Rwanda's Ghosts And Pathways To Healing America's Malaise

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Trump. Columnist implores him to change course to save the country. Photo: Gage Skidmore--Flickr.

As a person from Rwanda I vividly recall living through the horrors of genocide in 1994 and subsequent years. You can imagine the images that flashed in my mind watching white supremacists in Charlottesville brandishing torches, chanting anti-Jewish and anti-anybody-who-is-not-like-them slogans of “blood and soil."

Of course I am not equating Charlottesville with the Rwanda genocide. But Charlottesville, where white nationalist openly carried weapons, brought back flashes of the dreadful Rwandan militia called Interahamwe ("those who attack together"). With machetes and working with the military, security, and ordinary people, the Interahamwe became a lethal force that decimated close to one million Tutsis and Hutus in just a hundred days. Rwandans and the rest of the international community were then left to wonder why it happened, and how to prevent the recurrence of such utmost trauma inflicted by humans to other humans.

Yet, then in Rwanda, and now in the United States, tragic social events of such magnitude rarely happen by accident nor instantly. They are preceded by extremist ideologies, mobilization, organization, and a leadership that is willing and able to champion such causes. In times of fear and rapid change, rising expectations, and legitimate grievances, the combination of an extremist ideology, a small group of rabble rousers, demagogues, and a divided population can ignite the spark of pervasive destruction.

Let us not underestimate what we saw in Charlottesville. When extremists have access to the levers and resources of state machinery, they can indeed cause deadly and irreparable damage. Only through enlightened and engaged citizens, institutions working on their behalf, and a leadership infused with the wisdom to build partnerships out of diversity, can such cliques be prevented from seizing power or neutralized in society.

Many argue that President Donald Trump is the immediate and urgent problem of the United States. However, President Trump did not miraculously drop from the heavens. His rise to power tells a story about the man himself. Even more importantly, it tells a deeper story about American society in the 21st Century. A political system captive to big money and military power gives little choice to citizens. Creative American Presidents may push for some reforms, only to be undone at the expense of the majority of American citizens. Occasionally the political system produces outliers and anomalies, but the general direction is to reproduce and maintain the status quo.

From the standpoint of a Black African, I believe that the domestic and foreign problems of the United States as a nation and world superpower precede President Trump, and cut across the political divide. They will remain and intensify long after he is gone. Unless Americans begin to talk to each other as equal members of the “us” community rather than “others” at opposite ends of a divided nation, this country is on a perilous journey to self-destruction that could also potentially destroy the world as we know it.

To make America heal will require to acknowledge and redress the shameful stains on this nation’s fabric. The difficult conversation must go to unpleasant places in history before the founding of the United States, when populations of Native Americans were wiped out by white settlers. The gruesome depopulation of Africa, and the enslavement of Blacks by whites must be considered evils whose legacy endure up to now. Americans must acknowledge the scourge of open and concealed racism whose ugly face appears in the form of Charlottesville; hundreds of thousands of Blacks and other ethnic minorities languish in incarceration, many are victims of police brutality, discrimination, as well as diseases rampant in impoverished communities. These so-called "others" are at the bottom of America’s social, economic, and political pyramid. Let it be remembered that white supremacy served as the ideology and organizing principle behind the decimation of indigenous populations, slavery, colonial subjugation, World War II, and the Jewish Holocaust, to mention but a few.

Pathways For Treatment: Accurate diagnosis and acknowledgement of illness is the first step in the healing process. A cooperative patient works with a team to execute a treatment plan. No amount of wishful thinking can be a substitute for sustained and collaborative action. Across the life span, we spend most of our time in families, communities, schools, places of prayer, places of play, and work places. What we say and do in these places matter. What do we tell our children at home? How are we connected within our communities? What are our children being taught in schools and colleges? What are the national priorities? Who are the friends and foes of the United States? Are there core and fundamental ends and means as the United States engages the world?

