How to write about Rwanda

From April 7th to the first days of July 2014, Rwanda and the world commemorate the genocide that ripped apart the central African country two decades ago. How does one commemorate the indescribable? The ultimate crime against humanity by humanity? So far, in the micro corner of the world that is Belgium and France, due to a tragic cocktail of insensitivity, disinformation and ignorance, guilt-tripping and arrogance, bias and political commodification, we are time and again being fed a pretty nauseating spectacle. Indescribable in its own right.

Here’s a mini sample of what’s out there.

nieuwsblad cartoonThe Flemish daily Het Nieuwsblad ran a cartoon in which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders stand behind Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who is about to hack into a birthday cake with a huge machete. No one in Flanders said anything about it.

Invented by a creative mind that probably saw itself as witty-yet-critical, such drawing lands in the uncaring arms of the ill-informed Flemish masses – most of them unable to remember who chopped whom to pieces twenty years ago.

Another one.

The French magazine Charlie Hebdo opted for a cartoon titled ‘Tutsi Crush – now finally for smartphone’ referring to the infamous Candy Crush App. (You score points any time you manage to finger-crush a piece of candy.) In honour of the 20th anniversary, the candies were replaced by skulls. Tutsi skulls.

The Chartutsicrushlie Hebdo cartoon would have passed even more inconspicuously, if it had not been the pick of the night by Lithuanian-French singer GiedRé, one of the guests of a France 2 prime-time TV-show. ‘Usually I am not a big gamer, but I wouldn’t mind playing this one,’ she said, clarifying her choice. ‘This one looks fun.’

Again, not an inkling of collective outrage in the cosy studio of the French public broadcaster. We’d almost forget that we were watching the same country that fanatically prosecuted and wizard-hunted the French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné for his alleged anti-Semitism.

‘Information’

For decades now, satire-without-borders is being fanatically defended by many in Western Europe, in the name of the human right to freedom of expression. That most important of human rights. In the public discourse it often seems to trump the right to dignity for all, or the right to work or an income. It often seems more important than the right to life even.

Live and let live I’d say. Let ‘humour’ be humour. In those instances, after a brief moment of utter mortification, I start floating, engulfed by weary lethargy. A complicit laziness in accepting that, as a people, as Rwandan in this case, we are not important enough to escape the tastelessness; to count on solidarity.

More important than our (and I say ‘our’ because we collectively as a society, let it slide) tasteless attempts at wit, are our attempts to seriously inform our mainstream audiences on the enormity of the genocide.

In France, they were too hung up on their own absence during the commemoration ceremonies on April 7th in Kigali. Offended because Kagame reiterated for the nth time, the Enlightened country’s complicity in the genocide — next to that of Belgium and the UN.

Belgium, having little less ego issues, nevertheless dragged itself to the Rwandan capital. Probably because our ministers had to accompany the Belgian news headline of the next day: the families of the ten Belgian Blue Helmets that were killed at the very onset of the genocide, on April 8th 1994. Who knows? In the end it doesn’t really matter why they went. If anything, with the profuse attention for the families of the Blue Helmets the next day, I was at least reminded that we are capable of empathy as a nation. And rightfully so.

Some credit is due to these Belgian politicians. In Kigali’s gigantic Amahoro stadium they stoically underwent the re-enactment of the genocide as seen by the current government. It was a re-enactment that unapologetically painted an ugly picture of Belgium’s role in Rwanda’s tragedy. Hundreds of actors reminded the world of how we, during our colonial drive-by in the region, crystallised the Hutu-Tutsi binary, how we perfected divide and conquer, and then ran like the wind when things got out of hand.

Political stoicism aside, a closer look at the work by our mainstream media – and that of scholars and activists – reveals how utterly uncomfortably we are and do not in any way whatsoever (know how to) deal with these historically important accusations. (A few weeks ago I had to teach a class on colonial memory in Belgium. My shortest talk ever.)

