Rwandans see Obama campaign as a beacon of hope

Jean Fichery Dukulizimana, Canwest News Service

Published: Saturday, October 18, 2008

BUTARE, Rwanda - In the small village of Rukozo in this east African nation, nobody subscribes to the Washington Post or gets CNN on satellite. TVs and radios are rare, the literacy level is low, and the people earn less than $1 US a day.

But they know who Barack Obama is. If they could, they'd vote for him.

"Muzungu Obama photo?" chants 11-year-old Jean Duhoranimana, when he sees foreigners come to town. 'Muzungu' is the Kinyarwanda word for 'white person.' Jean usually uses it to ask for money. This time, he's asking for pictures of the Democratic Party's candidate for president of the United States.

To many Rwandans, Obama is more than a political celebrity; he's a symbol of the unlimited social mobility at the heart of the American Dream - the son of a first-generation Kenyan-American, vying to become the most powerful person on earth.

In a nation so recently ripped to shreds by racial violence, the Barack Obama story is a universal source of inspiration.

"Obama is very smart and a true orator," says Julien Mahoro Niyingabira, 27, a fourth-year journalism student at the National University of Rwanda. The desktop photo on his computer shows Obama speaking to supporters. "I think America would be proud of having such a man in the White House."

Niyingabira has known about the senator since 2004. "Obama wants to end wars, because he knows his country can face an economical and political decline if it continues to invest in wars," he said.

His classmate, Alexandrine Mugisha, agrees. "I always pray for him, because I hope he is going change the world," she said.

Mugisha, who wears an Obama T-shirt, said she was inspired by Obama's speech Berlin last summer, during which he called for global efforts to defend democracy in Zimbabwe and to prevent a repeat of the bloody civil war in Sudan.

She said she hopes this election will bring change to Americans - and to Africa, too.

Students here at the National University of Rwanda spend hours searching the Internet for anything they can find about their hero. They distribute online copies of his nomination acceptance speech as if they're evangelical Christians spreading the gospel.

Jackson Kalisa, another student, holds in his hands l'Audace d'esperer, a French translation of Obama's book Audacity of Hope. He said his family are all fans. "Even my parents, older than 50," he said.

Mwumvaneza Willy Mugenzi, a visiting lecturer at the National University of Rwanda, attributes this "Obama effect" in Rwanda to the lingering unease in a nation grasping for hope in the face of an AIDS epidemic - and saddled with the legacy of the 1994 massacre, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis were butchered with machetes and clubs in a vast wave of ethnic cleansing driven by the majority Hutus.

To millions of Rwandans, Obama represents racial reconciliation and the promise of the rich world reaching out to the rest. For some, hopes are more modest.

Jean Duhoranimana's aunt, 50-year-old Bantegeye Emerence, lives on a small plot of land where she farms 10 hours a day for less than $20 a month. She listens to her nephews and nieces talk about Obama and hopes vaguely for a new life, although she doesn't exactly know how that will happen.

"At least he will give money to our president (Paul Kagame), and he will give us cows or goats."

For the Ottawa Citizen

Jean-Fichery Dukulizimana is a recent graduate of the school of journalism and communication at the National University of Rwanda. The program has been partly staffed by Canadian journalists since 2006, as part of the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership between Carleton University's journalism department and its counterpart in Butare. The Ottawa Citizen is a supporter of this effort.

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