Friday, June 22, 2012

Kwibuka: Genocide Memorial

Any event in Rwanda is likely to be an excruciating test of endurance. Wedding, party, funeral, meeting-- you name it, it's going to take a long time and involve a lot of waiting and a lot of rambling speeches. One of the rules I've developed is to always wear sunscreen, no matter how likely it seems that the entire event will take place indoors. (Oh, the many times that I have ended up standing outside for hours on end and having to seek out old ladies so that I can hide under their parasols with them.)

After spending the better part of today in the brutal dry season sun, I was glad that I had this rule. I had a splitting headache, probably due to dehydration, and I was starving and my back hurt, but at least I wasn't sunburnt.

I didn't want to go to this memorial because of a bad experience I had at last year's event. I thought I had escaped this memorial by going to Uganda in early April, when most memorials occur, but this one takes place in June, and I had forgotten that.

My bad experience of last year's memorial was this: One of the schools had put on a sketch about the cause of the genocide. In it, there were about 5 students playing tutsi (victims of genocide) and 5 playing hutu (perpetrators of genocide), and the star of the show was a boy playing the white man. He wore make-up which Rwandan women use to make their skin appear lighter (don't ask my why they think this is more beautiful), a wig, a goofy visor, sunglasses, and a backpack. His movements were very spastic and it was intended to be a comical portrayal.

The plot was simple. The tutsi and the hutu were different tribes, but they were friendly towards each other, inviting each other to share a meal and shaking hands. The white man came and was greeted by the two groups. Immediately, he saw that he liked one group better, the tutsi, and he gave them some money, toys, candies, eventually he just gave them everything, relinquishing even his visor, sunglasses, and the backpack that he had brought his western goods in. It was clear he had lost control as the tutsi clawed at the goods, too absorbed to thank him or say goodbye. The white man came back, bringing more gifts, and orders. He made the tutsi kings, while making the hutu slaves. Eventually, the hutu got fed up with their role and attacked the tutsi. The white man ran away to his homeland.

The plot actually didn't bother me. It was history obviously simplified in order to fit into a 5 minute sketch. What got to me was that nobody was watching the performance. Everyone was staring at me. And what was originally a grave and solemn affair became a hysterical scene. People seemed happy to point out, jeeringly, that I am a white man like the student in white face was playing. In light of the other teachers' reaction, I felt like the sketch was part history, and part commentary on me. Did those jerky, spastic movements caricature the way people around town see me? I felt like, because I'm white, I was tangled up in the genocide history just like the other teachers, only I was the bad guy. I was deeply saddened by this for a long time. Teachers had overseen the production of this sketch and approved it. I felt like people didn't trust me because of my skin.

Distrust of foreigners is common in Rwanda. Sometimes I greet people (in Kinyarwanda), only to have my greeting returned with a cold stare. Sometimes people see me riding on a bus, and frown and wag their finger at me as I pass. Mostly it comes from young men, strangers who don't know me. But the sketch experience was different because it came from my own community. Needless to say, I wasn't excited to experience something similar at this year's memorial.

Today's memorial was for the teachers and students who were killed in the genocide. As such, it was attended by teachers, students, the families of the deceased, and a few local functionaries. Like last year's, it involved a mass, a parade through town, a memorial service at the graveyard, and then a series of speeches and performances about the genocide. Throughout the memorial and speeches, people weep openly, which is a big deal in Rwanda because it doesn't happen anywhere else.

Foreigners are not supposed to pry into people's experiences or knowledge of the genocide. It's about the worst faux pas that someone can commit in Rwanda. For this reason, I never bring the subject up or ask questions about it. However, I was able to learn a little bit today during the parade by listening to whatever memories people volunteered.

One comment that stuck out was when someone said, "Belgians are very bad." He then told me of how the Belgians created the ethnicities of Rwanda in order to divide-and-rule. It's something that I've heard a lot, but his use of the word Belgian instead of foreigners made me realize that not everybody sees things strictly in terms of race. The people who jeer and call me muzungu instead of learning my name are the ones who stand out in a crowd, but there are others, who, unnoticed, are being kinder and more respectful.

By the time we got to the school stage and sat down to hear the performances, I felt like I was ready for another sketch. I have thicker skin than I did a year ago, and anyway, I was expecting it. Then, a wonderful thing happened: Nothing. There were poems, songs, and speeches. People clapped, and then we all had a fanta (Rwandan slang for soft drink). Perhaps last year's debacle had actually caused a stir. Maybe someone had complained that it was insensitive (some had at least volunteered that when talking to me later). Whatever the reason, it's given me a chance to feel like attitudes in this country are improving. I'm glad I went to this memorial.

Since I've been afraid to write about the genocide before this, I will do it now. Here is some information about the genocide in Mibirizi:

About 3000 people were killed in Mibirizi as a result of the genocide.Among them, teachers and secondary school students. Mibirizi's history is particularly dark because the interahamwe militia passed through the village as they were being forced into eastern DRC. Many people sought shelter in the church and about 2000 were killed in the church as a result. Most of the big buildings-- church and hospital, for example-- were destroyed along with the homes of tutsi people. The scars are still present. As we were marching along the road, someone explained to me that houses which were destroyed are often not built over. As evidence, he pointed to a field of plantain trees and asked if it didn't look like a house used to be there. Indeed, there was an inexplicable hole in the field where an old foundation might lie.

A bleak reminder, this genocide ruin sits on the road right next to my school's campus.
Students and teachers pass it every day.
For more information, a pretty comprehensive Human Rights Watch report on the genocide is available here


  1. Fascinating blog Ian. When I was in Rwanda our driver (a local guy) said mzungu wasn't necessarily offensive. I was called it a couple of times and he said he got called it too as he was always seen driving white passengers around. I'm not sure what it means. They must have mixed feelings towards whites, we would be linked with Belgians historically and an ineffective UN during the genocide I suppose.

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  2. That's true! Muzungu is not necessarily offensive. It just means foreigner, or white or rich person. I plan to write more about this soon.

    When people see our Rwandan Peace Corps staff riding in a white truck with a Peace Corps logo, they call them muzungu too.

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