I was once asked to organise a panel discussion at the University of Cape Town’s creative writing department, which featured Nigerian writer and art historian Teju Cole. I recall meeting him before the event and noticing how stunned he was by the campus. I had grown to expect this reaction from the visitors that we hosted on the scenic campus, set on the slopes of the Table Mountain, so I thought nothing of his awe. I shared a series of facts and anecdotes about the university’s Upper Campus as we strolled to the event venue, hopeful that I was giving him more things to be impressed about. During his talk, he mentioned that he had been looking forward to visiting Cape Town for many years, but that when he arrived he was filled with the overwhelming sense that horrible things had happened there. He felt this intensely at UCT. It was as if the campus was filled with ghosts.
I couldn’t help but anticipate that I would have a similar experience in Rwanda. I expected to be confronted by Rwanda’s difficult past the moment I got off the plane. I have grown used to the ghosts that inhabit spaces and cities. Living in South Africa for just over three years, I had every day encountered its ghosts. I confronted them, lost battles against them and then eventually learned to embrace and befriend them. So, in a way, I was eager to face the ghosts of Kigali in person; I was ready to be haunted.
Pick out any kind of travel writing about Rwanda and it will speak of how beautiful the country is. There is no such thing s as a bad view in Kigali. If you are not taking in the scenic landscape of the rolling hills, then you are probably drooling over your French-speaking taxi driver, or gasping at the poised woman tapping away at the table next to yours. A lot of my time in Kigali was spent being charmed by the sights of the place.
People also speak of how clean Kigali is. This is largely due to the 2008 ban on the manufacture, use or import of plastic bags. Several countries have implemented a similar ban, including Kenya, where I live now. However, Rwanda is apparently the only country in the world in which the law is so strictly enforced. So much so that on arrival at the airport you are asked, pleasantly, to surrender your duty free plastic bag for a re-usable one.
Umuganda, the practice of voluntary community service, also helps to keep the country pristine. On the last Saturday of each month, every able bodied Rwandan aged 18 to 65 is required to spend a few hours of the morning cleaning up and beautifying their neighbourhood. This initiative has been part of Rwandese culture for decades and was reinstituted in 1998 as part of the efforts to rebuild the country after the genocide. According to the encyclopaedia of Rwanda’s development, Rwandapedia, Umuganda currently has a participation rate of over 80% and counting. Umuganda is not just a social obligation; it is an exercise mandated by government officials and community leaders and one that has enforced upon the country’s residents a strong sense of environmental responsibility.
During the month of April Rwanda commemorates the 1994 genocide and pays tribute to its victims. You will not hear any music playing in restaurants and clubs for the entire month. People don’t throw parties. There is no laughter, or smiling or dancing. Only remembering and reflecting. I arrived in the early days of May, and even then Kigali showed me what it is like for a nation to mourn together. It is a stirring thing to experience, even in the slightest of ways, especially because grief can be so elastic.
I am certain that there is no way that the experience, loss and memory of over ten million people can be memorialised in any one way, but the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, feels to me to be a good effort to do so. Located in Gisozi, the memorial comprises three exhibition spaces. The historical section takes you on a journey through the years before the war, the historical marginalisation of one tribe by both local and external powers and the actual genocide. The children’s memorial exhibition honours the lives of the child victims of the genocide: those who died and those who lived to share their stories. Phrases such as ‘loved to eat chicken and chips’ and ‘was hacked to death’ come together in this troubling room. The third section titled ‘Wasted Lives’ is an exhibition on comparative genocide in other parts of the world.
The section about the killings is difficult, painful and shocking.
I spent several hours there committing the audio guide to memory. I think about him often – this audio guide man. I wonder how many times he broke down during the recording of the guide, and if he ever felt the burden of being the voice that tells this painful but necessary story over and over again. I wonder if he lives in Rwanda. Does he watch the news, or listen to the all the controversy around the story that he must know so well by now? Does he ever hear anything that makes him wish to go back into the studio and edit history? Most of all, I wonder if he realises that now, whenever I think about the genocide in Rwanda, it will be his voice that I hear.
