We traipsed into Amahoro Stadium, red dust pluming up from our footsteps, to join the surprisingly orderly lines where smartly outfitted police waited to inspect us and our belongings. After a thorough check, reunited with some of our KIE friends, we made our way into the bleachers, paper Rwandan flags in hand. The sense of pride in the stadium was infectious and I soon found myself jumping, dancing and waving my flag as though I’d always belonged here. To be honest, my time in Rwanda, besides the curious glances in the streets, has felt like home since my first step onto the tarmac at Kigali’s airport. Rwanda looks, smells, tastes and feels like my home in Montego Bay, Jamaica and I’m absolutely loving it.
Like Jamaica, Rwanda celebrates 50 years of independence this year. Most of us spent our day celebrating with thousands of others in a lively ceremony that featured performances from Rwandan superstars like J-Poly, traditional dance and drumming, demonstrations from the military and a rousing speech by President Paul Kagame.
I was struck by the palpable display of respect for President Kagame, affectionately called umusaza (The Big Man or Wise Man) by our Rwandese friends. Each person in the stadium sang along quietly with songs lauding their country for its freedom. My friends from KIE explained that the hushed tones were in order to show respect for the President and for the country. Even the marching band lowered its rousing melody to a murmur as the President strode past them. I was taken aback with the contrast between this quiet and prideful display and the American way of belting out the national anthem. I found myself, as is often the case here in Rwanda, humbled by the experience.
President Kagame’s speech reminded the country of its 50 years of independence from Belgium and its 18 years of liberation from the genocide. He contextualized the progress the country has made (they have the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world, 90% of Rwandans have health care, the GDP is up by 8.6%) and balanced this with the sobering reminder that many African countries still do not have equal standing on the international playing field.
After President’s motorcade made its way out of the stadium and we all began to mill through the crowd and back out into the streets of Kigali, I felt a sense of gratitude for every second in the stadium. We’d waited with our Rwandese friends, doing the wave, learning more Kinyarwanda, waving, singing, complaining a bit about the heat, but they had allowed us in (and graciously translated) to celebrate Rwanda. I walked down the street, thankful, and quietly singing to myself a song about Rwanda’s beauty and peace –
Genda Rwanda uri nziza
Oh humeka amahoro…