Too much truth has already been sacrificed for too long at the altar of political expediency. America’s trust bank is running low on reserves, and here are some pathways to replenish it, restore civility, prevent a potential slide into deadly conflict, and sustain American progress. In the family, we must infuse our children with a spirit of love, peace and human solidarity as antidotes to pernicious ideologies of racism, fascism, xenophobia, and terrorism. America must seek to build communities that are thriving in diversity. The status quo is simply not sustainable. Extreme spirits of individualism coupled with the “us versus them” mind-set have created neighborhoods without neighbors. Americans are “bowling alone,” in the words of Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, without the networks of trust and social support that glue communities together.

The United States' educational, health, and research institutions have built the knowledge and skills that have put man on the moon, engineered nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, mapped the human genome, cloned animals, built the now-ubiquitous internet, advanced the far reaches of artificial intelligence, extended the human life-span, and created material abundance never recorded in the entire history of human civilization. The low-income and ethnic minorities must have equal opportunity to access knowledge and skills critical to building sustainable wellbeing of all. Most importantly, American children from K-12 to college must be helped to understand that human beings belong to one diverse humanity whose collective wellbeing depends on those of interdependent individuals, families, communities and nations. They must be helped to appreciate that true physical, mental, and spiritual health comes primarily from each one of us, enabled by communities and health systems in which all Americans participate and have equal access.

The United States' work places should mirror America’s diversity and moral purpose. The current income inequalities where the top 0.1% earn more than 198 times the income of the bottom 90% is inhuman, dangerous and unsustainable. They are inhuman because there is no moral justification for the richest superpower on earth to have homeless, hungry, jobless and poor people who do not have access to health care. It is dangerous because inequality is the fertile breeding ground for popular anger and a pretext for racist ideologies. It is unsustainable because it can lead to disruption.

Finally, the United States needs friends and allies across the far ends of the earth. The crisis born out of Charlottesville has another potentially catastrophic twin crisis related to North Korea. As the drums of war have reverberated from the White House and Pyongyang, it only signals the precarious nature of the global security system based on the threats of mutually assured destruction. Divided at home, having alienated most of its traditional allies, and at loggerheads with key players in the international system, how does the United States administration hope to fight and win a quick, decisive war with North Korea? With trillions of U.S. dollars spent in wars since 9/11, a current (2018) annual defense budget of $824.6 billion, and limited resources committed to foreign aid, how does the U.S. hope to win the hearts and minds in other nations where citizens live on less than $2 dollars a day?

It is in some of these nations that extremist ideologies, its disciples, and terrorists are born and deployed across the globe. As the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the struggles against ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram have demonstrated even the mighty U.S. cannot have an easy win only through drones, bombs, and boots on the ground. Supporting foreign despots who make it easy for greedy corporate America to plunder other nations is not good strategy either. To fight and win a foreign war, you need your own people on your side. You need allies. You need to win the hearts and minds of the people in the theatres of war. Above all, it has to be a just war.

The shockingly ugly side of America was displayed in Charlottesville last weekend; and it was a glimpse of a malaise around the country. The beautiful and humane side of America was inspiringly demonstrated soon after when a diverse community celebrated Heather Heyer, who was slain by a white supremacist when he drove into a crowd protesting against them. Those who remembered her sang "We shall overcome," "This is your land," and Heather’s mother courageously stated that the killing of her daughter “magnified” her. Heather Heyer joined the pantheon of martyrs slain for a just cause. Let us remember her, those injured in the attacks, and pray that America remains committed to ultimately overcome.

A Call To President Trump: As we assemble in houses of prayer, or quiet meditation, let us remember President Donald Trump who has the solemn duty to protect and defend the totality of this nation. He is a man who has received much in his life, including a beautiful family, tremendous wealth, and the most powerful job in the whole world. Because he has received much, a lot is expected from him. Perhaps, the greatest gifts he should seek are wisdom, discernment, and understanding to lead a nation in self-inflicted turmoil.

Trump should pray for a big loving heart to do no harm, provide the much-needed counsel to restore to sanity those engaged in extremist ideologies, embrace this nation’s diversity, help enlarge its spiritual and material endowments, and change course towards the healing of all Americans.

Trump is old enough to know that there is always another chance to recover from serious mistakes. It is a learnable humility that will be richly rewarded with abundant grace.


Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa is a physician, a former Ambassador of Rwanda to the United States and Facilitator, Global Citizenship Conversations.

Germantown, Maryland.

E-mail: [email protected]


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