If Israel could do it, so can Rwanda

Part of a surging Tutsi diaspora flooding home, Natty Mitali is bringing his experiences from the kibbutz to help rebuild a new Rwanda.

Nati Mitali (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nati Mitali
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It had been the longest journey.
Through desert sands, visa lines, bus rides and the pressing patience of waiting, Natty Mitali arrived at the gates of Zion. The young guitarist had taken the bus from Cairo, dusty and hard-skinned, a journey that had begun further south, near the heart of Africa.
“Like the old Israelites,” says Mitali, who goes popularly by Natty Dread in Rwanda, where he is one of the country’s most famous Rastafari musicians. “Right up to the border.”
On the other side was Africa’s first encounter with the West, and the road continuing on to Tel Aviv. While Israel is mystified in the Rastafari movement, it had special meaning for Mitali, an ethnic Tutsi. Some Tutsi believe Israel is a living, breathing ancestral brother – along with Ethiopia – where historians argue the Tutsi in Rwanda may have originally come from.
Some, like Mitali, see themselves as ancestors of Israel, and the comparisons, for them, go much further than that. The Israelites from ancient to modern had been persecuted throughout the world, and Africa had not been left alone. Natty Mitali was dusty and tired, young and full of passion, and though his eyes were steadfastly focused on the promised land in front of him, his trail of memories stayed close with him too.
It was 1983, and the world was looking dangerous. Israel had just gone to war in Lebanon. The Americans were pushing the Soviets. Mitali was fleeing problems of his own. Tensions between Tutsi and the majority Hutu were surging in his tiny sundrenched home of Rwanda.
His family had grown up as refugees in Uganda, and as tremors of ethnic violence pulsed Rwanda, Mitali moved to nearby Kenya and soon applied for an Israeli visa.
“It was my destiny,” he says.
THINGS 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 months wiped out nearly one million Tutsi – including 18 members of Mitali’s family.
From afar in Israel, Mitali grew up, toiling as a farmhand and playing guitar at the Soweto Club on Rehov Frischmann. When there wasn’t enough money, he did like many, and took to the land. Mitali says his time working on the kibbutzim throughout the country – from Na’an to Amirim, Ein Gedi to Achziv, and Shefayim, where he met his first wife – gave him a sense of self, a sense of worth.
Now he has come back, part of a surging Tutsi diaspora flooding home with money and purpose to rebuild a new Rwanda on top of the ruins. They are the followers of President Paul Kagame, who grew up, like Natty Mitali, in Uganda before leading a rebel group to end the genocide.
Last week, President Kagame won over 93% of the vote in Rwanda’s second presidential elections. Much of that support came from the returning Tutsi diaspora from across the world who believe in the president’s vision, rather than seek violent revenge, restrain that anger and rebuild Rwanda.
On the surface, that vision – and the families, money, expertise and connections that has come with the returning diaspora – has transformed Rwanda into a shooting star of the developing world, and Kagame to spokesman status.
With a reputation for security, seriousness and sense of urgency, the new Rwanda is soaring. Fiber-optic cables crisscross the rich, pregnant earth. Foreign investment is multiplying rapidly. Investors from Israel, South Korea, Japan, Cuba, Russia and Dubai are pouring in. America is advising the army.
The Chinese are too.
And deep in Rwanda’s south, between banana plantations and tea fields, Mitali is making his own contribution, the thing that helped him through the darkest times – his own self-styled kibbutz, the Amahoro Youth and Cultural Village.
DESPITE ALL OF Rwanda’s economic progress – its economy grew by 11% in 2008, and it is considered one of the least corrupt countries in Africa – much of its countryside remains poor, and very young.
On over 15 hectares along the southern tip of Lake Kivu in between Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo including two islands, Mitali is setting up a school for some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable – orphaned children, kids taking care of younger siblings with no one else to help, AIDS victims, and child survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
From carpentry to tourism, courses in ecology and music, Mitali is seeking to at once resuscitate life and help develop the country.
Over 70 students, in an admittedly Zionist – and Rastafari – fashion, will work, learn and live together, trying their best to live off the land.
“My time in Israel enlightened me,” Mitali says. “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 envisions a sanctuary – top-notch facilities from a medical clinic to agricultural farms, basketball courts to an eco-lodge. Students won’t just be taught in classrooms, they will receive vocational training.
The plans are coming along nicely – land has been donated by the government, a senior minister is helping advise the project, and architectural designs are being reviewed.
“We are looking forward to it,” says Fabien Sindayiheba, the mayor of Cyangugu district where the school will be. “It will create employability for its graduates, especially for the youth.”
True to the Rwandan spirit not to depend on handouts, Mitali argues, the school will be offering something to the outside. Students will spend time mastering nature conservation and eco-tourism, hallmarks of the national development strategy. A guest house and lodge will be run by the school on one of its islands in Lake Kivu.
“We are socialist on the inside and capitalist on the outside,” says Mitali. “The kibbutz will be a great weapon for fighting poverty.”
In many ways, Natty “Dread” Mitali, who wears his dreadlocks down to his waist and says Bob Marley named him Natty Dread, is an embodiment of a spirit and identity that is pervasive through the Tutsi diaspora returning to and rebuilding Rwanda.
If in the world Israel has a surrogate sister, Rwanda would be it, he feels.
