In his essay “What has literature got to do with it?” famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe connects the economic growth of post-war Japan to its cultural revival: “as Japan began the countdown to its spectacular technological lift-off, it was also systematically recovering lost ground in its traditional mode of cultural expression. In one sense then it was travelling away from its old self towards a cosmopolitan, modern identity, while in another sense it was journeying back to regain a threatened past and selfhood”.
Inspiration and guidance from the past often empower people with tools to deal with the present. Cultural heritage has the power to transform societies, strengthen communities and forge a sense of identity and belonging for people of all ages.
Culture can serve as a vector for youth development and engagement. According to the British Council report “Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth”, “when people engage with, learn from, value and promote their cultural heritage, it can contribute to both social and economic development”.
In Rwanda, World Jewish Relief has been engaging with young people. Our local partners have been teaching them new ways of thinking, behaving and working, and supporting them to build prosperous livelihoods. Together we are striving to modernise agriculture and make it attractive to young people. While this process requires new approaches, it is also essential that the traditional pride of the Rwanda farmer in their culture is restored. As Hirai Naofusa points out: “Traditional cultures need neither to reject modernisation nor to be absorbed by it. These two must harmonise and complement each other”. Scientific facts and reasoning are important but they often fail to inspire. Young Rwandan participants need to be reminded of their heritage through proverbs, metaphors and stories, that will motivate them to take action. And, as Sol Obotetukundo observed, these stories can inspire young people to persevere by celebrating “Africa’s dignity, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, enterprise, adventurism, and not docile reception of handouts of technologies from the industrialised nations”.
For Rwandan young people, the so called ‘Generation After’ as they were born after the Genocide Against the Tutsi in 1994, it is not easy to explore and connect with their heritage and cultural values. Not only because more than one million Rwandans were brutally murdered and until recently the average life expectancy was just 48 years old, but also because of the complexity of the country’s past and its raw, burning pain. As a Soviet child, to some degree I can understand this. Growing up, the most important historic event was the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler, the official narrative of which emphasised the heroism of Soviet citizens in the face of Nazi threat. But the parallel and no less terrifying tragedy that was unfolding in the USSR was not widely discussed until the 1990s, that Soviet authorities headed by Stalin murdered at least 15 million of their citizens. Gulag’s inmates were executed by their fellow citizens. This narrative has been and remains too confronting. There are victims and executioners in the same families.
For Rwandans, the topic of the Genocide which is so recent is understandably even more sensitive., Young people are striving to construct a new united Rwandan identity but for many it is a challenging task without really knowing their past. The narrative of both the government and the development community celebrates Rwandan youth as key drivers of future development. Rwandans’ desire to leave the terrifying events of the past behind is very understandable.
But it is important to remember that Rwanda is not equal to Genocide. There is much more to the country’s history and culture that could empower young people. There is cultural heritage in the form of oral traditions, performing arts, social practices and rituals. And there are people who can share their time-tested wisdom with the next generations.
In January 2020, charity Tearfund published a research report “Ageing in Rwanda”. Its Lead Researcher, Francis Davis pointed out: “Rwanda will increase its number of older people threefold over the next 30 years, yet so many of the country’s policy makers claim that the 'future is youth'.” The research uncovered “profound vulnerability, invisibility and intersectionality of needs of older people”. It described widespread loneliness and “very challenging mental health gaps, trauma and stigma affecting older people”.
This narrative is very familiar to World Jewish Relief. Almost 10 years ago, in addition to supporting older Jewish people in Eastern Europe to meet their basic physical needs, we started addressing their acute loneliness and social isolation. Most of them lost family members during World War II – in the Holocaust, in the armed forces, or the siege of Leningrad – and many never married. They have no children of their own, no nephews or nieces. As one older person put it “we managed to survive but were the last survivors of our families”. Mass emigration in the 90s from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to Israel and North America exacerbated the issue.
