Sweden and Rwanda enjoy warm diplomatic relations that span from decades ago. The two countries have strategic geopolitical interets beyond Africa. On October 11th, 2018, the Swedish envoy to Rwanda will be marking two years of her tour.
Taarifa caught up with Jenny Ohlsson, the Swedish Ambassador to Rwanda, below is a lengthy but interesting conversation.
Swedish Ambassador: My name is Jenny Ohlsson, I am the first Swedish ambassador to live in Rwanda. I got this post three years ago as the first Swedish ambassador to live here in Rwanda. I came from the prime minister’s office in Stockholm to Kigali. I had a job there where I was working on international and defence issues but I really wanted to come back to Rwanda. So, when I got this chance, I said bye to the minister’s office and came to Kigali.
Before that, I worked within the foreign ministry from Stockholm in the African department. I went to Somalia sometimes for work. I also worked with issues related with disarmament and UN related issues.
Magnus: Are you a career diplomat?
Swedish ambassador: Yes, I am a diplomat; I studied political sciences. I like politics a lot. In my free time before I was a diplomat, I would engage in politics myself but now, I am purely a civil servant diplomat. But I am especially interested in political affairs such as elections.
Magnus: Did you get to know why, of all other ambassadors, you were sent to Rwanda?
Swedish Ambassador: I applied for the job, that is the way we do it in Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. At first, it was a job being the head of the office, we had no ambassador posted here.
I got the job, but in the process, they changed the title to ambassador. So, I was told I had to make a new application. It was quite dramatic because I thought I was too young for this. But I applied again and I got the job.
Magnus: Were you surprised?
Swedish Ambassador: I had been posted here before. Ten years ago, I lived in Rwanda from 2007 to 2009. I was the political officer in the embassy in Kigali. So, I knew a bit about Rwanda and maybe that helped.
Moreover, we have a government in Sweden that has tried to promote more women, also younger people to become ambassadors so maybe as an advantage. But I had some clear interest and knowledge about Rwanda, I think that is the prime reason I got the job.
Magnus: Two years now, what has been the experience?
Swedish Ambassador: It has been a very good experience, in a way better than ten years ago because I constantly compare Rwanda today with ten years ago. There are many areas where I can see clear progress.
I have a feeling of the positive spiral and it is a very nice environment to work in. Of course, there will be challenges. Sometimes, we get into debates with counterparts, but all in all, I like working here because there is a feeling of moving in the right direction.
Magnus: You have been positively talking about Rwanda, how do your counterparts receive that?
Swedish Ambassador: Mostly good, I think. It is a matter of seeing what is there, what was achieved, but I am also not shying away sometimes. There can be troubles, sometimes we think differently, but I am also careful with my words.
For example, you will never see me writing about arguing tweets or things that make me upset, for example, in my every-day life in Rwanda. If there is something in Rwanda that I am annoyed with, or some policy that I wonder about, I will dare to discuss it, but I will not put it on Facebook or Twitter.
Instead, I will talk to the partner or counterpart face to face. I think it is common sense. I mean you cannot have a proper discussion if you only communicate with statements, especially if the focus is publicly attacking someone for something. Direct conversation is usually smarter, in politics and in every-day relations.
Magnus: What do you think are the most uncomfortable topics in Rwanda?
Swedish ambassador: I think it is to talk about issues that are politically sensitive, usually difficult issues that are connected to the past. It might be connected to democracy and human rights issues and has aspects influences by the history of Rwanda.
For me to be an outsider and to talk about these issues connected to the Genocide and its aftermath, without been interpreted as that I think I am superior and know best, that is tricky.
It is interesting and important to talk about these issues, but I always hesitate in how to do it. I don’t want to be a western diplomat that tells everyone what to do and that I myself have all the answers. I don’t.
Magnus:How did you get to know that it is an uncomfortable topic?
Swedish Ambassador: I realised that there is sometimes skepticism towards diplomats here, my understanding is that some of it comes from past experiences in the history of Rwanda. Now when western diplomats say things, at times, they are wrongly interpreted as very colonial comments. I realised this quickly and I have in some way adapted to it.
But sometimes this situation makes me sad because, we as western diplomats might say something that does not really have any bad intentions at all, but it is interpreted in a bad way. In many cases, in the wrong way.
