Reflections on Hotel Rwanda

July 10, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

I haven’t seen Hotel Rwanda.  I actually rented the movie, and my husband and I started to watch it, but we had to stop.  We knew what was going to happen, and we didn’t want to see it:  we would have known what was going to happen even if we hadn’t had advance knowledge of the story.  He and I know all about Africa.  Personally, I am too broken-hearted about what is happening there to watch it played out on a 42-inch plasma TV screen.

It’s not just happening in Rwanda.  We only hear about Ruanda more often now because this particular story has given that region a voice. 

The stories are endless, one more chilling than the next.  In South Africa, gangs of black youths who suspect an individual of not being “one of them” inflict horrible death.  And they do not reserve the torture for adults.  Children are not immune.  One favorite form of execution involves soaking a tire in gasoline, placing the tire around the neck of the bound victim, and setting it alight.  I repeat, this is done to children as well as adults.  It is done to blacks by blacks, and the rationale behind the brutality is obscure.  Sometimes it is tribal – amaZulu against any black not Zulu – sometimes there is a loosely formulated political agenda.  Sometimes it is simply a case of bloodlust.

This is no urban myth.  We have witnessed something like it personally.  On our last trip to South Africa in 1996, two years after apartheid’s end and the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, we spent our first few days in Pretoria, 36 miles from Johannesburg. (Johannesburg was, at that time, the murder capital of the world, recording an average of 67 violent deaths each day.)  On our second or third night in Pretoria, we were in our very nice second floor hotel room when we heard commotion on the street below.  What we saw was a black man surrounded by a taunting circle of other black men, the man under attack calling for his mother.  It was clear he was about to be killed, so we contacted the front desk, manned by an integrated staff.  We were told the police would not come – there was nothing to be done.  Of course, we did not need to be told not to intervene.  I lay on the bed and blocked the sounds of the street out as best I could. 

North of South Africa, in Mozambique, the Portuguese finally relinquished power in 1975.  During the following years, civil war raged as rival political factions vied for control of the country.  Rebel forces fought whatever Bantu political party tenuously held power.  Many of the rebel soldiers were children under the age of 12.  These children had no idea why they were fighting and killing and being killed.  They had not been recruited, they had been enslaved.  Rebel leaders would send their troops into villages where they would line the adults up.  All male village children big enough to hold a gun would be ordered to shoot the adults, their own parents amongst them.  Then these children would be told they would be protected by the rebels in return for their blind obedience and loyalty.  They would become soldiers, killing by day and serving as sex-slaves for the rebel leaders by night.

In Africa’s northern hemisphere, post-colonial conflict amongst Nigerians has created similar stories of child enslavement and brutality.  The fierce and brutal political struggles have created Diaspora, as Chinua Achebe’s fiction makes clear.  In the Congo, … but the litany is endless and the details so similar and wrenching as to become numbing.

I find myself isolated from most other white South Africans who have left the continent  because of my views on all this.  Like me, they say “What do you expect?”  But we mean different things by this.  They believe Africans have never been capable of ruling themselves.  They believe Africans lived in darkness before the white man colonized Africa, and that it was Europeans who brought order, enlightenment and discipline to the Dark Continent.  They believe the current horrors are inevitable now that the strong hand of the white man is no longer the whip hand.

I do not hold their views.  But what do we expect?

First, the European colonizers went into Africa and divided it up arbitrarily according to their own territorial designs.  Before colonization, there was no Belgian Congo, no Southern Rhodesia or Northern Rhodesia, no South Africa.  There were tribal territories.  What Europeans did was break down the indigenous people’s borders, forcing amaZulu to live with amaXhosa and Hutu to live with Tutsi, pitting one tribe against another.  While these are people of the same racial group, Bantu, they were bound to clash because of their cultural differences.  Although the amaZulu were a warrior tribe which conquered neighboring tribes and absorbed them, most tribes had learned to live, before the time of the white man, in an admittedly uneasy state of truce with each other, but they did not slaughter each other randomly, and they did not enslave and torture each other’s children. 