The turbulent post-Soviet years have not only left older people socially and economically vulnerable, but also lots of young people feeling cynical and less altruistic. There emerged a clear mutual need within Jewish communities. Older people needed the company of children and young people to overcome loneliness and children and young people needed to be involved with helping others and learning from their elderly to guard them from cynicism and desolation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has vastly intensified the plight of older people in the countries where World Jewish Relief works. In Rwanda the median age of the population is just 20 years old so, using our Ukrainian experience, we made intergenerational interactions a cornerstone of our Rwandan Covid-19 response. In September 2020 with ‘Rapid Response’ funding awarded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we launched a network of young facilitators and communicators to reach the most vulnerable members of society with information about Covid-19 prevention as well as masks, soap, food, and other basic items.
While I expected older people in Rwanda to experience abject poverty, their loneliness and social isolation still shocked me. I could comprehend loneliness in tall apartment blocks, where lifts are not working properly, neighbours keep moving elsewhere and constant traffic makes it impossible to get to Day Centres. I did not expect to find it in African villages, where I imagined older people to be supported by a wider family and community. Social norms are changing as people move away in search of work. In Rwanda, the situation is exacerbated by the Genocide as it wiped out so many of those who would now be caring for their elderly family members. For many young facilitators, prior to joining the project older people had been invisible. As “Ageing in Rwanda” pointed out, “Older people were not being treated badly, but they were not easy to find or to see at all, suggesting they were mostly at home – if indeed they had a home.”
Back in October 2020 I visited 80 year old Esironi, a very thin man with bright, expressive eyes above his mask. I had a brief look inside his tiny house made of mud bricks. His possessions could be counted on one hand but this did not seem to bother him. He welcomed the soap and rice that our project provided, but he was especially delighted that two energetic young women-facilitators had started visiting him regularly. He was desperate for human warmth. He had mastered living without the most basic provisions, but not without connection and closeness.
What started as a Covid-19 awareness and material distribution initiative, grew into something much more meaningful, for older and young people alike. Whilst these young people are very proud of modern Rwanda, they long to know more about the past and their roots. Young facilitators told me how deeply moved they were by older people’s warmth and openness, by their willingness to immediately treat facilitators as their grandchildren. The young people thought that older people would be embarrassed by their very modest dwellings and were surprised that their older friends were not bothered by their lack of material possessions. They were happy just to see young people and talk to them.
Older people supported by World Jewish Relief in Ukraine used to point out that talking about the war and their tragic experiences was not the best topic for connection and dialogue with young people. Subjects such as the games older generations used to play; how young women coped without makeup and what they used instead; how they made toys and decorations; how they celebrated their birthdays – all these were more helpful in building intergenerational rapport. The experience in Rwanda has been no different. Young and older people did not discuss famine, exile or violence. They talked about clothes, love, relationships – how in the old days they communicated without Whatsapp and left messages for their sweethearts written in the road dust.
According to research conducted in the UK by Leeds Metropolitan University, older people do not want to be treated as passive recipients of information, support and entertainment. They want meaningful activities which they can be involved in planning, developing and delivering with and for their peers. They want to be seen as a resource rather than a burden. But in the prevailing paradigm of thinking elderly people are seen as passive recipients. As a result, their condition of powerlessness is reinforced. This, in turn, has a negative influence on the perception older people have of themselves.
In Rwanda, our experience is echoing the findings of “Ageing in Rwanda”, that “Rwandan elders seek a retirement as mentors, cultivators, neighbours and citizens. Even the most vulnerable older people expressed their intense wish to retain their dignity, to make a contribution”. But the view of older people as “being dependent” is taking hold within society. The research is warning that “new urbanisations, family decay and an increasing materialism” will destroy cultural norms of family and community responsibility.
Here lies a profound opportunity to unleash the human spirit and enable older and young people to work together towards the development of their communities and countries. We must continue seeing older people as responsible adults capable of retaining their personal identity and autonomy, having a voice, and exercising choice and control in their lives. They have a lot to offer. We need to inhale the past in order to exhale the future.