For example, some comments connected to promoting human rights could either be interpreted as a patronizing way of telling countries what to do – or as a proof of a solid belief that all humans, in Toronto, Butare, Stockholm or Mumbai have the same human value.
You can make two complete different interpretation, either of superiority or of equality from the same comment. It saddens me deeply when the ill-intended interpretation seems to be chosen only because of the origin of the sender.
Magnus: Has it happened to you?
Swedish ambassador: My first tweet, I wrote about Rwanda was after I went to the national dialogue. I wrote on social media, ‘” Very interesting dialogue. For many countries the sky is the limit. In Rwanda they aim even higher”. It was supposed to be something positive from my side about the national dialogue. But somebody commented saying: “Oh, Europeans, why do you always think that Rwandans are so strange and different?
I described it as something positive but I immediately deleted the tweet because I got confused since apparently someone got insulted. Now, I have learned that. Sometimes, people will misinterpret anyway, but if you are aware of the history you can choose words carefully, but I struggle with the balance because I believe that it is great with dialogue and even with these political issues. We shouldn’t shy away from them, but do it in the right way so that people listen and do not get into unnecessary conflict.
Magnus: If you met a new ambassador posted here today, what are some of the top DOs and DON’Ts you would like to share with them?
Swedish Ambassador: I would say it is very important to get to know as many Rwandans as you can. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to gain trust, friendship and create relationships that make it possible to talk frankly. I would say you will have to know Rwandans to work here. You cannot base the work and understanding of Rwanda through reading reports and news only. You must know people.
I would also tell new diplomats that we must be aware of the historical shadow that is sometimes still over the international community since the Genocide.
The lack of trust issues, the colonial issues and those things, sometimes it still affects our relations. It is just important to be aware of that. Those are my two-top advice. I have said them to many people already.
Magnus: What do they tell you in response? Do they think this is strange?
Swedish ambassador: No, they haven’t said that. Especially Swedish people will understand that it can take some time to form relationships and get to know people, like I sometimes find it here.
That is a similarity between my country and Rwanda. So, Swedish people understand when I say that. You don’t become best friends in one day here, you need to work towards friendship and trust, but that is sometimes the same for foreigners that come to Sweden.
Magnus: How was your first encounter with the president?
Swedish ambassador: It was very nice, but I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I met him. This was when I handed over my letters of credentials. When I left the ceremony at the President’s Office, the Minister for Foreign Affairs whispered to me that I would be very pleased with the seating at the official lunch.
I didn’t understand. Then to my surprise I was seated by the president’s table. Of course, that was quite a new experience for me. 41 years old, new ambassador seated at the small lunch table with the President and the First Lady.
That was a very interesting lunch. I hadn’t prepared for any special topics to talk about since I didn’t know beforehand. But it was a very interesting conversation about current political affairs and differences and similarities between Sweden and Rwanda.
Magnus: Do you have something memorable that is not secret?
Swedish ambassador: Ha ha! Well, what is not a state secret but a nice little story is that when the waiters came to ask us to stand up and go to the desert table. The president said he did not want any desert. For a second I must have looked very disappointed, because I had seen all the nice Rwandan fruits and had waited to try some.
But I was definitely not going to take off for the desert table alone to get deserts, I was not sure about the protocol! I saw that he noted the disappointed look in my face, and he smiled and immediately said, “No, of course we will have desert, let’s go”. To me, that was a little friendly gesture to a nervous young ambassador. That is the memory I can share with you. As for the conversation, I keep it to myself!
Magnus: People say that he is physically intimidating. Was that true? Did you feel the same?
Swedish ambassador: No. This is lunch with five people around the table, for me it was a big day. I have never gone to the ceremony of the credentials before, I didn’t think of any intimidation or anything like that. It was a just a very nice lunch. I was happy and relieved I had managed to do the protocol around the ceremony.
Magnus: Have you met him again?
Swedish ambassador: Yes, but only at diplomatic functions and international conferences. I have not asked for any bilateral meeting for myself. Of course, as an ambassador I can do that, but I haven’t had any proper reason to do so – I don’t think personal curiosity counts as a good reason.
I also know that the president is very busy now with the chairmanship of the AU. So, even though it is always interesting as an ambassador to meet the President of the country, I am careful to ask for meetings when I do not have a good reason.
That goes for any high-level person I’d like to see here. However, I meet MINAFFET quite often, as well as ministers at different functions and meetings. It is at these time that I have discussions and dialogue with Rwandan government officials.
