Shooting Star of the Continent

Josh Kron
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Josh Kron

It had been a long journey. After weathering desert sands, endless visa lines, crowded bus rides and long periods of waiting for one clerk or another, Narcisse Mitali arrived at the gates of Zion. The young guitarist, dusty and hard-skinned, had taken the bus from Cairo, ending a journey that had begun further south, near the heart of Africa. "Like the ancient Israelites," says Mitali, who is better known as Natty Dread in Rwanda, where he is one of the country's most famous Rastafari musicians. "Right up to the border."

Students at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. Credit: Josh Kron / Archive

Mitali explains that in the eyes of the Rastafarian movement, Israel has a mystical status, but it has an even more special meaning for him, an ethnic Tutsi. Some Tutsi believe Israel is a living, breathing ancestral "brother," along with Ethiopia, where some historians argue that Rwanda's Tutsi population originated.

It was 1983, and the world seemed to be a dangerous place. Israel had just gone to war with Lebanon. The Americans were busy trying to repulse the Soviets. And Mitali was fleeing problems of his own. Tensions between the Tutsi and the Hutu majority were surging in his tiny, sun-drenched home of Rwanda. His family had grown up as refugees in Uganda, and as tremors of ethnic violence pulsed through his homeland, Mitali moved to nearby Kenya and soon applied for an Israeli visa. "It was my destiny," he says.

The situation in Rwanda took a turn for the worse. When the president's plane was shot down in 1994, it sparked a genocide that, in three tumultuous months, wiped out nearly one million Tutsi - and 18 members of Mitali's family alone.

By that time, Mitali was already far away, in Israel, playing guitar occasionally at the Soweto club on Frishman Street in Tel Aviv. When he didn't have enough money, he did what many people did: take to the land. Mitali says his time toiling as a farmhand on kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the country - from Naan to Amirim, to Ein Gedi, to Gesher Haziv, to Shefayim, where he met his first wife - gave him a sense of self, a sense of worth.

Mitali returned to Rwanda, now gearing up for its second presidential elections since the genocide, scheduled for August. He is one of a cadre of people from the diaspora who are trying to build a new state on top of the ruins. They are followers of President Paul Kagame, who, through tough words and actions, has brought a generation of Tutsi home, to live in a state of peace among former enemies rather than pursue revenge. This has transformed Rwanda into a shooting star in the developing world, and Kagame is its spokesman.

With seriousness and a sense of urgency, the new Rwanda is soaring. Cranes tower over gleaming buildings. Fiber-optic cables crisscross the rich, pregnant earth. Investors from states as diverse as Dubai, Korea and Israel are flying in. America is advising the army, as are the Chinese.

Meanwhile, deep in Rwanda's south, between banana plantations, goat herds and the blistering hot sun, Narcisse Mitali is making his own contribution, inspired by the kibbutzim that helped him through the darkest times: He is working to establish his own educational project, called the Amahoro Youth and Cultural Village.

On 40 acres along the southern tip of Lake Kivu, Mitali is planning a hive of activity: courses in subjects ranging from carpentry to farming, ecological preservation, filmmaking, genocide studies, and of course music. He is seeking at once to resuscitate and to help develop the country. To that end he will bring in 70 students who - in Zionist, and also Rastafarian, fashion - will work and study together, while trying to live off the land.

Mitali: "My time in Israel enlightened me. Kibbutzim, collective farms - that's how the State of Israel was born. Seeing people homeless, with no relations, no orientation, helpless in our present world, I felt the kibbutz-kind of solution was the answer to the suffering."

Amahoro means "peace" in local Kinyarwanda, and Mitali says he envisions creating a sanctuary in the village. Students won't just be taught in classrooms, they will receive vocational training as well. Mitali is hoping also to create a medical clinic, a farm, basketball courts and an eco-lodge on the premises.

While the village is still in the development stages - land has been donated by the district government and architectural plans are being reviewed - it has caught the attention of many in Rwanda and abroad as well.

"We are looking forward to it," says Fabien Sindayiheba, mayor of the Cyangugu district, where the village will be located. "It will make its graduates, the youths, employable."

So far the Rwandan government has donated two islands to the project and Mitali has brought in the minister of youth affairs as an adviser. Volunteers from Sweden and Austria arrived earlier this year, and an office has been opened in downtown Kigali, from which fundraising and planning are undertaken. True to the Rwandan spirit of not depending on handouts, Mitali explains, the youth village will also offer something to the outside world: Students will learn about nature conservation and eco-tourism, hallmarks of the new national development strategy. Amahoro will also include a cultural village where crafts will be sold, a guesthouse and a lodge on one of its islands.

Slowly, as the project has gained momentum, a slew of businessmen have joined the effort, seeing this not just as an opportunity to help rehabilitate the country's battered youth, but to build a full-fledged tourism industry.

"We are socialist on the inside and capitalist on the outside," Mitali says, arguing that this approach can be a "great weapon for fighting poverty."