And the amaZulu, like other Bantu tribes, had very strict codes of honor, even though they were aggressive.  Anybody interested in this can see an example played out in the movie, Zulu.  It is a true story.  In the late 1800’s, the British army, then in conflict with the amaZulu while attempting to secure Zulu tribal lands for the British Empire, suffered the greatest defeat at the hands of an indigenous people in the history of the British Empire at a place called Ishandlhwana in what used to be called Natal and is now called KwaZulu.  1500 British soldiers, an entire regiment, save for two or three men, was slaughtered by Zulu warriors numbering 4,000.  These warriors were then directed to descend on an outpost at Rorke’s Drift, where 139 Welsh guardsmen, untested in battle, where loosely guarding a hospital and mission church. 

The British survivors of Ishandlhwana were able to reach Rorke’s Drift before the amaZulu arrived, and a royal engineer among them set up a plan of defense bolstered by the knowledge an Afrikaner farmer gave him about Zulu methods of attack.  The details are not important.  What is important is that, after wave after wave of Zulu warriors had attacked, hundreds of amaZulu were killed by British bullets, but only about 20 British soldiers were dead.  No one inside Rorke’s Drift, however, was under any illusion about their fate.  The amaZulu, through their sheer numbers, had the ability to kill them all.  But then, as the sun rose, the amaZulu on the encircling hills began to sing. The Welshmen thought they were being taunted, and they responded, not with defiance, but with singing of their own which expressed their solidarity with each other.  Then an old Zulu general raised his spear and waved it at his men, who turned and slowly retreated from Rorke’s Drift, singing as they went.  The Afrikaner, who spoke Zulu, realized the warriors were not taunting the Welshmen, they were honoring fellow warriors. They were saluting the Welshmen’s bravery and sparing their lives because of their courage. 

Such are the ways of savages.

In fact, most African tribes lived more peaceably with each other than Europeans lived with each other.  They had no Hundred Years War or War of the Roses, or Spanish Armada, or Spanish Inquisition, for that matter. 

In fact, many of the tribal religions Europeans encountered and promptly tried to stamp out have been compared by some to the Christianity of the early church.  They taught a morality based on mutual care, respect and humility.  Batswanans (from Botswana) were taught never to think of themselves as superior to anyone else.  They were entreated to live in humility and to care for their neighbors as they cared for themselves.  The amaXhosa believed similarly.  For them, no one ate until everyone had food, and that was not the rule at the family dinner table.  It was the rule of the tribe so that the weak would always be cared for.  Similar religious beliefs existed in many of the Bantu tribes all over Africa. 

As Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, what’s more, they lived in very carefully planned communities in ways that took into account African climate, topography, vegetation and diseases.  In equatorial Africa, they lived in small, widely dispersed villages built away from rivers and lakes, and so they controlled the spread of malaria.  They cultivated crops that fed both themselves and the fragile soil so  they would not deplete it.  They built houses of mud and straw that, when they were no longer viable, could be abandoned to return to the earth so disease, squalor, slums, and blighted landscapes did not occur.  In Tanzania, they lived on the side of Mount Kilamanjaro under the forest canopy, building houses that blended with the forest so no trees were destroyed, and growing crops that thrived in shade and fed them well.  Their environment and their people were nurtured. 

Such are the ways of savages.

(Now, in many equatorial African countries, malaria is the leading cause of childhood deaths, claiming as many as one in three children   Now, Mount Kilamangaro is being eroded away because the people no longer live under the trees.  They live in poverty stricken villages trying to survive the capitalism that has created their poverty.  They “poach” trees from the mountain in order to make money, and so the natural barrier to erosion is being removed, and the mountain is literally being washed away.)

Many of the African tribes were hospitable to the Europeans who came into Africa.  More is the pity because very soon they fell victim to “guns, germs, and steel.”  And this, I think, is where the story begins. 

In her essay, “Letter from Johannesburg, 1976,” white South African author Nadine Gordimer quotes Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-century black writer, who wrote:

When you make men slaves you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war …   
Here is what I believe. I believe a society deserves its criminal class.  I believe all oppressors should be careful of the example they set because the oppressed eventually and inevitably become grotesque caricatures of their oppressors.  I believe the violence in Africa is proportionally intense to the tyranny that preceded it.

