Walk down the streets of Kigali and you’ll be hard pressed to find the usual throngs of loiterers, drunks, and glue sniffers that blend into the background of many an African city.  Visitors to the Rwandan capital are often taken aback by the level of cleanliness and the feeling of personal safety they find in the city.  Travel sixty miles west and they will find Iwawa Island: situated in the middle of Lake Kivu, just one mile from the volatile Congolese border.  Depending on whom you ask, the island lies somewhere between an Alcatraz-like prison and a luxurious rehabilitation centre for troublesome youths.  Most of the island’s inhabitants find themselves quickly enrolled in one of several training programmes the Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Centre offer, ranging from motorcycle mechanics to beekeeping.  Search for Iwawa on Twitter and you’ll find several Tweets from Kigali’s political elites showing off various success stories of the island’s rehabilitation programme.  Similarly, the closely watched Rwandan media hail Iwawa as something of a shining star in Rwanda’s justice system, worthy of international admiration.  Yet when out of earshot of state authorities, you might be given a very different description of Iwawa.         

Image courtesy of Philip Kromer, © 2006, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Philip Kromer, © 2006, some rights reserved.

To Iwawa’s critics, the programme deserves an entirely different reception from the international community.  Other than ‘Rwanda’s Alcatraz’, the island has come to be known by many as the ‘Island of Shame’ or even the `Island of No Return.’ Given the steady stream of ‘graduates’ of the Iwawa programme, the latter of these aliases is perhaps a little inaccurate, but it does reflect the sense of foreboding that accompanies the island for many Rwandans.  An article in The New York Times written shortly after the rehabilitation centre’s inception in 2010 told of children as young as fourteen being whisked away to the island without so much as a word to their parents, let alone a trial for the petty crimes they were accused of. The article in question describes what seem to be the fairly bleak living conditions on the island, with boys sleeping side by side with men in large shacks of corrugated metal, without so much as a mosquito net to protect them in an area rife with malaria.[1]  Since that articles publication, there has been little coverage of Iwawa in the media outside various sycophantic African publications.  So on which side of the coin does Iwawa truly lie: prison or rehab?          

The answer is probably both.  While conditions on the island have improved slightly for its students/patients/prisoners, the fact remains that they are not there by choice.  It is fair to say that Iwawa is faced with something of an identity crisis.  ‘Social deviants’ are taken there by police without trial or consultation, to live with other ‘social deviants,’ none of whom are allowed to leave, and yet apparently it’s definitely not a prison.  Nevertheless, before we write Iwawa off as just another African state’s questionable means of tackling the criminal justice system, it does have one saving grace.  Despite initial stumbling blocks, graduates of the various training programmes on offer have experienced remarkable levels of success in their rehabilitation.  A reported 95% of graduates leave the island rehabilitated with very few returning to their lives on the streets.  However, there do remain several teething problems for the programme.  Given that graduates’ newly learned skills are often best catered for in the urban city, there is often a misallocation of funds aimed at assisting with putting these skills to good use.  Funding is directed to the boys’ home districts, where the rural community may have a purely agricultural focus, offering very little in the way of a market for mechanics or hairdressers. 

What is clear is that Iwawa fits in nicely with a broader theme of Rwandan governance.  The current regime under President Paul Kagame has made it something of a habit to sweep the country’s problems to one side, well away from public view.  Those who question the regime or stray too far from their pre-approved account of Rwandan history soon find themselves silenced in one way or another.  The issue of race in Rwanda is understandably one of great sensitivity.  Since the 1994 genocide, it has become a completely taboo subject in Rwanda.  Kigali has taken a hard-line constructivist approach to the issue of tribalism and race in Rwanda, leaving zero space for ordinary people to identify with their ethnicities in a primordial sense.  Kagame and his cronies justify their attitude to race as a means of avoiding the tensions that have fuelled ethnic violence in Rwanda since 1959.  Yet conveniently for Kagame, this policy also prevents questions being asked of the ethnic make-up of his government.  Since the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) won the civil war in the midst of genocide, the government has remained dominated by Tutsi politicians and former rebels.

Wherever you see Iwawa on the spectrum that ranges from ‘remote island prison’ to ‘rehabilitation centre’, it is important to keep in perspective how it fits into modern Rwanda.  The country and its watchful President have become something of a darling of the West in recent years.  A mixture of post-genocide guilt and respect for Kagame’s commitment to lifting his country out of the mire that other central African states find themselves in have made Rwanda a favourite for international aid donors.  As such, his methods of maintaining control in a once volatile country are often overlooked by international observers.  Even amongst the Rwandans who live under his stern authority, last weeks landslide electoral victory for Kagame’s RPF would suggest the vast majority still have absolute faith in their government to continue providing them with a peaceful and prosperous Rwanda.  Yet as the genocide becomes an increasingly distant memory, the West’s sense of guilt that stems from having done so little to prevent it will begin to fade.  As it does so, Kagame will find he has greater difficulty in maintaining the fine line he treads between dictator and visionary.  Should he fall the wrong way, it is not unlikely the international community will start to take a very different view of places like Iwawa Island.



[1] Gettleman, J., 2010. Rwanda Pursues Dissenters and the Homeless. The New York Times [online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/01/world/africa/01rwanda.html?_r=0 [Accessed 20/09/2013].