Magnus: Now that he is chairperson of the African Union and you are the ambassador in a country where he lives. Have you had any engagement with Rwanda about Swedish foreign policy on Africa?
Swedish ambassador: Yes, we talk about these issues quite often in different settings. Sweden is currently a member of in the UN Security Council, and we try hard to represent the analysis and voice of African countries in the council. Why? The perspectives and knowledge from African countries are so important in the discussion of the council – many issues on the agenda of the Security Council is connected to conflicts in Africa.
For Swedish diplomats, we always try to stress that we have big ears to understand complex situations– we are keen to listen. Of course, it is also very special that Rwanda is now the head of the AU. That fact influences our discussions here with Rwandan counterparts.
I have a lot of interest from Stockholm for anything that is said here about the African Union, conflicts in Africa or the UN-related issues. Rwanda is an important player on the international scene, it is a small country that in a way very successfully punches above its weight. Which is very impressive. So, there is a big interest from home regarding Rwandan analysis of international affairs and institutions.
Magnus: Have you managed to successfully push for any agenda?
Swedish ambassador: I don’t know that but input from Rwanda has been useful for us in our work for the UN security council. Like many other Swedish ambassadors in other countries, I can be asked to talk to my host countries government about their take on this or that issue. I know that the input I send after discussions with Rwandan counterparts are very valuable for my HQ and our UN-delegation.
Rwanda has peace-keeping troops in many countries on the agenda of the security council, so in Rwanda there is a lot of knowledge on the conflicts, the peace-keeping operation and developments on the ground. That is very valuable for a small country like Sweden, and I think that is a great way of cooperating.
Magnus: How is the relationship between the two countries?
Swedish ambassador: I think it is very good. We have no current diplomatic troubles. If relations were bad, I would be the first person to know about it. However, it is pretty a new relationship. It is 21 years ago since we opened a small office in Kigali. So, there was no presence of Sweden in Rwanda before that.
We had some missionary presence in Congo. Maybe, there was also some for the side of Rwanda, but generally, it is a pretty new relationship. The Swedish relations with Africa was focused on countries in Southern Africa.
There were many relationships and cooperation going on connected to the anti-apartheid struggle and the general liberation struggles in the south. As for this part of Africa, there were very little contacts.
Magnus: What role are you playing as a development partner in Rwanda?
Swedish ambassador: We started with a lot of construction work after the Genocide. Now, we cooperate in areas that are important in Rwanda. For example, for a long time, we have had cooperation with universities in research on higher education. We have since many years worked in the field of strengthening human rights and democracy, but also to support initiatives connected to media development and conflict prevention. Some of these things are complicated areas but we do it with good partners like Never Again Rwanda and Aegis Trust. Since a few years, we have been also striving to support job creation in Rwanda, and promoting better working conditions and pro-poor growth. The last area we work with is issues connected to promoting the environment and climate change resilience.
Magnus: Can you quantify all these contributions?
Swedish Ambassador: The annual support is about approximately 230 million Swedish kronor. Aside from the pure development cooperation bilaterally with Rwanda, there will be things that we support that ends up in Rwanda, but is not connected to the work of the Embassy. For example, we are a huge donor to UNHCR but those resources and the connected work comes straight from my capital.
Magnus: Have you learned something beneficial from Rwanda?
Swedish ambassador: It is difficult to point at one special thing. I think there are many small things I have learnt. You visit a place, you pick up things and ideas. For example, I have a friend who is a Swedish police woman. She went to visit a one stop centre for gender based violence when she visited me in Kigali.
She told me she picked up a few things from there that she would bring back to the police in Sweden. So, lessons learned can be in small everyday situations and exposures.
Magnus: What did she pick up?
Swedish ambassador: I don’t know the detail what she picked up, but after coming back she said she got some ideas to bring back to Sweden. I had a relative visiting who is a psychiatrist, he visited a clinic here that in many ways lacked resources he had in Stockholm, but still he noticed some detail in how they organised things in a smart way which they didn’t do in his clinic at home.
I think it is these small things that you can pick up, not necessarily only through high level visits only, but how one does things on the ground. Everything is not about resources, it is also about ideas and mindset.
Magnus; With the knowledge you have about global politics, geopolitics, where do you place Rwanda on the continent?
