Yesterday, I read a blog post from a fellow Rwandan titled “Dear former Diaspora, don’t be so humble, you are not that famous….” It came across as a bit of an incoherent rant. The opinions expressed in his blog post are rather unfortunate. He equates the Rwandan diaspora with maids working in what is presumably the West, and with black American slaves freed to Liberia, then he goes on to make a number of assumptions about the lifestyles and means of Rwandans who have returned from the diaspora. In a nutshell, Gatete seems to be inconsolably offended by what he perceives as our lack of Kinyarwanda skills and his claim that diaspora Rwandans can only be useful to Rwanda if we “act Rwandan”. The shrill condescending tone of the entire blog post aside, Gatete’s output strikes me as just another symptom of a larger problem.
There is a type of deep-seated narrow-mindedness black American high school or college students face in their communities when they are accused of acting white, simply because their scholastic achievements deviate from the accepted norm for their demographic. In fact, Acting White has its own Wikipedia page. Fortunately, “acting Rwandan” does not yet find mention on Wikipedia, so Gatete’s obtuse views are yet to propagate. What exactly is acting Rwandan? Is Gatete acting Rwandan? He gives zero indication as to what precisely constitutes acting Rwandan. Other than his grief with our grasp – or lack thereof – of the Kinyarwanda language. Surely, there’s got to be a bit more to it than that, though. Does acting Rwandan require us to show up for work at the office everyday dressed like this?
Or like this?
That’s me on the left, by the way.
Or is acting Rwandan more like this, perhaps?
Reasonable minds will probably agree, “acting Rwandan” is a rather vague concept, not even barely covered by attire and fluency in Kinyarwanda. As a language, Kinyarwanda is one of the most difficult languages out there, other than Arabic, Chinese, Russian and other non-Latin-alphabet using languages. I find it laughable when people who spoke Kinyarwanda from infancy, expect others who are learning it in adulthood to pick it up in five minutes. There is no big deal in being fluent in any language, when you have been speaking that language since you even first started speaking. I am fluent and accent-free in my command of the German language. Does it mean I gave my fellow Africans grief in Germany, when they struggled to learn a new language in their adulthood? Not really. That would kind of make me a jerk. Seeing as how it is scientific fact, that learning any language as an adult is an extremely difficult undertaking. Never even mind a language as complex as Kinyarwanda.
There are some insecurities Gatete might be experiencing, which he lays bare with the following statement:
At last you are someone, your name is not difficult to pronounce, you see familiar features five times a day.
Really? I spent over three decades being nobody, and only my moving to Rwanda has finally made me someone? You come across as rather prejudiced, Gatete. For the record, being half Rwandan and half Nigerian, my name is still difficult to pronounce, even here in Rwanda, but this has never been something that robbed me of my sleep at night. I have seen familiar faces everywhere I have been in this world, and these faces did not all belong to a Rwandan or a Nigerian, or even an African. Perhaps a broadening of one’s own mental horizon might alleviate the lack of familiarity with one’s surroundings. Just a suggestion.
My fellow Rwandan Gatete goes on with the following:
You now live in a big house, you dress lightly and smile frequently. You used to be the maid, now you have one; and a guard, a gardener, etc.; you are pampered!
This one gave me chuckle and had me shaking my head. Perhaps Gatete lives in a big house, smiles a lot, started as a maid, now is a maid employer, and a guard employer, and a gardener employer, and is pampered. Oh, wait. Pampered! Sorry, forgot the exclamation mark there. I find it bizarre that Gatete would make such gross generalizations about a community as diverse as the Rwandan diaspora. If there is some kind of Big House Giveaway for returning Rwandans that I seem to have missed out on, please let me know where to send my late application. A free big house sounds great, given how expensive a real estate market it is, in this my dear country. Does it come with the maid, and guard and gardener? What does pampered include? Does it include someone else getting out of bed every morning to go to my job and earn my own money on my behalf? This sounds like a very sweet deal. Sign me up for pampered! Today!
Do you know who is pampered? Rwandans who live in this country with the best president in the world, and are so well catered for, that they find the time to write about former slaves and maids who don’t speak Kinyarwanda but live in big houses now, employing gardeners. I grew up in Nigeria. Lived there since 1980. It makes me chuckle and sigh to hear Rwandans in Rwanda today throw around the word pampered. As we say in Nigeria, “Respect yourself o. No misyarn, abeg.”
