I was still excitedly waggling my feet in the acres of legroom and ransacking the freebie bag when an imposing African man plonked himself down beside me. He leaned over me (in what I couldn’t help considering a clear violation of my personal space) and loudly introduced himself as a humanitarian fund-raiser from Rwanda. A very surreal and uncomfortable conversation ensued. He fired a startling array of questions at me, as if I were the oracle of all things British - from the constitutional status of Scotland to the origins of Greenwich Mean Time! I ploughed on valiantly but harboured an uncomfortable suspicion that this educated and well-travelled man was purposely trying to expose how little the average Brit appreciates their history and cultural origins…certainly he couldn’t have done a better job.
He referred frequently to Europe’s complacency about living in peaceful times, with many of us taking for granted the personal freedoms and opportunities in our daily lives. Just as I was feeling increasingly uneasy, he mercifully turned his attention to his homeland. This was a real wake-up call for me about the reality of Africa’s recent history. He talked passionately in a mixture of English and French about Rwandans’ daily struggle for survival, in a country still healing and rebuilding after years of civil war. I have only hazy memories of TV images from the genocide in 1994 in which an estimated one million people were slaughtered within a three month period. Faced with somebody who has lived through such unimaginable horror, I struggled to know what to ask without sounding crass. This was the first of many such instances in Africa where I realised I had no point of comparison and no idea what might be appropriate questions.
Despite Rwanda’s dark past and huge challenges that remain, I was in awe at this man’s sense of national identity, commitment to the future of his homeland and his compatriots. The comparison to the way I had falteringly attempted to convey a sense of British identity was striking. I began to feel less aggrieved by his implication that most of us remain oblivious to ‘how the other half live’ and thought how self-indulgent and carefree my life must seem to him. Our conversation was an apt reminder that I must make the most of this trip that my Western lifestyle has afforded me.
I’m also glad to have provided him with one anecdote to add to his international fund-raising speeches. It transpired that the amount of money BA had offered me to fly the following day was the same amount required to build a house in Rwanda for 10 people – a sobering thought.