Swedish ambassador: If you mean in terms of importance in international affairs, I place it high up on the list. I think it is not only with AU leadership this year, it is also since earlier since Rwanda has been active in many processes connected to for example peace-keeping operations, climate issues and digitalisation.
I also notice that there are delegations from other countries in Africa that sometimes come here to look at Rwandan solutions and developments. This is interesting, not only for Africans.
One example: I met my fellow Swedish ambassadors based in Africa a year ago and several times during our discussions Rwanda came up. This was because the governments in the countries where they are posted had referred to or showed interests for Rwanda and developments here. So, I got quite some comments and questions about that.
Magnus: If you look at countries that will facilitate Swedish geopolitics or its interest on the continent, do you have areas where you think Rwanda would particularly be a close partner?
Swedish ambassador: One of those areas is definitely in peace keeping. There are some exchanges in terms of courses and trainings, but I wish there would be more because your troops have a high reputation in peacekeeping and a lot of experience from current operations on the African continent.
In Rwandan troop contributions there is also often a focus on some issue that is very close to our own interest – children in armed conflicts, protection of civilians, the role of women etc. Another area where we often have common positions are connected to regional integration, free trade, sustainable development and climate-change related issues.
Magnus:Two years in Rwanda as a diplomat, what do you like here?
Swedish ambassador: As I said in the beginning, I like the feeling that many things are moving in the right direction. That doesn’t mean there are not challenges or set backs, but generally there is a positive feeling here and a general commitment to make change and reach high. I am sure few people around the world, in October 1994, would have predicted Rwanda to be where it is today.
The odds were in many ways terrible. So while not being blind for challenges I’d say the story of Rwanda contains a lot of good news to be inspired by. . So, I like being in this environment. Three are of course other things I appreciate, on a personal level, such as the climate, the nature and the people.
Magnus: What about physical gestures?
Swedish ambassador: I don’t know so many. Sometimes it is not another hugging like you hold on the arm or do something. It always makes me confused. In Sweden many other European countries do, and in Rwanda there is another. It is sometimes a complete confusion whether you meet someone how to do it.
Magnus: How about it?
Swedish ambassador: But it is not good to point. It is very aggressive. I did not know until recently that you’re not supposed to eat a lot in public. I had no idea. I have always walk around eating something. I constantly learn.
Magnus: Did they tell you why?
Swedish ambassador: No, I don’t know why.
Magnus: It is indecent, I guess.
Swedish ambassador: No I don’t know why. For me, it is practical. I go from one meeting to another and say let me sit by another during my work. It is efficient. In my office, half of the staff is Rwandan. So, the embassy has 50% Swedish, 50% Rwandans. We have cultural barriers and sometimes we do not understand each other. Sometimes, we have to understand that there are completely different ways of looking at things.
Magnus: Is there something new you have learned?
Swedish ambassador: I would say that if you become friends with someone in Sweden, it is a better long and serious relationship. You do not pick up friends easily, but if your friends you are friends.
My feeling is the same in Rwanda. It takes a bit of time to get close, but when you are close you are close. That is my feeling. There are other countries you will have friends in a few days, that isn’t the case here and it is not the case in Sweden.
Magnus: Give me top five facts about Rwanda?
Swedish ambassador: I would say that it is an excellence way going to the African continent and being able to move around. As a tourist when you come, especially if you look white, there are places that are either dangerous or you get so much attention.
You feel uncomfortable. Here, it is different. Of course, some people wave saying, ‘oh, behold that Umuzungu’. It happens to me, but you are extremely free and safe.
Also, I tell people that there is gender equality, gorillas, and people are generally nice. I talk to people who interested in the history of Rwanda.
They are horrified by it, and almost scared, but when you tell them also about this, the progress, the reconciliation, it is fascinating.
Magnus: Are there certain things that you have worked around very hard to deal with?
Swedish ambassador: I find it difficult to talk about certain things. For example, people’s personal history from the genocide. There might be difficulties and wounds you know nothing about as a foreigner. I have to tread carefully, it is not about diplomacy its about decency.
You just don’t jump at people and ask them bluntly about what happened in 1994 – people might have families where many people were killed, or other families where people are in jail or released but trying to reconcile.
These are sensitive issues, at least I am not naturally an expert on how to talk about these issues. I think no one from the outside is. At the same time as I want to understand more, and I am very eager to listen and learn. Many people from the outside are. It is a tricky balance for many.