Another Gatetese gem:
So you owe it to your society to pay back. But you can only be useful to Rwanda if you act Rwandan. If you are proactive, engage, immerse, learn; catch up with all those years lost in exile, reconnect with your culture, your history, your people;
I pay “back” to my society every month. It’s called taxes. Comes with having a job. But apparently, that is not useful enough, in a country where we have no significant industrialized natural resource-based economy to speak of. If I wasn’t so proud of paying taxes in my country, I would petition RRA to grant me tax exemption since it’s just not good enough for the self-professed authority on Rwandan-ness.
You are adrift if the only languages you speak are foreign. I know it is not your fault, but you can use that excuse for another three, four years and that’s it! So for your learning, you should not only hang out with people as lost as you; it is like two blind men walking together, convincing one another that it is in the middle of the night; even though it is mid-day.
I don’t feel adrift, though. Should I? If the only clothes you wear on a daily basis are foreign, does it make you feel adrift? It’s funny. In Nigeria, it’s fairly common for casual Fridays to see my fellow Nigerians dressed in casual traditional attire. You don’t see that anywhere here in Rwanda. Maybe the whole country is adrift, and we’re all floating in cultural limbo.
Rwanda isn’t Kigali, go find your people, go find yourself: you will see it’s incredibly fun too.
Again with the baseless assumptions. How do you know returned Rwandans from the diaspora have not yet found themselves or their people? Who told you they lost them or themselves in the first place? Your own personal journey is not the template for everyone else’s, Gatete.
Now Diaspora is the group of nationals who live outside their home country. Once you return home: YOU ARE NO LONGER DIASPORA! You are local, indigenous.
Your logic is flawed. If this were true, you would have not taken the time to write your blog post, would you?
Remember, unlike Eritrea, Somalia or Moldova, we do not live off your remittances.
Maybe not, but we sure do rely on a lot of foreign aid in this country. I wonder which of the two revenue streams is more self-sufficient…
Most of the time; we pay for your stay abroad and your education. Sometimes we enter into agreements with countries there to educate you, on the understanding that you will return to serve here once you graduate.
How I wish that had been true for my stay and education in Germany. Things would have been a lot less brutal for me.
But even when we do not do any of that, that look of respect and admiration that you see on your host’s face when you say you are from Rwanda, that’s the fruit of our work here. And finally, take a good look at the locals: you know you wanna be them! You are not discovering us, we are not discovering you: Turaziranye (We know each other): you are not here to change us; you are here to change…
My goodness. What a load of rubbish. Respect and admiration is not something an African finds in abundance abroad, least of all in the West. Again, a broadening of intellectual and experiential horizons would have clued you in on this, Gatete. And I do not “wanna be the locals”. Goodness, no. I want to continue to be who I already am: a Rwandan Nigerian, who was born in Germany, raised in Nigeria and now living and working in Rwanda, perfectly happy with being his own unique self. I refuse to conform to your undefined notion of Rwandan-ness. I have my own Rwandan-ness and I find it an extremely pleasant, productive, positive and comfortable state of mind, thank you very much. So genda amahoro, mein Freund.
NOTE: The comments to this blog post can be found on my old blog, where it was originally posted.
UPDATE: I found this very interesting article published in The EastAfrican, Somali-Americans confronting cultural and social change in their new home. It discusses the transformation of Somali culture among the Somali Diaspora in the United States, and the reactions of the older generation Somali to these transformations. I think it’s important for people to understand culture is not a static concept. Culture comes from the collectively nurtured experiences over generations. And as sure as generations and experiences change, so too will culture always change over time, transforming into something a bit different, a bit richer, a bit more contemporary. This is natural. Conservative-minded people seem to operate under the assumption that culture/heritage/identity are rigid and unchanged over the centuries. A quick glance at history should usually be enough to prove this utterly wrong. The so-called Rwandan-ness of the monarchy era, does not have all that much in common with the so-called Rwandan-ness of the Republic of Rwanda today. Identity is not written in stone. Life is a journey, and our journeys affect each of us, differently.