On November 3, the Harvard Political Review published an article titled “Renaissance for Rwanda’s Dogs.” This article hailed an apparent positive shift in the Rwandan perception of dogs. The article first references the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and its aftermath as context to claim that since the genocide, Rwandans have had a “widespread aversion” to dogs. It then jumps to the present and claims that thanks to “American and European expats,” i.e. white expats, whose population size has been growing in recent years, Rwandans are being introduced to “dogs as companions for the first time.” The article calls this a cultural shift that “[reflects] broader dynamics around Westernization and development in Rwanda.”
Not only is this narrative plain false, it is deeply offensive. As a son of genocide survivors who grew up in post-genocide Rwanda, I was not only surprised by this article’s push for a false and problematic narrative concerning Rwandans’ relationship to dogs, but I found the use of the genocide and its aftermath to magnify these unfounded claims troublingly insensitive.
My first objection is the notion that white expats are shifting the way Rwandans perceive dogs. The very claim that the love for dogs in Rwanda is a new trend is unfounded, let alone the claim that white expats are shifting Rwanda’s perception of dogs. I grew up in a low income family in Kicukiro, Rwanda. Since the 2000s, my siblings and I have had three dogs, and this was not unusual for a typical family in the capital city, Kigali. There were many other dogs in my neighborhood, including strays, household dogs, and guard dogs. Yes, as in any society, there were cases of dog abuse and mistreatment but those were exceptions and not a trend. The claim that Rwandans had a “widespread aversion” to dogs prior to this new “cultural shift” initiated by white expats is unfounded. This article did not include extensive research on the topic but instead only had interviews from workers in dog rescue non-profit founded by Canadians. It was clear to me that this article was propagating a specific narrative that corroborates false assumptions and undermines Rwandans’ relationship with dogs while magnifying the importance of white expats.
My second objection to this narrative is that even if these claims were true, linking this apparent cultural shift to “Westernization and development” is disturbing. The notion that Africans are developing the more they reflect Western ways of life and adopt Western cultures is at the very least a sign of Western cultural imperialism and it is not new. For years, this is the same ideology that has been used to defend European colonialism and subsequent imperialist tendencies towards African nations. It is based on the belief that African development and cultural advancement should reflect white American and European culture. This belief is, at its core, racist.
What frustrates me most, however, is the fact that the article references the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and its aftermath to promote an unfounded narrative. Throughout the article, the genocide is continuously mentioned as the reason behind the alleged aversion of dogs in Rwanda. The article uses this important part of Rwanda’s past as an easy way to push a poorly-sourced narrative. This may not sounds significant to an average non-Rwandan reader, but for many Rwandans, the psychological and spiritual wounds of the genocide are still fresh. Twenty-five years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, millions of Rwandans are still dealing with the effects of the genocide and many, including my family members, are still struggling with its psychological trauma.
Reading an article which uses the pain and loss of millions of Rwandans as a hook to promote a poorly sourced narrative about dogs in Rwanda was personally hurtful. It trivialized the countless lives of Rwandans who were massacred in the genocide and the trauma of genocide survivors.
This type of insensitive reporting is, unfortunately, not new. A good example is the 1994 New York Times article that covered the genocide against the Tutsi as it was happening. This article’s focus was on the safety of 2,850 Americans and Europeans in Rwanda, while hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were being killed on the ground. To this day, there is still persistent careless and insensitive coverage of African issues in Western media mostly driven by ignorance and, sometimes, by racist assumptions.
African stories deserve nuanced and thorough reporting. As Harvard students and future leaders, we must be conscious of our biases and seek to report accurately and fairly. Failure to do so will produce insensitive, detrimental and, at times, racist narratives that affect the subjects of our reporting. Publications like the Harvard Political Review should be held to the same standard whether reporting African issues or Western ones.
Bruce Gatete '20 is a Computer Science concentrator in Dunster House.