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Rwanda dispatches: A land known for genocide, gorillas and promise

(In November, KPLU's Humanosphere writer Tom Paulson traveled to Rwanda on a grant from theInternational Reporting Project to explore how that African country has risen above its troubled past to become an economic bright spot on the continent. Below is Tom's wrapup and links to the stories he wrote about Rwanda.)

Traveling with a dozen or so other journalists on a fact-finding visit to Africa’s “success story” – Rwanda – we took time out to go visit the famous mountain gorillas.

One young silverback sort of half-heartedly charged us (see the video below) and later the alpha male doubled back on us on a trail in a bamboo thicket, crossing by me less than a foot away.

I was awestruck at the beauty and power of these creatures, and a not at all worried. The guides had informed us that so long as we behaved according to their instructions, nothing would go amiss. Good thing I didn’t learn until we had finished the tour that one of the gorilla experts had been bitten in the leg by one of the silverbacks.

It’s rare, she told us, but you never can tell ...

That’s not a bad mantra for my visit to Rwanda. You never can tell. After the 1994 genocide and a civil war that nearly destroyed this country, Rwanda has been experiencing rapid economic growth.

It’s still a poor country but many of its social, health and educational statistics are on a rapid upswing. More women hold elected office in its parliament than any other country in the world. The government is widely lauded for its efforts to improve social welfare and for its crackdown on corruption.

At the same time, it’s not the best place for freedom of speech.

While I was there, three journalists were arrested. One exiled Rwandan journalist was reported killed in Uganda last week. Rwandans privately tell us it’s risky to criticize the government of war hero President Paul Kagame.

Some of Kagame’s former supporters say he has become something of a dictator. Others defend him saying, basically, Rwanda is not Wisconsin. It’s easy to talk about freedom of speech and democracy in abstraction. But it’s not as easy to make it work in a country where the media was once a primary vehicle fanning ethnic hatred and genocide.

It’s not easy when enemy militias sit just across the border, in DR Congo, waiting to exploit signs of weakness.

I’ve written some stories based on my visit to fascinating, enigmatic and beautiful Rwanda. I’ll do more over the next few weeks.

Check out the stories through this map created on the social Website Intersect (or through the list below):

Here are the stories in the order they were published:

The host of the Humanosphere community is Tom Paulson, who spent 22 years reporting on science and medicine at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Tom was one of the first daily news reporters to cover the topic of “global health” (a much-debated label which he discusses the merits of on the Humanosphere website).