Magnus: Can you speak some Kinyarwanda?
Swedish ambassador: Very little. Murakoze, Mwaramutse (Morning!) Mwiriwe (Good afternoon) Ni meza (I’m fine), Amakuru (How are you), Izuba (sun), ibanga (secret) Ndabakunda (I love you). That is my Kinyarwanda. It is not enough; I shall learn much more.
Swedish ambassador: I like Pili Pili…. Papyrus, there are many places I like. Usually, places with a nice view.
Magnus: What about locations?
Swedish ambassador: I like Gisenyi, Rubavu a lot, and the mountain areas like Musanze. I learned these names ten years ago and I worked really hard to learn the new names. And it is not Gisenyi, it is called Rubavu, I know. I just keep saying the old names! I have to re-learn.
Magnus: Are there gestures that you know about Rwandans that you’ve learnt?
Swedish ambassador: Something I have learned that is very nice in Rwanda is that when somebody dies, you come to the house, you stay with them and take care of their family. It was beautiful.
We don’t do it like that in Sweden. People often get nervous when someone dies, they don’t know how to deal with it, if they disturb or not, they often go silent, also out of respect. But when this happened to someone I know in Rwanda, everyone came, so that the grieving person would not be alone, I thought that was beautiful.
Magnus: What about physical gestures?
Swedish ambassador: I don’t know so many. Sometimes you do another kind of very respectful greeting or hugging here, where you hold with your hands on the arm. It always makes me confused. In Sweden we often hug very straight forward, in many other European countries they kiss on the cheek, and in Rwanda there is this hug. It is sometimes a complete confusion when you meet someone and you don’t know how to do it and it can probably look quite funny.
Magnus: What else?
Swedish ambassador: I have learned that it takes time to get friends here, but that it reminds me of making friends in Sweden. So, if you become friends with someone in Sweden, it is a better long and serious relationship. My feeling is the same in Rwanda.
Magnus: Give me top five facts about Rwanda?
Swedish ambassador: If I’d talk to a potential visitor I’d say say that traveling to Rwanda is an excellence way going to the African continent and being able to move around safely.
As a tourist when you come to this continent, especially if your skin is white, there are places that are either dangerous or you get so much attention. You feel uncomfortable. Here, it is different.
Of course, especially on the countryside, there will be kids running after me happily shouting ‘ Mzungu Mzungu’ but it is only normal child behaviour. You are generally very safe to move around as a tourist here, that to me is very valuable.
Magnus: Recently you commented harshly on a tweet criticising the Swedish support to Aegis Trust
Swedish ambassador: Well, I had much nastier comments in my head. But I decided that I was a diplomat and an ambassador, and needed to be careful in my words, but I got very upset by that comment from a man in, I think, England.
Swedish ambassador: Well, he said that Sweden should feel ashamed for working with Aegis Trust, and that everything connected to the remembrance, education on the genocide, is just a good PR machine for the president. I thought that it is big statement to make; I have known Aegis Trust for 20 years.
I worked with them in the Prime Minister’s office in Sweden with Holocaust related issues, focusing on education of Swedish youth. It is a good organization. They are professional. I know what they do in Rwanda.
For this European man, to say Sweden should feel ashamed… that really made me angry. I wrote an angry tweet back, I think I basically wrote that the shame is on those people that are not interesting in learning from history or try to revise it. And I am happy with that response. He deserved an angry tweet from me.
Magnus: If you were to meet the president for a cordial kind of conversation, what would you tell him Rwanda should be mindful of?
Swedish ambassador: That is an amazing question I have never gotten before. I would talk to him about the relations between Rwanda and Europe, it is something I think about a lot. Because there have been some things in the past that have been bad, infected and difficult.
But I’d like to discuss how we can learn from it, move beyond that and create a new kind of relationship, built on mutual respect and a true desire to understand each other – not misunderstand each other. Sometimes I believe the misunderstandings are too many, and very unnecessary. Honestly, if I got a long chat with him, without any agenda, I would also ask him about history.
I read a lot about Rwanda’s recent history., I would ask a lot about issues that are connected to reconciliation, democracy, political space, those issues that Rwanda has sometimes chosen its own way and get criticized for. There must have been lot of difficult dilemmas, difficulties to identify priorities, tough choices and lots of other complex issues connected to rebuilding the Rwandan society after the Genocide against the Tutsi. These are things I’d ask about.