system for blacks and restricted their voting rights. Southern states enacted laws, including the prohibition of farm ownership for African Americans, which compelled them to a life of servitude, even if they were no longer technically owned by anyone. There was strong popular resentment about Jim Crow, but American leaders felt obligated to compromise with the southern states for the sake of regional peace, even if it was at the expense of racial equality. Indeed, the moral stance of equal rights for everyone was lost, in favor of the moral case for regional harmony. Citing the democratic principle of compromise, leaders abandoned the also democratic principle of equality. It took a century after emancipation for Jim Crow to be abolished. Now racial discrimination is illegal in schools, workplaces, and the electoral system. But the socioeconomic legacy of such policies are still evident across the nation. The inequalities are visible from neighborhood to neighborhood in US cities, and our justice system has not yet found a proper response to those inequalities, evident in the disproportionate number of African Americans who serve time in prison.

We will never know if a tougher stance against racial inequality during the Reconstruction era would have shortened our long term struggle for harmony, or if it would have inflamed into a resumption of the killings we had just endured in the Civil War, or if there was some completely different way we could have approached our nation’s difficulties. What’s sure is that the electoral process and other democratic principles like compromise did not fully promote a moral society.

Now Rwanda, not even a generation removed from its great trauma of ethnic division and genocide, is forced to make choices about how democracy and equality will take hold. Even though I am not publicly endorsing a particular candidate in the 2010 Rwandan presidential election, I’d still like to let my USA readers know a little about who the main players are, and what the issues are. Hopefully to my Rwandan readers, my reporting will appear neutral, moral, and brief. I am not trying to confirm that the candidates really deserve credit where it is given to them or that the accusations flung at them are true or false. Readers who seek to form an educated opinion will need to do much more research.

The Rwandan constitution calls for elections every seven years. The incumbent for the 2010 race for president is RPF leader Paul Kagame. He is credited for having led the RPF in ending the genocide, and under his rule, a strict policy of reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi has been implemented. It is illegal to promote the Hutu Power ideology. Historical revisionism of the 1994 genocide and incitement along ethnic, political, and religious affiliation are all outlawed, based on the model of Europe’s successful response to the Holocaust. Kagame has also adhered to policies ending graft and promoting development and poverty reduction. It is said that the economy has tripled in size during his rule. He is also praised for being a fierce proponent of gender equality and the environment.

Kagame’s critics say he has maintained a justice system which is not well-regulated and harsh towards impoverished minors and orphans. His policy of reconciliation is criticized by Tutsi for going easy on Hutu war criminals, while he is disliked by Hutu Power sympathizers simply for being a Tutsi. Also, he has cracked down on anti-RPF media and has been intolerant of political opposition. Finally, he is also accused of looting Congolese natural resources, while sending Rwandan troops to defend against Hutu Power militia that fled across the border.

The most controversial candidate is Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza. She is the chairperson of the Unified Democratic Forces (FDU,) a coalition of opposition parties, formed mostly in Europe and North America. Her background is in accounting, but she retired to pursue a political career. In January 2010, she returned to Rwanda after 16 years in exile. Her stated agenda is the continued democratization of Rwanda and to foster an atmosphere where a person’s political associations are not tied to their ethnic backgrounds.

Ingabire has been criticized for denying the Genocide against the Tutsi and inciting ethnic tensions. The current government has not allowed her to officially register the FDU party, and has confiscated her passport. The charges against her include helping to form armed Hutu Power groups in the Congo to attack Rwanda. Prior to her candidacy, it is said that Ingabire’s family members were convicted of crimes related to the 1994 genocide. She is also accused of publicly expressing sympathy for imprisoned genocide convicts. If Ingabire is convicted of the charges that she has denied the genocide, she could face up to twenty years in prison.

Another candidate is Dr. Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo of the Social Democratic Party (PSD.) His party backed Kagame in 2003. He has emphasized the fight against the ideology of genocide. He also has a good record combating the HIV epidemic, having experience working in the Ministry of Health. His critics say he is too closely aligned with Kagame to truly be considered opposition.

There is also Prosper Higiro of the Liberal Party (PL.) The former Minister of Commerce promises to address a host of economic concerns if elected, including the import-export deficit and the population growth crisis.

Upon reflecting on democracy in times of crisis in the USA and Rwanda, I would like to suggest that there must be more to democracy than just elections. It is not just the choice of one person over another person that makes people free. Democracy is something we must live, through the choices that we make. Government is a tightrope walk, balancing the powers that be with moral and practical needs. But making choices and taking initiatives is not just something elected officials can do; we private individuals must also act. When we fulfill our obligation to vote, we are trusting representatives to reflect our values, but when we act directly in the society around us, we are truly putting our stamp on world affairs. The electoral process is vital to democracy, but it alone cannot create the immense social change that times might call for.

Democracy is what John Newton, an English slave trader, was doing when he rejected slavery and became an abolitionist in the late 1700s; along his spiritual journey, he wrote Amazing Grace, a hymn sung all over the world to this day. Democracy is what Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx, was doing when he wrote Strange Fruit, a protest song made famous by Billie Holiday about the lynching of African Americans, a situation to which he was a complete outsider but felt compelled to speak out against. Democracy is what Rwandan inanga player and singer Sophie Nzayisenga is doing when she expresses herself through the joy of music, despite the horrors of Rwanda’s past. Democracy is what the first jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Sydney Bechet were doing when they decided not to follow the score but to improvise, using a more open means to a new and unknown ending.

When I perform on the street in Rwanda this summer, I plan to improvise a lot. I hold a very expansive view of improvisation. Not only will I abstain from playing much pre-composed music, but the whole concept of the parade, that my performance is mobile, will place trust in new and unpredictable settings, leaving even the seemingly secondary details of music, such as staging and audience, open to chance and improvisation. Since my audience and I are so foreign to own another, I will enjoy the ability to be reactive and interactive with new people and unpredictable surroundings. Following a score, would create definition in an environment and method that begs for redefinition, from both performer and audience. When we play or act a predetermined score or script, both on stage and in life, we reduce the possibility of a new and better outcome to our efforts. My hope is that by playing music in Rwanda I will help myself and others escape old mindsets and feel closer to neighbors near and far, perhaps even forging new identities that negate the hatreds, victimization, and guilt of the past.

The Parade of One Project is made possible by individuals like you. For more info or to donate, please


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