I walked among farmland in Rwanda with a colleague. An elderly woman approached us and, as is custom, offered a greeting: “Murakomeye.” I marveled at the irony of the interaction. Murakomeye is a greeting in Kinyarwanda derived from the root komera: “be strong/have courage.” I marveled at the irony of this woman, with untold strength and courage worn into her seventy years, encouraging me, not yet a quarter century old, to be strong.
In Rwanda, “komera” is more than a greeting, it is an approach to living. It is a spirit of enduring resilience that predates and outlasts the superficial fracturing of history into pre-1994 and post-1994. Komera ethos grounds Rwanda’s remarkable 21st-century progress: women’s empowerment, healthcare accessibility and affordability, and a commitment to develop sustainably. “Komera culture” facilitates rapid recovery and empowers individual Rwandans to take part in surmounting the historical odds stacked against the future of their country.
Rwanda’s entire working-age population was intimately affected by the events of 1994. And for nearly half of Rwandans, poverty complicates the mental, emotional, and physical burdens of trauma. As human beings, the way that we process challenges does not always correspond proportionately to the magnitude of the challenge itself. In other words, for some, Komera does not come as easily as it does for others. Komera culture reflects a collective strength, but does it also stand to marginalize those Rwandans for whom mental illness is an everyday reality?
Rwanda’s National Mental Healthcare Policy affirms that “there is no health without mental health.” In the aftermath of tragedy, the Rwandan government took concrete steps to address not only the physical but the psychological needs of Rwandan women and men. Nevertheless, might Komera culture—the idea that an expression of suffering is an expression of weakness—prevent struggling individuals from accessing the support and care that they need?
“If you meet a waitress earning 10,000 Rwandan Francs (approximately 13 USD) per month, and you say ‘Komera,’ but you go on your way and do nothing, that is not the real Komera.”
Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, survivor, journalist, and researcher, distinguishes between cosmetic komera and sincere komera. Komera in its intended form implies laborious empathy: compassion can and should be hard work. To truly empathize with someone is to come alongside that person in their struggle. It is an acknowledgement that “being strong” or “having courage” may look different for everyone.
“If you are oppressed, and someone tells you that you will be okay, but does not do anything to bring you out of the oppression, you will end up feeling even more oppressed,” Hyppolite explains. “We mourn those killed in the genocide. Saying that we are recovered from the genocide does not mean that we are okay. When you say, ‘You are fine, don’t worry,’ your words are not telling me to be strong. You are just saying this to say it.”
Komera as a cultural idea predates the Rwandan genocide, but its societal influence intensified during the reconciliation period, restoring lost trust. Komera culture is “go and do;” actions expressing solidarity with the oppressed and “breaking the silence” of oppression.
Harriet Ingabire, licensed psychologist, approaches Komera culture alternately from her lived experience as a Rwandan woman and from a professional perspective as a counselor.
“It has helped people go through so much pain—just that word, because people actually believe it.”
Komera cultivates self-confidence in those who hear that they are strong and actually believe it. However, when spoken insincerely—whether to oneself or to others—Komera may lead to a denial of reality or a reluctance to remove oneself from corrosive circumstances:
“We need to face our reality in order to move on, but because of komera people keep doing the same thing. No one wants to be the ‘bad guy,’ so they just say, ‘komera.’ They do not tell others things that they do not want to hear. Being the ‘bad guy’ can be a good thing. Others may see someone suffering abuse and to themselves they may think that the person should exit the relationship, but to the abused individual they say, ‘Komera.’”
Komera restores security to social and group settings, and inspires self-assurance among individuals. Absent sincerity, however, komera culture may further marginalize the experiences of those suffering, or trap individuals in harmful situations. Stigma attached to mental illness, poverty, or abuse is not an exclusively Rwandan problem. A desire to superficially heal wounds with words is not an exclusively Rwandan problem. Hyppolite watches with apprehension as his country becomes more individualistic, eroding Komera’s constructive potential: “It is becoming just a word.”
“From when you are young, this is the word that you hear the most. When you fall and hurt yourself, you hear, ‘Komera.’ ‘I am supposed to be strong, I am a strong person,’” offers Harriet.
Hyppolite advocates for authentic Komera to re-root itself within Rwanda’s changing cultural landscape. Until we as humans learn to embrace komera in its truest form—a form where actions and attitudes match words—we will never truly move forward, together. Turakomeye.