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Memorials: Social & Political Processes

April 13, 2007

My dining companion at the La Fiesta Mexican restaurant, in the Kimihurura district of Kigali, was visibly agitated, and her distress had nothing to do with the food. I asked her what was wrong. She said: “Can’t you hear the music?” I could. It was a mariachi band.

“Should I tell the owner to turn it down?” I offered.

My companion, a Rwandan woman, shook her head. “Doesn’t he realize it’s genocide memorial week?” With that, she left the table and went looking for the owner. Moments later, the mariachi music was gone, replaced by an FM radio station playing solemn music.

The owner was lucky. People playing inappropriate music in the second week of April, whether in a restaurant, or at a child’s birthday party, risk the wrath of neighbors, the seizure of the offending radio, even arrest if police decide to make a case of it. Restaurants have reportedly even been shut down when the management was deemed to show disrespect. Nightclubs and discos do virtually no business in memorial week.

It’s a very special time in Rwanda, by decree. The trauma of the human catastrophe that left nearly a million dead is still raw after 13 years, so raw that people here are highly sensitive to even the slightest lapse of decorum.

A few days ago, for example, a Kigali man tied purple bandannas—the national symbol of mourning—around the necks of his dogs, in memory of pets he had apparently lost in the genocide. Outraged neighbors demanded his arrest, and Rwanda’s national newspaper editorialized that the man should be detained until he came to his senses. There’s a law on the books against “trivializing” the genocide.

Students at the National University in Butare and elsewhere are relieved of all out-of-class assignments during the memorial period, and teachers may not grade any of their work. This is meant to encourage the students to spend their free time reflecting on the genocide, its victims and its consequences. And they do just that. Almost daily there are marches somewhere in Rwanda, to commemorate a particular massacre, or to excoriate the international community for turning its back on Rwanda in 1994.

At night in downtown Butare, and other cities and towns, survivors sit around giant bonfires, sharing stories about their experiences 13 years ago. Meanwhile, you can’t turn on the state-owned TV Rwanda, or open the inside pages of the New Times, without being overwhelmed by genocide-related features with the recurring theme: we must uproot any trace of “genocidal ideology.”

Yesterday, I visited the main genocide memorial site in Kigali, a building that is now easily accessible thanks to a new road paid for by the Chinese government. It was jammed with Rwandans and visitors filing through the exhibits. In a darkened room containing skulls and bones, a soft voice recited the names of men, women and children who were slaughtered. The roll call of the dead created a profound mood; a woman overcome with grief fell to the floor, wailing and crying.

Outside, people sat in benches around an eternal flame, deep in thought. It’s as if the nation is still struggling to come out from under shadow of the “Jenoside.”

A period of annual national mourning is, of course, a laudable and even necessary thing. Still, what I saw left me a bit uneasy. As South African scholar Susan E. Cook notes in her paper "The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda," such memorials are politically-loaded. The Kigali museum contains a videotape clip in which a young Rwandan woman, a survivor, says that 90 per cent of Hutus were “evil” during the genocide. No mention of the measure of reconciliation between the two groups in the last decade. And no mention of the killing of substantial numbers of Hutus before, during and after the genocide.

In a country determined to ease ethnic tensions, that seems a curious oversight.

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