Looking backward, moving forward

by Raji Jayaraman

Unspeakable horrors transpired during the genocide of 1994. Family members shot family members, neighbours hacked neighbours down with machetes, women were raped, then killed, and their children forced to watch before being slaughtered in turn. An estimated 800,000 people were murdered in a country of (then) eight million. Barely thirty years have passed since the Rwandan genocide. Everywhere, there are monuments to the dead, but as an outsider I see no trace of its shadow among the living.

Colleagues chat in the office. Ordinary Rwandans go about their daily business. Walking down the street, eating at restaurants, driving motorcycles, selling wares, chatting, laughing. So much laughter everywhere. How? How is it possible for people to get on with their lives as nothing ever happened, when trauma must be etched in the memory of almost every living adult in the country? How do you casually interact with people who, for all you know, are directly implicated in the murder of those you loved? It is a mystery to me. I am baffled and wonderstruck all at once.

When studying colonial history in school, I remember learning that in Rwanda, the Tutsi minority ruled over the Hutu majority for ages. It made sense to me when the genocide was explained as a contemporary, albeit extreme, manifestation of a centuries-old enmity. The Kigali Genocide Memorial’s audio guide disputes this origin story. It claims that while the Hutu and Tutsi did constitute different groups with important class differences, historically there was a great deal of fluidity between them through both intermarriage and economic mobility.

Visitors to the memorial are informed that it wasn’t until German colonizers arrived in Rwanda during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the sharp distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was codified with the help of pseudo-science. We are shown chillingly familiar pictures of Germans using callipers to measure the length of Tutsi and Hutu noses, distances between their eyes, and sizes of their foreheads.

Rwanda was awarded to Germany during the 1884 Berlin Conference. At the same conference, King Leopold got the (Belgian) Congo. Nobody is interested in holding a contest of colonial atrocities, but if one were to engage in that macabre exercise, Belgium would probably win on account of the sheer brutality with which it treated local populations. In the Congo, Leopold effectively turned a country eighty times the size of Belgium into a privately owned slave colony. Thirty-four years later, following its defeat in World War I, Germany lost Rwanda along with the rest of its colonies. As luck would have it, Germany’s loss was Belgium’s gain. To paraphrase a German proverb that, no doubt, crossed Rwandans’ minds back then and several times since, “The devil always shits in the same pot.”

At Lake Kivu, a Belgian couple sat at the table next to me.  We got to talking. She was a lawyer, working for the Belgian parliament. He was a businessman who seemed down on his luck. This was their first time in Africa. “Why Rwanda?” I asked. It wasn’t a mean-spirited question. It’s just that most tourists to East Africa come for one of two reasons: beaches and wildlife. Rwanda is landlocked, so the first was out of the running. It’s only national park boasting the “big five” (lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African elephant, and African buffalo) is expensive by regional standards and one-fifteenth the size of the Serengeti, which lies just south of the border in Tanzania and is cheaper and easier to access. That left only one option. “Are you here to see the gorillas?” I asked. No, they weren’t there for the gorillas. She explained that at $2000 a pop, gorillas were prohibitively expensive. I nodded sympathetically. She continued to explain that she had chosen to visit Rwanda because it was a former Belgian colony and (unlike the DRC) it was safe.

Her husband trotted off with his camera to take a picture of the kingfisher that had alighted on a tree by the. As he rushed off, he explained almost apologetically that was his favourite bird. She stayed put and slowly lit her cigarette. Leaning back in her chair she exhaled languidly and began to wax poetic about how lovely the Rwandan people were; how friendly and welcoming; how good their French was. (She spoke no English.) “But that genocide,” she said, shaking her head despondently. “How these people just butchered each other. That’s what happens when you have centuries of hatred. These people—these Hutu and Tutsi tribes—they have hated each other forever. It’s calm at the surface but you know what?” said conspiratorially, “I can feel the tension bubbling underneath.” 

Reading these words now, they don’t seem particularly offensive. But something about her remarks, combined with her tone and mien crawled under my skin. It wasn’t the comment about the tension: it would be truly astonishing if no acrimony lingered among survivors. No, that wasn’t it. What bothered me was the patronizing otherness with which she described Rwandans. Patronizing because they were so sweet and spoke such good French. Otherness because the implication seemed to be that only “these people” are capable of this level of barbarism. 

I said to her, “I don’t know much about Rwandan history, but I’m not sure that what you’re saying about Hutus and Tutsis is entirely true. You know, there used to be fluidity in ethnicity, and it wasn’t until the Belgians conducted a census in 1933 aimed at assigning a single ethnic identity to all Rwandans [Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa] that identity became this seemingly immutable thing. In fact, those self-same identity cards facilitated the localization and slaughter of Tutsis during the genocide.”