I believe what is happening is nothing more than inevitable and predictable. I believe if we were subjected to the conditions Africans have been and are being subjected to, we, too, would be living in brutality and anarchy.

I also believe that to say the white man is the devil is false.  For one thing, what Europeans did is nothing more than human conquerors have always done, whatever their race or continent of origin.  According to Diamond, powerful South American cultures did it to less powerful South American cultures long before white men set foot on that continent.  The more powerful Polynesians of the Hawaiian Islands did it to the less powerful Polynesian tribes around them.  It is speculated that a powerful group conquered the indigenous peoples of the Easter Islands and proceeded to exhaust the environment through their greed and heedlessness.

We white men are not alone.

Be that as it may, we are guilty.  We did what nations wishing to conquer “lesser peoples” have always done.  It is no secret many slave owners in the United States paid no attention to family units amongst their slaves, selling mothers away from children, children away from mothers, fathers away from their families.  They forbade them to speak their African languages, use their African names, worship their African gods.  And then, when the social fabric of these people had been taken away, when they had nothing left to guide them, the white man called them savages to justify his mistreatment of them.

European Americans did the same thing to Native Americans.  Most of us know the stories of the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools where Native American children were forced to go and where they were then stripped of their tribal identities.  And we all know the price Native Americans have had to pay for the loss of their traditional lands and their culture – alcoholism, suicide, useless, wasted lives that have lost purpose and structure.  Only now are some beginning to understand they must create purpose again for themselves.

White men did the same thing in Africa.  They were so successful at eradicating indigenous religions that only a very few are left.  They destroyed cultures and took tribal lands.  They destroyed family life, which had been every bit as strong as European family life, perhaps stronger.  Like Americans, the economic systems they set up were one of the ways they accomplished this.  Black men in South Africa were allowed to work in the European cities as miners and manual laborers, but they were required to live in townships outside of these cities, and they were not allowed to bring their families with them.  These men were forced to live hundreds of miles away from their wives and children in order to earn money. 

Inevitably, many men simply “forgot” their families so that children grew up fatherless, and the young males, too, went to the cities to earn money, leaving yet another generation of women and children behind.  Prostitution, unheard of before the white man’s arrival, thrived in the cities under this system.  Gangs formed which murdered and thieved.  The old tribal way of living in small communities that taxed neither the environment nor the people was replaced by teaming, concrete-block compounds with as many as 250,000 people living in an area of one and a half square miles with no indoor plumbing, no sanitation.  In some of these communities, there were as few as five communal water faucets and communal toilets.  It goes without saying disease spread.  It goes without saying alcoholism and drug addition spread.  In other words, all the cultural restraints having been removed, the people lived formless, purposeless, degraded lives. 

And the white men called them savages and used violence and brutality to control the monsters they had created.  Any sign of protest on the part of the oppressed was met with increasingly violent resistance from the oppressors as the system spiraled its way downward to its end.

The behavior of the conquerors was predictable, but so was the behavior of the conquered.  It is well recognized in the psychological community that the abused and frustrated are more likely to turn on each other than on the real source of their misery.  We only need to read the stories of American inner cities, not simply the stories of child abuse and neglect, but the stories of corrupt leaders.  Poverty and degradation begets corruption.

It begat corruption and anarchy in Africa.  It begat the horrors we see and hear about now.  It begat the self-destructive behavior we see now, and the hatred of the white man but the embrace of the materialism and lust for power with which he infected the continent and which drives so much of the corruption.  It begat the grotesque caricature.

Unbelievably, there is so much less violence in South Africa than there was when other African nations gained independence from their colonial rulers.  I have no doubt that is because of the leadership of Nelson Mandela, an amaXhosa, a man who retained the spirit of his tribal beliefs, a man who recognized the only path to peace and prosperity lay through Truth and Reconciliation, something too many white South African Christians refused to see.

