Existing Narratives with their Pitfalls: Do Not Disturb

Wrong, Michela, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad. New York: PublicAffairs, 2021.

For the last few months, I have debated whether I wanted to read Wrong’s new book, Do Not Disturb. In one aspect, the book advertises how it examines the dark underbelly of Rwanda’s political institutions and exposes the ‘evils’ of President Paul Kagame. This might seem like an interesting read for the non-Rwandan researcher at their local bookshop. After all, Michela Wrong is an African novelist and journalist who is from the Global North -a term I use instead of the more common ‘West’-. While few would openly admit, there is something of comfort for readers when they read a book written by someone from the Global North criticising or exposing a nation within the Global South.

And that is where I encountered my greatest problem with the book. Dr Phil Clark provided a balanced review providing the book’s contents and deficits. The book focuses on former Rwandan elites, mostly within the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who had fallen from grace. Why they fell from grace is never mentioned but assumed because the RPF’s and Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, has done something evil which the defectors and their families couldn’t accept any more, so they left.

The two main defectors, but not only, which Wrong interviews are Patrick Karegeya and Kayumba Nyamwasa. Both were dominant figures within the RPF and the post-genocide Rwandan government. Wrong’s affection for these two figures often was not confined within their histories or personalities as the description of their physical characteristics seemed to go beyond what I would expect from a political book -take that as you want-. These two along with their families and a few others such as Seth Sendashonga are elevated as holy characters while Rwandans, especially President Kagame, are often described through derogatory stereotypes.

Beginning the book, I knew I would hold some issues with it. Such as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Rwanda, especially its politics, is often divisive with little middle ground. My research on Rwandan foreign policy tries to divert from this divide by focusing on what Rwandan, whether elites, bureaucrats or those within the civil society, perceive and how these perceptions and beliefs influence their engagement with the international community. So, I began reading this book knowing that there will be things I disagree with but such as when I read anything by Belgium scholar Filip Reyntjens – who I often disagree with-, with an open mind. But similar to what Clark writes, the Orientalism just threw me.

A wave of decolonising education has gripped many universities as of late. They are attempting, akin to many of the liberal ‘woke’ movements in much of the United States and other Global North countries, to try to diversify opinions and attempt to depart from the monopoly of knowledge held by Caucasian and typically male scholars. My own engagement with the movement can be seen in my desire not to condemn or praise within my writings Rwanda’s engagement with the international community, but instead, just illustrate and analyse what Rwandans think themselves.

Unlike some scholars, I don’t feel I know what is best for a society in which I have an American passport that can get me out of any trouble such as when expatriates departed Rwanda during the first few days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. But Wrong’s book illustrates how much more needs to be done in the Global North.

Reading the book, I not just felt tones of Orientalism but of what I am struggling to describe as other than racism against Rwandans and Tutsis -except for the blessed few she interviewed-. There are too many quotes I could show but to generalise, Rwandans are described as ‘sneaky’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘bloodthirsty’ and so on. Tutsis, while they are given a positive physical description, are described in even more of a negative light. I, who resides with Rwandans rather than expatriates when in Rwanda, felt angry on behalf of my Rwandan family. While I am sure that Wrong and her supporters -another issue of this book I will get to later- will dismiss notions of racism and instead chalk it up to words from others, there is an underlying tone that reads as racist. At one point in the book, perhaps a quarter of the way in, I gave myself a challenge.

I changed the word ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Rwandan’ with the word ‘Jew’. As someone who is proud of their ethnoreligious identity and experienced anti-Semitism in the past, I challenged myself in re-reading the book with the change of actor. I quickly became uncomfortable. It became such a disturbing feeling that I had to stop. I can’t stress enough how I am not accusing Wrong of being racist as I don’t know her personally but the writing in this book of Rwandans was to me, racist. The lack of nuance or analysis of Ugandan informants, who often had the most derogatory description of Rwandans, or even of her own positionality reinforced my notion of how this book contains racist undertones. When one looks down upon Rwandans -except for the chosen few- then it becomes easy to dismiss any positives of today’s Rwanda. Hard to say you are showing the proper respect for your subjects when you describe one -after previously establishing them as: “the bug-eyed, bucktoothed”.[1]

Maybe I am reading this book incorrectly. Its intended audience really isn’t for researchers trying to better understand Rwanda and its political complexities. Instead, it is just to reinforce existing critical narratives without listening to Rwandans inside the country. If this was a true attempt to provide new research and analysis on Rwanda’s political systems and defectors, there would have been a bit more self-study within the context of methodology and positionality of the author. This whole thing reminded me of an experience from a fellow colleague.

