Friday, October 28, 2011


Twitter or Google occasionally take one to a Rwanda hating blogger. There you quickly discover a mythology that democracy is stifled in Rwanda. The mythology generally reads as following. “The order and civility we experience in contemporary Rwanda is imposed. The government cleverly manipulates everything. All is watched. Underneath Kigali’s calm is a simmering pot of emotion ready to explode.” The evidence that is submitted is anecdotal and difficult to confirm. The mythology typically fits one’s prejudices about Africa in general and those leading Rwanda specifically.

Some of us push back on the mythology of Rwanda hating bloggers with research and our own anecdotal evidence. Some of the better Rwanda loving journalists and bloggers communicate that democracy can best be judged on how it functions in rather ordinary places such as the informality of discussions at schools, places of work, and bars. Can ideas and their consequences be discussed freely? Can the best ideas rise to the top simply in open market competition? Will the ridiculous be abandoned by the reasonable? Or can the reasonable conclude there are a variety of ideas and interpretations? Can we live in community when we are diverse? I believe we also must add churches to the list of informal democratic promoting institutions.

From my own anecdotal evidence of the humor of youth and church debate democratic community is thriving in Kigali.

I’ve pastored for a living off and on 22 years. People tell pastors their secrets. I hope it is not my pride, but I think I have good instincts for what ticks through the human heart and relationships. I’m also increasingly aware of my failings and the need for both my personal and community grace. I also read. In fact, some of my friends think too much. In the areas of theology, history, and the complexities of human relationships I think I generally have good instincts.

A few months ago in Kigali I noticed billboards placed all over town with an attractive young Rwandan couple. They were advocating condoms. I noticed that the young woman either had a missing tooth or a gap in her teeth. I crafted a story that I believe fits both my pastoral experience and relationship research. The conclusion I’ve reached is that cohabitating couples are more likely to experience domestic violence than those who are married. I argued that the young woman was missing a tooth because her boyfriend knocked her tooth out. I debated my presupposition on the KIST campus. I wrote a column about it for Focus. I discussed it at CCR. The debate has followed.

In the back of my mind I had two concerns. First, in a pastor making an argument that sought the ideals of human relationships I’d offend beyond measure powerful realists. The condom promoters would make my life miserable. That has not happened. Again, we should only fear God and have the courage to speak what we believe is true without the fear of man. Second, I remembered what it was like to be young, a bit bored, and exploring the use of humor in debate. If I had heard a pastor making fun of a young woman’s teeth on a billboard I would be tempted to at night use my creative powers to “improve” a few Kigali billboards. (Practically, I foresaw that a few young people might color braces or scratch teeth off of the pictures of young women on billboards.) It would be vandalism and not only illegal but unethical. Yet, in a society choosing to foster debate and discussion sometimes there are youthful excesses that are just part of the consequence of encouraging freedom.

Someone has been creative with some billboards along places my morning run takes me. A young woman on an MTN billboard developed braces on her teeth. The young woman on the condom promoting billboard had another tooth removed. I asked a few trusted young friends if owed MTN and the condom promoters an apology and restitution. Most responded, “No,” but a couple responded with a joke. I would never know. It is obvious that young people in Kigali feel the intellectual freedom to laugh and be excessive. Rwanda hating bloggers your conclusions that debate is so stifled that no one dares do the foolish don’t meet my tests of anecdotal evidence.

My second anecdotal evidence that democracy is thriving is church debate. Some believe that pastors are “great men of God” free from human failings. Thus their reasons and opinions are infallible. No one dare argue with a pastor. For those who live in this world of false fear the words of a Muzungu pastor are even more beyond refute. I believe pastors are simply men who have the good fortune to make a living by teaching, praying, and being people’s friend. Good luck (or providence) does not make one infallible. It makes one both lucky and accountable to a community. In a healthy community of faith pastor’s ideas are debated, discussed, refined, changed, improved, and occasionally discarded. God may use one man to rally a community to a vision, but He uses the community to make the vision practical.

A few in my church community have heard my appraisal of the condom promoting couple and said, “Reverend, we need to talk.” They’ve pointed out the holes in my arguments. They’ve encouraged me to live and write with greater grace. They’ve made our community wiser. They’ve made me a better pastor. They’ve been a good friend. In the end I still believe cohabiting increases the possibility of domestic violence, but I’ve learned not to judge so harshly. I think we’ve all learned that debate is healthy.

If the Rwanda hating bloggers are correct no one at KIST or CCR would have debated with me. They would have passively listened. If they did not agree with me they would have said nothing because they were too afraid. This has not happened. Instead, they’ve argued, we’ve laughed, and we are all wiser. Rwanda hating bloggers democracy in Rwanda lives in the humor of youth and church debate.

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