In many ways, Mitali - who has dreadlocks down to his waist and says he took his stage name, "Natty Dread," from Bob Marley's 1974 album of that name" - is the embodiment of a spirit and an identity that are pervasive among the members of the Tutsi diaspora who are returning to and rebuilding Rwanda.

If Israel were to have a surrogate sister, Rwanda would be it. The latter is also a major recipient of U.S. financial and military support. And like Israel, the tiny African country boasts an influence far greater than its size. Both countries are surrounded by hostile, resource-rich neighbors in an insecure region. Rwanda also puts a premium on defense and security, and its armed forces are among the strongest in Africa.

The current election campaign has highlighted Rwanda's most pressing issues. Land is precious there: Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Although the two countries' geography is different, neither have minerals or oil. Developing a telecommunications industry has thus been at the forefront of Rwanda's development strategy, as it seeks to make people a more powerful resource.

While both Israel and this African nation share capitalist orientations and are influenced by America, Kagame's Rwanda has some strong socialist underpinnings: For instance, on the last Saturday of each month, every citizen must perform outdoor community work, called "Umuganda"; there is universal health insurance; and upon completing secondary school, young boys attend solidarity camps.

In Rwanda, as in Israel, life in the present is strongly affected by the past. According to historians, and the government website, the Tutsi ruled Rwanda beginning in the 15th century, when they first arrived and swiftly gained dominance over the more populous Hutu. During colonial rule under the Germans, and later under the Belgians, differences between the two groups were accentuated. Noses and height were measured, skin color was studied, and a racial policy was institutionalized by the government. One popular approach embraced by colonial-era scientists, known as the Hamitic theory, is that the Tutsi originally migrated south from Ethiopia. Many Rwandans believe that Jews - and Rastafarians - also came from Ethiopia , and that there is a sort of loose ethnic alliance between them all.

In 2009, the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Yemin Orde Youth Village, south of Haifa, opened in Rwanda's Eastern Province. This sprawling complex of modern facilities includes a medical center, a gymnasium, computer labs and a sustainable farm.

"When I first learned of the terrible problem of orphans in Rwanda - a direct result of the genocide and its aftermath - it immediately occurred to me that after World War II, Israel had an influx of orphans but no longer has such problems today," says Anne Heyman, a South African-born lawyer who helped found Agahozo Shalom.

According to estimates by local survivor organizations, over 1.5 million children were orphaned during the genocide in Rwanda. Those who arrive at Agahozo Shalom participate in one of two programs: Tikkun Halev, focusing on art therapy; or Tikkun Olam, community service. While virtually all the staff are Rwandan, they have been trained by Ethiopian Jews who themselves lived in the Yemin Orde village, after immigrating to Israel.

"Each moment of life reminds us of the genocide," said Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, director of the country's grassroots Gacaca courts, which try mass-murder suspects out of doors, under acacia trees. "I organized the first burial after the genocide in this country. People were killed on every square meter [of land]."

In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, known as one of the safest, cleanest cities in Africa, police regularly round up street children, beggars and undesirables. While the ruling party preaches a healthy, vigorous multi-party democracy, critics say opposition parties are neutered and forced to go along with government policy if they want to participate in the political system. There are strict limits on what journalists can write or say. As the election nears, some say that the country is becoming more tense, and certainly more restricted.

"We forgive them now," says Bosco Habimana, a former soldier who fought with President Kagame's guerrilla movement, which helped take over the country, in reference to the Hutu. "But let them try again."

There is, therefore, a special sort of politics in Rwanda, with underlying messages which are perhaps unspoken, but are still powerful reminders of the past. The words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" are strictly banned; using them in public can mean a jail sentence lasting decades. Yet in 2008 the country's constitution was amended and now refers to the genocide as "genocide against the Tutsi." Now, that expression is bandied about on radio broadcasts, citywide billboards and newspaper headlines.

Meanwhile, the country is painted in national colors, patriotism has become part of pop culture, Kagame's portrait hangs behind desks. Under sometimes intense pressure, the president urges his government, and people, to stick together. And it's a tall order. While Rwanda has maintained relative peace in recent years, across the borders the aftereffects of the genocide are still being felt. The United Nations-backed hunt in Congo for the perpetrators, led by local military forces assisted by Rwandans, has thrown the eastern part of that neighboring nation into a panic.

The site of Mitali's future youth village actually lies nearby, across the border from Congo. His country may be relatively secure at present, but its long-term future hangs in the balance. Kigali has been rocked recently by a series of grenade attacks, and a number of politicians and soldiers have been arrested or have fled the country. Although any mention of people's ethnic identities has been banned, this subject remains on the tips of many tongues, and tensions are rising. Despite all this, however, Mitali, is not concerned.

"At this moment life is a little bit difficult," he says. "But every passing day it's getting easier. We need to preach against hatred. There are good people in the world and there are bad people. We are trying to be the good ones."

Josh Kron is an American journalist, based in Uganda, who covers Central Africa.