columnBy Erwin Winkler
Normally, when an international personality decides to come to Rwanda and then has to postpone the visit, this is bad news. We had Bill Clinton, Quincy Jones, Bill and Melinda Gates, amongst others. If any of those people, who can boast of significant achievements in their respective fields, would have cancelled his/her trip, it would have been a setback.
However, it is equally bad news when somebody who is a celebrity despite herself decides to come and help poor Rwanda. Therefore, when hotel heiress and 23-day convict Paris Hilton announced last week that she would postpone her visit to Rwanda scheduled for this month, these were good tidings indeed.
In one of the more read-worthy articles about Hilton (if such a thing exists), Kay Hymowitz at City Journal says, in a piece aptly entitled The Trash Princess, that "despite her fame and good fortune, for most sentient adults Hilton personifies the decadence of our cultural moment. With her nightclub brawls, her endless sexcapades, her vapid interviews, her rodent-like dog, and her lack of ostensible talent, she reeks of every vice ever ascribed to our poor country [the USA]." A country like Rwanda, which has spent a decade making major efforts to mend social rifts and re-establish moral values (and successfully so) is not served by being embraced by the personification of decadence.
Hilton was to make the philanthropic trip for the children's charity Playing for Good Foundation, and she was supposed to waste our time by visiting schools and health-care clinics. Fortunately, the Spanish-based organization announced that due to its restructuring, the visit of the celebutard (as she was baptized by the New York Post; think "celebrity + retard") could not take place. The bad news is that the charity insists on inflicting Hilton on Rwandans, saying that the trip will be organized next year.
One night in Kigali?
Hilton had announced the mission in September, a few months after serving a 23-day jail sentence for violating probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case. The stint behind bars, according to heiress herself, changed her life and inspired her to do what she perceives as good deeds. The first victim would be Rwanda.
"We were supposed to be going in November," Hilton explained on the TV show Extra. "But then the charity is doing restructuring and figuring things out. It's going to be for next year," she said. "I know (Rwanda) went through a lot of traumatic experiences, and I feel like if I go there, I can help save some people's lives."
"There's so much need in that area, and I feel like if I go, it will bring more attention to what people can do to help," an emphatic Paris further told E! News. "I want to visit more countries where poverty and children's issues are a big concern. I know there's a lot of good I can do just by getting involved and bringing attention to these issues."
So this woman, who is constantly referred to as "the socialite", because she earned her fame by partying, or "the heiress", because her only achievement in life has been to be born as the great-granddaughter to hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (who, apparently in an extraordinary moment of foresight, decided in his will to give his hard-earned money to the nuns; the plan was sabotaged by his offspring); this woman who shot to big fame through the Internet video One Night in Paris (which, for the uninformed, is a 30-minute film of 19-year old Paris socializing with entrepreneur Rick Solomon in the Hilton Hotel in the French capital; and no, they were not just drinking tea); this woman who is renowned for not wearing knickers, and making sure that photographers know it too; this woman who has bedded about every male Hollywood celebrity below the age of 110; this woman who was sentenced to 45 days in jail (she served 23) for violating her probation on a DUI charge (meaning she did it twice); and this woman whose summit of eloquence is cooing "That's hot" (an expression she even trademarked); this woman is supposed to visit our schools and get involved??
Now don't expect Paris Hilton to do something for philanthropic reasons alone. Newsweek (which, last time we checked, still had the reputation of being a serious and objective magazine), recently quoted Scott Lazerson, the founder of Playing for Good, who remarked that the trip was to be filmed in hopes of selling it as part of a reality show called The Philanthropist. We can only hope it won't be a sequel to One Night in Paris.
However, a spokesman for the charity has denied any film plans, saying Lazerson was no longer associated with the group, and that they never planned to tape Hilton's trip in order to sell a reality TV show, nor was Hilton linked to any such reality TV show.
Eating candy bars
Whatever the case, there is a downside to the postponement of Hilton's expedition: it gives her ample occasion to divulge to the world her entirely uninformed opinion about the country. Indeed, she confessed to Newsweek to being terrified to come to Rwanda. "I'm scared, yeah. I've heard it's really dangerous. I've never been on a trip like this before."
Yet brave as she was, she insisted she would make the trip adding, according to Newsweek, that "she'll resort to eating candy bars if that's what it takes to get her through any foreign-cuisine issues".
For fourteen years, government officials have done their best to change Rwanda's international reputation of "the genocide country". With President Kagame as the country's premier PR-man, they are slowly but surely succeeding - Rwanda is now regularly associated with mountain gorillas, gourmet coffee or agaseke. This success is for a big part to be explained by the fact that, contrary to many other governments, our officials are talking about something that is actually happening on the field, as confirmed by the increasing number of good news-stories circulating: "the country that made the most progress" according to the Ibrahim index, "one of the safest places in the region", "the country most advanced in ICT", ...
Unfortunately, although Mr. Kagame has gained some notoriety in the US, his celebrity status there is nowhere near Paris Hilton's - which is in part probably due to the fact that his speeches require at least some thinking to understand them, something that cannot be said about those of the heiress who, City Journal's Hymowitz says, are "synonym to 'like' and 'whatever' Valley Girl inarticulateness". So Hilton's words get more attention from fast-food loving Americans with a predilection for any stuff that has the prefix "instant" printed on the package.
And now this air-head who, when asked to indicate Rwanda on a world map would probably point to somewhere in central Asia, comes in to announce how "dangerous" Rwanda is. Even before she has set foot in the country, she is damaging its reputation. Talk about "bringing attention to issues"!
Looking for the funnies
Paris Hilton's utterances say as much about her ignorance as they do about the seriousness of the charity she champions. As she made her remarks mid-October, it shows that about a month before the visit, nobody had apparently made an effort to give a basic briefing concerning the state of Rwanda today to the person who is supposed to come and "save some people's lives". It makes one wonder whether the people at Playing for Good themselves at least have an inkling of what is happening here. It also raises the question whether such an organization should be allowed to operate in the country.
In another recent Newsweek interview, Paris Hilton says she is a big admirer of Angelina Jolie. At least, she finally knows to choose her role-models. If there's any celebrity you would want to fight for your cause, Jolie is the one. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell describes her as "absolutely serious, absolutely informed". She is part of the Council on Foreign Relations, the elite club for the American foreign-policy establishment, where she sits at the table with such people as Condoleezza Rice, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. She actually makes a difference, because she knows damn well what she's talking about. Give Paris Hilton a book on Rwanda, and I bet she starts looking for the funnies.
So let's hope that the postponement of the trip will turn into an actual cancellation of the whole project. Hilton says she knows Rwanda went through a lot of traumatic experiences; fine, then let her stay away, lest she gives us another one.