Like Israel, Rwanda has become a “special country” for the international community, and a lightning rod for American financial and military support.
Like Israel, miniature Rwanda sports an influence far superior to its size. Both are surrounded by hostile, resource-rich neighbors in an insecure region. For Rwanda, too, a premium is on defense and security, and its armed forces are among the strongest in Africa. This has led to controversy on the continent, where Rwanda has been accused of supporting proxy militias in eastern Congo, both in a bid to capture genocide fugitives and also to control mineral sites.
And while both are strong allies of capitalism and American influence, Kagame’s Rwanda sees streaks of socialism. On the last Saturday of every month – unless a penalty is paid – every Rwandan performs outdoor community work called Umuganda; the grassroots Gacaca courts try genocide suspects under the shade of acacia trees; there is universal health insurance; most of the country’s prisoners serve their sentences paving roads, laying fiber-optic cables; upon completing secondary school, young boys attend Ingando solidarity camps.
“My inspirations – from kibbutzim and our old African way – is that people have collective farms, security, and responsibilities that make them strong,” says Mitali.
But the relationship goes far deeper than that.
According to historians and the government Web site, the Tutsi have been kings in Rwanda since the 15th century, when they first arrived and swiftly administered control over the more numerous Hutu.
During the colonial period under the Germans, and later the Belgians, differences between the two groups were polarized.
Noses and height were measured, skin color assessed and a racial policy was institutionalized in government. Philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed Africa was divided between “European Africa” and “Africa proper.” One popular theory embraced by colonial-era scientists, known as the Hamitic theory, is that the Tutsi originally came south from Ethiopia.
According to many in Rwanda, the Jews – and Rastafari – also come from Ethiopia, and the three countries form a loose ethnic alliance.
While the government downplays colonial influence and racial science as causes of the genocide, many in the Tutsi community have taken to it.
There is even an nongovernmental organization run by a Congolese Tutsi trying to find genetic evidence of the connection.
“You’ll hear people talking about the Rwandan black Jews,” says Mitali. “We are both small countries but with very strong peoples, dedicated to our existence.”
He isn’t the first to make that connection.
In 2009, the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, funded by Joint Distribution Committee and the Yemin Orde Youth Village south of Haifa, was opened in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. It is a sprawling complex of modern facilities including medical center, gymnasium, computer labs, wireless Internet and a sustainable farm.
“When I first learned of the terrible orphan problem in Rwanda, and that it was 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, and Israel today has no orphan problems,” says Anne Heyman, a South African-born lawyer who helped found the school.
ACCORDING TO ESTIMATES by survivor organizations in Rwanda, more than 1.5 million children were orphaned during the genocide. The first to arrive at Agahozo Shalom will be schooled in two unique educational philosophies: tikkun halev, artistic therapy, and tikkun olam, repairing the world through community service. While virtually all of the staff are Rwandan, they have been trained by Ethiopian Jews who themselves once lived at Yemin Orde after being airlifted to Israel in the late 1980s.
“The fact that [genocide] is a human condition and not singular to you, I think, gives you strength to stand up and fight it, wherever you can – it is, in fact, empowering,” says Heyman.
“The fact that Israel was where Rwanda is 50 years ago is an inspiration for a country that is now dragging itself out of the ashes of a genocide.
If Israel could do it, so can Rwanda.”
Rwanda differs from Israel in a most meaningful way. Some would call it an Israel “upside-down.” Rwanda is a land where three nations of people live on top of each other – the killers, the survivors, and the victors.
While the survivors of the Holocaust were given a homeland just to themselves, the situation in Rwanda has been compared to as if Jews ruled over Germany in 1945.
“Each moment of life reminds us of the genocide,” said Domtilla Mukantaganzwa, director of the country’s grassroots Gacaca courts. “I organized the first burial after the genocide in this country. I have been here the whole time; people were killed on every square meter.”
Though the capital, Kigali, is 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 multiparty democracy, critics say opposition parties are neutered and forced to to follow government policy. While journalists can work, there are narrow limits to what they can say. At times, reconciliation resembles a tense coexistence, a restrained compromise to not kill back.
“We forgive them now,” says Bosco Habimana, a DJ and former soldier who fought with President Kagame’s guerrilla movement that took over the country. “But let them try again.”
It takes a special sort of politics, a message that is at once silent and also a reminder.
The words Hutu and Tutsi are strictly banned from public use; to slander someone in such a way can put you in jail for decades. Yet in 2008 the constitution was amended to change the name of the genocide to the genocide against the Tutsi. Now, the word drips down from radio stations, citywide billboards and newspaper headlines.
The country is painted in national colors, patriotism is pop culture, Kagame’s face hangs behind desks. Under a sometimes intense pressure, the president urges both his government and people to stick together.
It’s a tall task. The region is unstable. While Rwanda has maintained a quiet peace since the genocide, across the border the aftereffects play out vividly. A UN-backed, Rwandaadvised Congolese military hunt for the genocidal killers has thrown eastern Congo into wild insecurity.
Mitali’s future youth village lies just nearby, across the border.
While Rwanda remains tightly secure, the long-term future hangs in an unsure balance.
But Mitali is fearless.
“At this moment it’s a little bit difficult,” he says. “But every passing day it’s getting easier. We need to preach against the hatred.
There are good people in the world and there are bad people. We are trying to be the good ones.”