It wasn’t a personal accusation. She wasn’t responsible for her ancestor’s obsession with “race” or any crimes they may or may not have committed in Africa almost a century ago. But she took it personally. Looking at me with indignation she said, “What are you suggesting?”  I said, “I guess I’m saying that history casts a long shadow. Some of what Belgians did around here in the previous century was pretty damaging. You know, like Leopold in the Belgian Congo…” She didn’t know. “The rubber plantations?” Blank stare. I continued, “The enslavement of coffee plantation workers right here in Rwanda?” Still, nothing.

I felt my irritation rising because layered upon the patronizing otherness, or perhaps undergirding it, I sensed a willful ignorance. Of the fifty-four countries that call Africa home she had chosen Rwanda specially, because of its colonial history and yet she – a lawyer who worked for the Belgian parliament – knew nothing about that history. “The Belgians were brutal colonists,” I said. “Growing up in India we’d joke, `The Brits were a pill, but at least we didn’t have the Belgians.’” That last part was only half-true. We did say it, but not as a joke.

That was too much for the lawyer. She rose abruptly, breakfast half-finished. Without a word, she turned away from me and stormed out of the restaurant. Her cigarette was still smouldering in the ashtray. It was the only lit cigarette I had seen in weeks. Public smoking is banned in Rwanda.

Looking back, I can easily see how she might have taken what I said personally. If I am perfectly honest there was a hint of accusation in my voice. It wasn’t an implication of culpability for the genocide, though. It was indignation that a woman of her means had done zero homework before her trip. The truth is that she is by no means unique, and neither was it entirely her fault. As far as I can tell, an honest examination of colonial history is not a part of the regular school curriculum in any European (or UK) public school. I understand that there’s a lot of stuff for kids to learn in a mere twelve years and not everything of value can be included. What I find irksome, though, is the extent of asymmetry in the choice of what is and isn’t covered.

Consider Germany. It wouldn’t be my first choice of example, only because of its unique twentieth century history. But it’s the only European country whose public school curriculum I have first-hand experience of, because my children went to school there. Commendably, in Germany the history of World War II is built into the school curriculum from grade one. Not just as a course of study, but in innumerable aspects of school life. In Berlin, Stolpersteine—ten centimetre square brass plaques engraved with names and fates of (mostly Jewish people) who were murdered in the war—are found on pavements across the city, outside the homes of victims of the holocaust. Each year, on November 9th the kids would trot out of school and, under the watchful eyes of their teachers, get down on their hands and knees to polish the Stolpersteine. In grade 10, my kids had a compulsory field trip to Auschwitz. These are only two examples. There are many, many more. Although my children are not to blame for their great grandparents’ crimes, they were forced to reckon with their difficult history. For that, I have great admiration and immense gratitude.

At the same time, never in their school careers—not once—was Germany’s colonial legacy even mentioned. My children were taught nothing about the genocide ordered by Lothar von Trotha, resulting in the deaths of half the Herero and Nama populations of South-West Africa.  They didn’t learn anything about the Maji-Maji rebellion, which was crushed at the cost of 100,000 lives due mostly to famine that followed from the German Schutztruppe’s scorched earth policies. They were clueless about the forced labour in Togo. It’s a relatively short list, but its brutality makes me almost grateful that Germans (thanks to Bismark’s initial reluctance) were late to the party and (thanks to WWI) early to leave. My kids wouldn’t know. And neither would most Belgian, British, or French kids, because they’re not taught about these colonial legacies in their schools. They know nothing about their forefathers’ hand—whether large or small—in the tragedies that continue to befall these strange, faraway countries. Consequently, they feel no modicum of historical responsibility or complicity, let alone culpability, for what transpires there. This ignorance imposes a distance that licences them to attribute the plight of these countries to their otherness, as the Belgian woman did, and as my children perhaps would too.

History is what it is. It lies firmly in the past, and ignorance of that history is not going to be remedied anytime soon. So even if colonizers are at least in part culpable for the mess that many former colonies are in, it seems clear that there will be no reckoning. Where does that leave former colonies like Rwanda? What are they to do? Move on, that’s what. Colonizers the world over followed the same reliable, if unoriginal, playbook: divide and conquer. Former colonies are left to deal with the consequences of that division. The way they have tried to heal these divisions—some real, some contrived—varies from country to country. Thirty years on, Rwanda’s answer seems pretty clear: remember pain, but scrub  labels. Directly after the genocide, justice wasn’t forgotten. It was meted out through Gacaca courts: traditional village tribunals where victims confronted perpetrators, verdicts were read, and sentences passed. Remembrance continues in other forms to this day: every major city has a genocide memorial, and monuments are strewn throughout the land.

But the memory is deliberately selective. Hutu and Tutsi labels are not recorded in any individual identification. I did not hear the words spoken in Rwanda, as if they were necronyms. I sometimes had the impression that people feared that by naming it, a beast might be resurrected. There are those who might call this willful erasure aspirational at best, and delusional at worst. Who knows what the future holds, but so far it seems to have worked. Rwandans haven’t forgotten the past, but the ones I met at least seem determined not to be defined by whatever it was that instigated the violence. By rejecting the formal recognition of categories that set them apart, they seem to have managed to find a way to move forward together.