But it is that room – the one with the hundreds of photos of the victims of the genocide – that still keeps me up at night. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the families of the people in those pictures to sift through whatever belongings the war spared in search of an image of a loved one who was stolen from them. To then take this precious memory to Gisozi and donate it to the memorial centre for the benefit of kinsmen and strangers who come here to heal, learn and attempt to understand. My father died six years ago and since then I have clung to every single thing out of which I can squeeze a memory: old sweats and cufflinks, his scent and especially his photographs. Because of this I realised that it is truly a gift to be given a chance, even as a stranger, to look into the eyes of so many people who were loved and tragically lost. To move on to the next exhibition space and see items that the victims had on them as they died – shirts, scarfs and kangas, some of which you will recognise from the earlier photographs – is crushing. I found the memorial centre deeply emotive, well laid out and a heartbreaking tribute. I thought it did a phenomenal job of sharing a collective experience while remaining true to the individual stories that were contributed to make up the memorial. It weaves together information that is widely available with personal anecdotes that demonstrate how preciously fragile life is. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre truly felt like a tribute to human suffering everywhere.
There are things about Rwanda that I do not have the experience or perhaps even the right to begin to navigate. Like the silence. I am not only referring to the pleasant lack of noise in Kigali (there are hardly any traffic jams, strict noise pollution laws and Rwandans always use their inside voices). There’s a different kind of silence there that I can only imagine comes from a people so aware of the depth of their pain and extent of their wounds.
In Kigali I also found spaces and places that demonstrate Rwanda’s amazing capacity for renewal and serve as evidence that human beings can be remarkably resilient.
The Innovation Village springs to mind. Located on the rooftop of the Kigali National library, Innovation Village is the result of collaboration between the government and young entrepreneurs. It is an ambitious attempt to promote literacy and culture and inspire innovation through four different platforms: The Storytellers Café is a community space where stories are shared through different media such as poetry events, film screenings and practical storytelling workshops. The Innovation Academy offers a series of short modules targeted at aspiring business leaders with the aim or reforming current business practices. The Educators Lab supports these efforts by teaching valuable skills such as critical thinking and communication to educators, so that they may in turn pass them on to their students. The Digital Library connects all the platforms by providing information through an interactive online platform.
Innovation Village opened up its doors in May this year, and I was honored to be at the launch event which was hosted in collaboration with Spoken Word Rwanda. The poets behind Spoken Word Rwanda are also committed to finding ways to celebrate self expression by hosting regular spoken word events as well as an annual poetry slam. This venture also nurtures spoken word talent and has seen its poets progress to international poetry platforms. Bloggers such as Gatete Views are lending their voice to public debate.
I have since considered relocating to Kigali. I never felt that I would need to hold my breath the way I did when the news broke that Mandela had died and I was sitting in my flat in the southern suburbs of Cape Town unsure of what was to come. Or the way that I will do the same every time a general election in Kenya creeps back into our lives bringing with it the fear of spontaneous violence.
Rwanda’s culture of obedience and its goal to create a conflict free country make it hard for me to see it as a place that could suddenly erupt again. It appears to have other priorities such as improving its already impressive (free) healthcare system, and becoming a middle income country by 2020. Rwanda is a country that defies the legacy set by other countries that have suffered recent conflict. It is the only country in the world where more women than men serve in government as elected officials and is often referred to as a role model for African development.
Rwanda is a country that defies the legacy set by other countries that have suffered recent conflict. It feels like a good sibling in many ways; watching the mistakes of its brothers and sisters, drawing lessons and then flipping the script to show us the errors of our ways.
Wanjiru Koinange is a Kenyan writer. She recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing the outcome of which was her debut novel that is based on the events around Kenya’s post election violence in 2007. She currently lives in Nairobi where she is working to re-install libraries into primary schools and public spaces.