A colleague[2] once criticised my research as being problematic as it relied on the perceptions and beliefs of Rwandan elites and bureaucrats within the government as well as the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and those within the civil society. But as one can read themselves, the research focused on the perceptions and beliefs of those who crafted and enacted foreign policy. Of course, I was going to listen to these informants. However, the colleague told me, how Rwandans within the government will lie through their smiles. While I respected this colleague -so much so I am keeping his identity hidden-, what politician doesn’t lie or mislead to some extent? And more importantly, does this colleague think so little of me that they assume I won’t use different methodologies such as Discourse Analysis, Triangulation and so on to try to uncover the truth? I review my own inherent biases and positionality when interviewing Rwandans and analysing my collected data. Something I suspect this colleague won’t be saying to Wrong as it suits their existing narrative.

Perhaps one of the largest deficits of this book is how there is no, or at least it was minimal, examination of the biases and positionality of any of its informants. While this book had unique access to actors within the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), it never would believe that anyone within the RNC would have a less than stellar agenda. As I mentioned earlier, Wrong seemingly assumes that all defectors left Rwanda because of their high moral character. Embezzlement, corruption and personal -whether financial or political- reasons for leaving Rwanda does not factor within this book. No, it ignores a serious review of its informants. After all, the book is attempting to characterise post-genocide Rwandan development and President Kagame as evil -a strong word but I can’t think of anything better at the moment-. [False] claims of the assassination of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana are repeated with such certainty with no actually analyse of the claims and logistics.

To be a bit flippant, why do that when you can just unquestionably trust actors despite their questionable motives? They are telling you exactly what you want to hear. They are helping you to say that President Kagame is all the problems facing Rwanda when that is at the very least reductionist and problematic to claim. As I write in the next paragraph, Rwanda isn’t perfect. But these reductionist claims ignore real issues facing Rwandans that many other nations experience as well. My previous colleague should ask Wrong whether she is just being lied to through smiles by people with their own motives and desires. As Clark writes, her access to the RNC is a great strength but also a weakness.

Above all else, why is this book problematic? I can say the inherent racism, the bias sources or how it seeks to justify its own conclusions rather than have a well-structured, well-analysed and well-developed argument. But I think what is most problematic is how Rwandans will respond. Rwandans often complain to me about the demonisation they experience by Global North researchers. Many feel that Global North researchers come to Rwanda -often for relatively short periods- to justify their existing conclusions within a simple narrative -something I try not to do-.

Within Rwanda, the simple narratives are often incorrect. Rwanda is a complex nation that is only twenty-seven years removed from a horrific genocide. I write this not to use the [outdated and problematic] guilt card narrative but how books like Wrong and others just turn away Rwandans from the Global North. It isn’t only President Kagame who will snap when confronted by overly critical or repetitive criticism from the Global North of their country. Rwandans have pride and are rather pragmatic. Engage with that and you will receive a much more constructive response.

Some might call this naïve, but I honestly do believe that if Wrong went to Rwanda -she has been there several times since the genocide but not over the last number of years- with an open mind and asked Rwandans their opinions, she would receive something she wouldn’t expect. She would receive the truth of how Rwandans have their problems with their government. But life is generally better now than before, whether that is during the past regimes, the 1994 genocide or even just ten years ago. I first visited Rwanda in 2008 where I had the privilege to travel across the country. Since that first trip, I have gone back many more times -perhaps seven or eight times for periods ranging from one to six months- and lots have changed with social infrastructure being one of those things. Even Rwanda’s political dynamics have changed which I hope I have a chance to write on [within academic writings] in the near future.

Rwandans, once they trust you, will share their opinions. That engagement of trust involves us within the Global North to understand our positionality and biases. A great first step is for us to provide assistance but not lecture to Rwandans on how they should proceed in their nation’s development. If those within the Global North engage with respect rather than just condemn, they will find it easier to reach their desired outcomes for Rwanda. Maybe that is just too much of a fantasy at the moment with all the divisions in Rwandan studies. Those within the Global North who are critical of President Kagame and Rwanda as a whole will enjoy this book. It reinforces their existing narrative with little to add. However, I don’t think many in Rwanda will care to read it. These are just my thoughts from my first read-through of Wrong’s book, Do Not Disturb.

It’s not all bad, at least she spelt President Paul Kagame’s name correctly.

[1] The person Wrong is describing here is General Jack Nziza, a man who I had met with a few times during my own research, (Wrong, 2021, 56).

[2] Despite not traveling to Rwanda for over a decade, that does not stop them from writing on Rwanda’s politics and society.

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