I believe I understand the problem.  I’m not sure I know how to solve it.  Doris Lessing, another writer, who like Nadine Gordimer grew up in Africa, this time in Southern Rhodesia, created a black character for one of her most famous novels, The Golden Notebook, some of which is set during the Second World War.  This man is a quiet, reflective man, full of wisdom, who works with a group of young whites intent on liberating Africa’s black man.  He is asked what he believes Africa’s future will be, and, an educated man, he reminds his listeners about Europe’s violent history.  He reminds them they are in the midst of yet another of Europe’s wars, one that is affecting almost every corner of the world.  (He might have reminded them, had he been speaking further in the future, that an estimated 44 million people worldwide would die in that conflict.)  And he says, “We must remember that it took 500 years for the British to perfect their system enough to even have mail delivery run efficiently.”

By which I mean, it will take time.  It will have to play itself out.  The anger and pain will have to run its course, and there is very little we will be able to do to hasten the process.  Individuals of goodwill can make a difference in the lives of individual Africans; individual nations of goodwill can try to help through sending financial and medical aid.  But beyond that, the violent and savage on the continent will have to come to their senses before anything can change, and they cannot be forced to do that.  It was force, after all, that created them.  We whites can only hope they will not become powerful enough to come after us on our continents because, God help us, Africa is a prime hunting ground for Muslim extremists who search for converts to the cause of their jihad, and Africans surely have cause to hate us.


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Category: Culture, History, Politics

About the Author ()

Chris Van Mierlo is a South African of British descent who left the country with her family in 1960 when her father was in danger of being arrested by the white government because of his anti-apartheid activities. She has lived in the St. Louis, Missouri, area since 1969, and previously lived on Cape Cod, in Boston, and in Syracuse, New York. Chris teaches and tutors English at St. Charles Community College. In addition to her English degree, she has degrees in music, which she has also taught. Her home away from home is Montana where she and her husband hope to retire in the not too distant future. Chris is the mother of two sons, one of whom lives in St. Louis and the other in Missoula, Montana. She is the grandmother of two girls, 10 and 16.

Comments (2)

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  1. Deb says:

    I appreciate everything you've said, especially that you've "been there, done that."

    I would like to take issue with your paragraph on Native Americans in one regard: the use of past tense. Just as in Africa, these are more current events than we like to believe. Many tribes are losing their native languages because of the practice of education children in English only boarding schools. Loss of traditional language destroys the traditional culture. lI have a friend, now in her thirties, who is a member of a tribe (Mississippi Choctaw) that still has many people who have Choctaw as their first (or only) language (in the mid 80s, fully 40% of Mississippi Choctaw spoke the language as their first language, I do not know what the current statistic is). When my friend was 7, she was literally snatched up from the dirt road in front of her home and taken by truant officers to an English only boarding school. Her grandmother was not given a choice, they just took her granddaughter away. In fact, her grandmother didn't even know until hours later, when after a long and fruitless search, the grandmother went to the police to report my friend as missing.

    In the boarding school, my friend was punished for speaking Choctaw, and she says that for nearly 2 years, she just sat in class, having no idea what was being taught. She is a bright person, I'm sure she could have learned what was being taught sooner, but in her words, "I was stubborn."

    The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to stop people, particulary Mormons, from taking Indian children. Mormons apparently believe that Indians are one of the 'lost tribes of Israel', so they get special perks from God when they "save" an Indian from hell. They were convincing young parents, in droves, that the newborn would have a better chance at a good (meaning financially secure) life if the newborn were to be adopted outside of the tribe (they were probably right). In many instances, the parents were paid for their children. You do not have to take my word for that, it is well documented, much of it in the testimony prior to passage of the act.

    Look around reservations today, what do you see? Payday lenders, who loan money at 250-350%, and used car dealers who sell the same worthless car over and over, sometimes not even bothering to give the customer a title, so they can repossess the car later with east.

    My point is that the anglo oppression is continuing, although sometimes it doesn't appear so bloody and vicious. It is there, nonetheless.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    This would seem an appropriate place to mention a previous post of mine praising Ben Franklin's famous essay about the "savages" of North America: I would suspect the essay is just as applicable to the situation in Africa today as it was to the American situation in Franklin's time.

    Be that as it may, I would also like to point out that although Europeans turned slavery into an industry in Africa, they didn't exactly introduce slavery or inter-tribal hostility to that continent. Indeed, I believe African tribes near the coast were more than happy to raid inland villages to keep the slavery pipeline full throughout the 250 year history of slavery: it simply could not have lasted for so long without considerable native support.

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