We seem to have a hard time to truly go beyond the image of Kagame the dictator, beyond an image of the Rwandan society as eternally set in the Hutu-Tutsi division, or beyond the image of Rwandans as a flock of sheep flaccidly being led to the next slaughterhouse.

We trip over the official name of the commemoration– the genocide against the Tutsi. Has our meticulous critical research not revealed that they were not the only ones to die in those 100 days of horror? (We mustn’t forget, next time we commemorate the Holocaust, to equally remember those Nazi’s, fallen by the hand of the Resistance.) Most news reports obfuscate the fact that the term genocide has a specific legal definition which speaks to the intention to eradicate a targeted group as well as the fact that the non-Tutsi victims of the genocide are systematically mentioned during official commemorations (I can testify to this from this year’s function at the Rwandan embassy in Brussels, but I shouldn’t have to). The same goes for the excruciating trial and error yet relentless reconciliation efforts of all Rwandans. At best they’re hardly taken seriously, most often they are viewed suspiciously.

‘Never Again’

Meanwhile we keep on chanting: ‘Never Again!’

We did it after the Holocaust and every day since, and pull it out of our hat whenever we can muster enough empathy to ponder over extreme suffering in faraway places.

‘Never again’ rings hollow though, if we keep infantilizing and entertaining our mainstream audiences. Let it not be too complex, please! Our stories have to be gripping yet entertainingly accessible. No to nuance, context or methodically researched information. No to introspection or critical self-reflection.

The good vs. evil format gives the impression that we are nevertheless committed to a critical approach because we care. That we are fighting for the little men in those societies. The microphone shoved in the faces of those that confirm our prejudices, our irrefutable evidence. Calling on a wide range of Rwandan voices, all the while too risky. Besides not being able to find them, when we do, we can’t really trust them anyway. All these issues hit too close to home for them, and we are all about objectivity.

No wonder then that we, (un)willingly, continue to propagate the rigid ethnic divisions we once co-created as those are categories we can work with: ready-to-eat bits, familiar markers for the Flemish audience, freeing them from the need to learn anything new.

‘How to…?’

What is the alternative? Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina once boldly summed up his frustration with the western portrayal of Africa in his satirical essay How to write about Africa. In this period of mourning, pierced by bone-chilling shrieks triggered by indescribable memories and equally horrifying stories of family members my age, who miraculously survived the horror, I find it difficult to – wittingly or otherwise – convey how we all have a right to more committed information on Rwanda.

Not because the country is particularly important, or because I happen to have my roots there. Rather for the same reasons that the stories of the Second World War and the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust that permeated my childhood in Europe have shaped my moral compass in the most fundamental of ways.

It is the compass that allows me to be unequivocally critical of Israel today without feeling the urge to minimise or ridicule the fate of the Jews to make it fit my political convictions.

It is the compass that allows me to critically wonder out loud about the role of the Rwandan political and economic establishment in the extreme suffering of the peoples in Eastern Congo today, without having to rewrite the genocide or shove the machetes in the other group’s hands.

It is the same compass that pushes me as a European, Belgian or even Flemish, to constantly question our share, then and now, in the dehumanization and labeling of people close to home and the exploitation of people and resources far away.

There is not one answer to the How to write about Rwanda-question. Not a witty one, nor a grave one. There is not one story, nor one approach. It’s not even about censorship. As far as I am concerned, every individual can write, say, draw whatever he or she wants but the one-size-fits-all disinformation and utter lack of respect is a shared problem that, in time, does not only harm Rwandan sensitivities.

Taking the present, change, the own responsibilities, the people concerned – not just as extras but as authors of their own stories – seriously, would be a first important step. Taking our audiences seriously, a second.

Overall, we need to look for plurality of stories, driven by a sense of community, a shared responsibility to understand, not to first and foremost judge and assess. If we can’t do that, let’s just be silent, respectfully.

(this column was first published in April 2014 in Dutch on http://www.mo.be/column/how-write-about-rwanda)

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