RWANDA Country Studies: A brief, comprehensive study of Rwanda
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East African prospects: an update on the political economy of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda
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Study Masters in Rwanda
View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. JEL classification alert. Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. An insightful analysis of a similar problematic can be found in Jennie E. Their hesitance to share memories and the omissions created in their testimonies were just as charged with meaning as the words they actually spoke.
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Yet in other cases, secrecy has been understood as signs of resistance, encrypted in for example cultural forms like story-telling and riddles Ferme, ; Martin, This entailed a constant struggle to try to distinguish fact from fiction and rumours from actual past and present occurrences. Although my research assistants were of invaluable help, I, as well as they, still struggled with trying to understand the meaning of cryptic responses and subtle indications. Within the international aid community, more or less serious rumours circulated among Americans and Europeans about spies on the street, video cameras in restaurants, and planted microphones in certain hotels.
The same rumours were ample among my Rwandan friends and informants, with the difference that these latter often referred to actors and systems of hidden surveillance in their local communities. I was often reminded of the fact that asking questions was simply not something you did in Rwanda.
A pertinent problem with questions, I found, was that they raised suspicion. When my close friends and research assistants censored my questions or advised me to act or formulate myself in certain ways before persons I knew less well, it was almost invariably to save me from raising suspicion, not to help me show respect or sensitivity.
For the same reason — trying not to attract suspicion — I rarely came to take any photographs of my surroundings. In my absence, it happened that my research assistants were addressed by local authorities about my research.
Unintentionally, I placed several persons in situations where they feared state repercussions because they had happened to accompany me as I had approached state authorities with questions that they deemed in hindsight to be too political. For example, not far into my fieldwork, I found myself expected to serve both as an advocate or a spokesperson of the Itorero programme, and as a channel of voice and source of empathy for persons who feared and opposed that very same programme. Several Itorero stakeholders, especially members of the programme Taskforce and employees of the NURC, saw me as a potential ambassador for the Itorero programme.
As a researcher, I could tell the academic world about the good intentions and benefits of the programme through the publishing of my research results. Although I was never allowed to attend any management meetings held either by the Itorero Taskforce or the NURC, I was encouraged to work for the programme as an intern. While I did come to help out with a few minor tasks, I declined to take on the formal responsibility that an internship would imply.
Nevertheless, during some Itorero trainings, not only was I publically used as an example of a role model trainee, I was even introduced as an employee of the Itorero Taskforce managing the programme. Hardly surprisingly, then, I came to discover that Itorero participants at various sites had initially mistaken me for a representative or staff member of the Itorero programme. As a foreigner in Rwanda, an easy way to do this is simply to show up for and take part in the many community-level civic duties that are compulsory for all Rwandan citizens.
By participating in sessions of collective, manual labour, attending village meetings and paying local fees and taxes on time, I soon found myself being used as a show case of a model citizen by the local authorities. I was also pointed out as a potential or indirect member of the government party.
Many times, the neighbourhood authorities, both publically and in private, asked me to join the Rwandan Patriotic Front. If I joined, they argued, many others would follow.
It may however have implied the distancing of some of my neighbours. Possibilities to build relationships of trust with persons who were not affiliated with the Itorero programme depended on my ability to empathise with them also. And many of them were rather critical of the programme, as well as of the government at large. Some lived in fear of what they saw as a coercive, politicised and punishing state.
In me, they found a potential whistle blower who could lift the lid on the forms of state oppression, repression and surveillance that they were exposed to, but too afraid to speak out about. Much is at stake for any Rwandan who voices critique of certain political truths, or who shows support for political taboos. They believed that making my acquaintance implied that the authorities were keeping an extra eye on them.
Similarly, Itorero stakeholders and other government representatives believed that they took risks in allowing me access to the workings of a government agency they knew was questioned and criticised, not the least by certain foreigners. Hence they, too, hoped for some sign of reciprocity. While there is certainly much truth in this, my usual response was rather to downplay my role as any kind of potential or actual intervener. I insisted that my task as a researcher was primarily to listen and try to understand.
Most people accepted this, at least formally and at least in the beginning. But, of course, as time passed and our relationships deepened, expectations were raised that I should take sides with them, defend them, and most importantly, show sympathy for their cause. The risks affiliated with this enclicage , Olivier de Sardan writes, concern the tendency of the researcher to end up defending or advocating the interests and ideas of certain informants.
This, in turn, may close the door to other informants who do not share those same perspectives and interests. That programme included a component of civic education that is widely seen as the forerunner of the Itorero programme, and that is generally managed by the NURC, the same institution hosting the Itorero Taskforce.
Hence, a few of my colleagues at the Swedish embassy were familiar with certain people among the staff managing the Itorero programme. Personal experiences at the NURC of good professional relations with Sida, and possibly also anticipations of additional Swedish funding, may very well have facilitated my access to the workings of the Itorero Taskforce. Accommodating a researcher who had been a former employee of a foreign donor agency which had collaborated with them earlier was probably seen as an opportunity to promote the Itorero programme within strategic areas of the foreign aid community.
Therefore, it is important to ask oneself as a researcher which voices one listens to and how one accesses these voices. For me, this became evident in instances such as when persons I did not know contacted me after having heard about my background as a former Sida employee who was now collaborating with the Itorero Taskforce. Persons critical of the programme and of the many foreign states supporting the Rwandan government may have been dissuaded from confiding in me due to my affiliation with a donor agency known to pursue state-to-state cooperation with Rwanda and its many public institutions.
Once we settled in Kigali and started to work with the government, we wholeheartedly bought into the dominant political rhetoric on economic development and good governance. I tried to lessen the weight of my affiliation with Sida and the international donor community, and instead emphasise my professional role as a researcher. In doing so, I hoped to convince my informants that my academic position offered independence from any political constraints or financial opportunities that may otherwise have influenced my analysis.
To what extent I came about as convincing probably depended on whom I was addressing. In densely populated and intensely surveyed societies such as Rwanda, commitments to anonymity and confidentiality can be very challenging. Yet, due to the political polarisation of Rwandan society, anonymity and the ability to keep secrets are critical for any field researcher. For me, it came to require a daily routine of choosing my words carefully, where the truth was but one of several selection criteria.
In light of my experience of having to auto-censor my words and restrain my involvement as a researcher, I believe that Rwanda is a good example of how anthropological engagement also hinges on simultaneous forms of disengagement. Such disengagement, meanwhile, certainly poses its own risks. For example, building trust in Rwanda, I found, much depended on my willingness to share with my interlocutors information about my own life, my background and my work.
Yet, due to my obligation to protect the confidentiality of what had been shared by other informants, I sometimes had to refuse answering seemingly innocent questions, such as what my plans were for the afternoon or where I had been to attend a public meeting.
These forced silences may certainly have raised suspicions among some persons. On the other hand, they helped me to understand why people I came to know sometimes felt compelled to avoid answering questions which at first glance seemed perfectly innocent to me.