Angelique Gasaro said she flew to Boston from her home in Naples, Fla., this weekend to attend Rwanda Day, eager to hear a keynote speech by the nation’s president, whom she credits with turning around her homeland, economically and emotionally, since the 1994 genocide that slaughtered nearly a million people.
Though she has lived comfortably in America for nearly 20 years, she is now thinking of returning to Rwanda with her identical twin sister, and reviving 20 acres of her family’s farmland that was abandoned when the tribal conflict erupted.
“I can’t believe how much the country has progressed. People have moved on,” said Gasaro, 39, as she was seated Saturday next to her mother at the Westin Copley hotel lobby. “You wouldn’t believe there was a genocide there.”
Much as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was widely hailed by this gathering of some 2,000 participants, largely from the United States and Canada, not all Rwandans shared a positive view of him. Kagame has been depicted by critics as ruling with an iron fist and suppressing free speech, and on Saturday, several dozen protesters at nearby Copley Square this weekend reflected that assessment with placards reading “He’s a criminal!”
Kagame has also been under fire by some international groups for alleged human rights violations committed soon after he took power in the mid-1990s, and accused of protecting a former warlord from Congo who was indicted by an international court.
When Kagame took the ballroom stage in the afternoon, however, the crowd made its sentiments clear, giving him a standing ovation and waving tiny Rwandan flags. They applauded as he talked about how Rwanda has one of the most robust economies in Africa, drawing international investments and improving the economic lives of ordinary citizens.
“Progress invites detractors,” he said. “Still, that’s fine. I have no problem with detractors. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”
The crowd laughed when he called his critics “empty drums” that make even more noise the emptier they are. He suggested that many critics blame Rwanda for problems it cannot control, including political strife in neighboring Congo.
He struck some softer notes, too, saying that he is not a perfect president, nor is the country a perfect nation. While pointing to many measures of progress in the country, he added, “We are ready to own up to our imperfections.”
He rallied the gathering of Rwandans living outside their homeland to do what they can to support Rwanda, build a strong national identity, and to help others fully understand the complicated history of the small nation, which is about the size of Massachusetts with about twice as many people.
“You must continue to tell the story of your country,” he said. “If you don’t, someone else will and they’ll do it the wrong way.”
One graduate student, who came from Virginia to attend the event, said he believes the president has helped improve the lives of Rwandans, including by helping reduce the tribal identities that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths of the minority Tutsi tribe at the hands of the warring Hutus. Several participants said they routinely decline to identify their family’s tribal identity, saying it is based on an outdated way of thinking.
“We’re all Rwandans,” said Olivier Buhigiro, 24. “We don’t have to look at Tutsi or Hutu. We want to be Rwandan.”
Samson Nshimiyimana, 20, was among those who don’t talk about their ancestors’ tribal affiliations.
“We need to live together,” he said.
The two-day event sought to emphasize the country’s attractiveness for economic investment, and booths lined the outside of the ballroom promoting business opportunities in this east African nation. Bobby Sager, a philanthropist from the Boston area and an honorary official at the event, made a point of telling the gathering during the speech that Kagame was honored with the Global Leadership Award from an international organization of top company presidents.
Meanwhile, outside the hotel gathering at Copley Square, protesters carried photos of jailed members of Rwanda National Congress who they say are being incarcerated for their anti-Kagame stance. They said the nation’s economic progress is due largely to an influx of foreign aid, and not grounded in a true democracy. Critics also rallied against the president during a Rwanda Day in Chicago.
As protesters chanted, Sam Mbanda, 41, a Boston resident who runs a transportation business and grew up in Rwanda, observed from across the street near the Boston Public Library and shook his head. He was part of a group honoring Kagame with a banner featuring his photo and the words, “Welcome to Boston, Mr. President.”
As for improvements to the day-to-day lives of the ordinary residents of Rwanda, he said, “every day is getting better.”