In 2006, while serving as the country director for the Peace Corps in Cameroon, I asked our staff to gather in the conference room for a special, all-hands meeting. My wife and I had recently watched Hotel Rwanda and were deeply affected by it. I wanted to know what our staff of 32 Africans - a staff that included members of 15 different ethnic groups, French speakers, English speakers, Christians, Muslims, traditional believers and some of the most highly educated and highly paid people in Cameroon - thought of the carnage that took place in Rwanda in 1994. I wanted to know if Hotel Rwanda could happen in then peaceful Cameroon.
When the film ended, the staff answered my question with one voice and one word. "Tomorrow," they said it could happen.
I was disappointed but not surprised to hear this. Bordered by perpetually unstable countries like Chad, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic, Cameroon prides itself as an "island of peace." During the five decades since it received its independence, Cameroon's more than 200 ethnic groups have lived peacefully side-by-side with only rare and brief outbursts of hostility. Yet while traveling throughout the country, I had heard many barely muffled statements of resentment at this group or that, and particularly at President Paul Biya who has been masterful at juggling so many competing ethnic interests while reining over them since 1982.
After the film, I asked everyone to complete a short questionnaire. I wanted to know what they thought they would do in circumstances similar to the ones faced by Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of Hotel Rwanda. I wanted to know what they thought their fellow Cameroonians would do. And I wanted to know what could ignite such a problem, what could prevent it, and what they thought the world would do if Cameroon ever went to war with itself as have so many countries in Africa.
The staff's answers were depressingly pessimistic. Few had any hope that their fellow Cameroonians would stand up like Paul Rusesabagina did. Or that the international community would lift a finger to help them. Most thought that even a relatively minor event could plunge Cameroon into Rwanda-like chaos. Their concern was validated in late February 2008 when a taxi strike quickly spun out of control and was put down only when the military was called in. Though the chaos lasted just three days, as many as 100 people may have died.
A few days after the Peace Corps/Cameroon staff viewed Hotel Rwanda, I reported their reactions at an Americans-only meeting at the US Embassy.
In a country famous for its people's willingness to argue furiously over the most trivial minutiae, the diverse staff at Peace Corps/Cameroon had been unanimous in its opinion that an ethnically driven conflagration could happen in Cameroon at anytime.
That didn't convince the Americans at the embassy. "Couldn't happen here" was their uniform response as they ticked off the statistical and ethnic differences between Cameroon and Rwanda. Two years later, that prediction didn't prevent the Embassy from going to "authorized departure" as soon as the 2008 taxi strike broke out, meaning any U.S. government employee could leave the country at government expense, together with his or her family members, if they felt uncomfortable or threatened by the short-lived turmoil in the streets.
On-going political mayhem has already set Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Sudan and several other African nations back decades and has the potential to destroy them as functioning states. These days even the most stable, promising and economically robust countries in Africa stand upon foundations that are often little more than thin veneers.
More than AIDS, malaria, malnutrition or childhood diarrhea, nothing has done more to retard Africa's economic development than inter-ethnic resentment and violence, which is often fueled by irresponsible, self-serving and intensely partisan megalomaniacal leaders. The list is long: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia/Eritrea, plus now once stable and prosperous Kenya, and perhaps soon Madagascar and South Africa.
Every year, the international community spends billions to combat disease and promote economic development in Africa, but it does almost nothing to encourage people toward the simple goal of living together in harmony. It does nothing to educate African populations that fighting over the little they have will likely result in everyone having even less. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to Africa - think Kosovo, Chechnya, the marginalized suburbs of France and even Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating - but it is in Africa that these sovereign self-immolations seem to occur most often.
What is particularly infuriating is that time and again, as ethnic and political tensions begin to simmer - with tragic consequences looming ahead as predictably as the iceberg in front the Titanic - the international community, which consists of the World Bank, the IMF, the European Union, regional organizations like the African Union, and the major diplomatic missions, invariably says that only the local community can resolve its problems. When locals beg them to intervene, their response is invariable. "We are not the police,” they say. “The local community must come together to find lasting solutions to their problems."
Never mind the decades that have passed while Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan, China and Tibet, and countries in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucuses and elsewhere have violently tried and mainly failed to find lasting local solutions to their problems.
As regards Africa, this benign washing of hands goes on, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months or years, until the smoldering chaos explodes into a firestorm of murder, rape, and destruction that lands an otherwise little-known, off-the-radar country on front pages around the world. Then, once the flames die down, the same international community that declined to intervene gathers at a luxurious destination - typically in a snowy, mountainous part of Europe – to pass the hat and collect hundreds of millions, often billions, for rebuilding and perhaps a one-time only round of heavily monitored elections.
While the international community diplomatically declines to play the role of the police, a role that might resolve a problem before it develops into a catastrophe, it is always ready to come in and play the part of the deep-pocketed parent, ready to help the wayward adolescent who steadfastly ignored advice not to play with matches.
Irony, however expensive, is, unfortunately, lost on the international community.
Equally unfortunate is that no matter how many examples show that acting out on ethnic suspicions is an extremely costly way for a country to achieve equality and harmony, this incredibly destructive societal psychosis occurs over and over again.
I think there's a better way. And a much cheaper way.
In Africa, a free movie still brings people together like nothing else.
Hotel Rwanda needs to be translated into every African dialect and shown in every office, in every slum, in every village and in every school in every forgotten corner across the continent. Moderated discussions need to follow at which the consequences of ethnic cleansing, racial hatred and power-play politics need to be aired.
And then it needs to be done again and again and again. With other movies like Cry Freetown, The Last King of Scotland or even Schindler's List. People around the world feel for and respond to the suffering of others. They learn from it. And hopefully they will learn to avoid destroying their own lives and communities in the name of ethnic entitlement.
Those of us in the West forget, or aren't willing to recognize, that in cultures based on oral history, Hatfield-McKoy feuds aren't something that took place long ago but are as fresh and as real as the last retelling. To prevent subcutaneous hatreds from turning septic, this aspect of oral tradition needs to be countered. Movies - followed by open discussions in the local language - could do this. Armies and highfaluting after-the-fact diplomatic missions have repeatedly proven that they cannot.
Following the genocide in Rwanda, the cry "Never Again" echoed around the world. Yet now we see ethnically driven chaos in country after country. Just as every child knows how difficult it is to put Humpty-Dumpty together again, so does every diplomat know that history repeats itself. Yet, at huge cost in human misery, the international community seems incapable of absorbing this law of history.
So what did the Peace Corps/Cameroon staff think "the world" would do if a Rwanda-like cataclysm should befall their country? The following was typical of their answers:
"The world will do nothing. We will be alone and have to save ourselves. They will take their people away and leave us to die."
Despite all the talk and all the billions spent, that's pretty much what we see today in places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia where it’s way too late for movies to make much of a difference.
But it isn't too late elsewhere.
It is laudable that the international community commits enormous sums to fighting AIDS and combating malaria and rebuilding the corroding or non-existent infrastructure in Africa. Despite the failure of so many previous development efforts, maybe this time the billions will make a difference. But maybe what the international community ought to be doing is teaching people across Africa to love popcorn and gather together in the dark to watch movies.
And then, maybe, people will learn to hate each other a little less.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Stanford magazine.