As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, part of my responsibility is to spend time outside the classrooms (or in my case, our Language Center) contributing to community projects. The project that walked into my life last December was a literary journal with one of the few academic language and linguistics groups in Rwanda. With the help of one of my INATEK colleagues, I was put in contact with the Language and Linguistics Student Association of the National University of Rwanda and told a bit of their story. A literary journal had been tried there several times including a promised attempt by travel writer, Rick Bass (see his recently published book In My House, There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda for a terribly inaccurate, guilt-ridden, narrow view of Rwanda). So to say the least, I was frustrated for the group and embarrassed by another American’s false promises.

Literature has always wriggled its way back into my life, no matter how often I try to deny it out of a falsely practical standpoint. And today, I find myself in a project that encourages the study of literature in myself and others. The journal has been much of a success logistically: it has its own ISBN and is funded by the US Embassy of Kigali; but also in how it has affected the writer’s to see an actual product come from their efforts.The Language and Linguistics Student Association of the National University of Rwanda wrote and edited all the works in the literary journal and I have watched their excitement and enthusiasm for the project grow over the last few months.

The book will be circulated through secondary schools to encourage the study of literature in university (pending approval by the National Curriculum Development Center). It will also be available as an ebook. Below is an excerpt from the Foreword that I prepared for the journal (some of it is repeated info FYI).

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Thoughts Before Memorial

April 7, 2013


The chapel of the St.Pierre Anglican Church in Kibuye, the site of one the most shocking massacres. Churches were considered safe places, but that unwritten pact was voided during the genocide.

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the genocide. Every year on April 7th, the Rwandan government sanctions a week-long, reflective holiday on one of the events that questioned the integrity and capacity of humanity. This period is, as I’m told, a time for discussion of genocide and the trauma that it has caused.

During this period, Rwandans have been asked to return to their villages of origin to reflect and discuss the events that traumatized and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.  In theory, those with formal employment are meant to continue ‘business as usual’ during the mornings with community discussions and conflict resolution sessions in the afternoon. However given the emotions that envelop each citizen, I can’t imagine that work would be neither conducive to individual’s mourning nor productive. This is a new strategy for Rwandans to cope with this period. In the past, many people attended large scale events in Kigali with speeches and testimonies from prominent members of society. Colleagues have told me that this event was the cornerstone of the week’s program, often complemented with the media showing real footage of the genocide.

Returning to home to consider the effects of the genocide is significantly different than in past years. Those who were not able or willing to travel to Kigali before are now able to participate in the community events. In reality, it forces victims and perpetrators, sometimes neighbors, to face each other and acknowledge what happened. This decentralized way may encourage face-to-face reconciliation rather than simply provoke emotions as in the situation of a large-scale stadium event. Either way, the debate is still very present as to whether a week of commemoration actually encourages victims to relive the traumatic experiences after nineteen years, rather than create the intended reconciliation within the nation.

My role as a foreigner is glaringly evident during this week of commemoration. Repeatedly, I’ve been asked the same question: “Will you be here with us?” Many of my Rwandan colleagues and friends have encouraged Olivia and I to stay and participate in a few events as a way of sharing their reality. But there’s an ever-present conflict, am I not just a tourist to all this grief? This is and has not been my issue, so why should I stay for some voyeuristic observations?

And after thinking about these questions on my own narrow individual level, I realized that these are similar questions asked to the international community those 19 years ago. As I have been reminded sometimes, my country and the rest of the world refrained from acting out of a fear of self-preservation. Why should we send in some soldiers if they may die for a cause that does not pertain to our own country? This is and has not been our issue. And so, the genocide continued unhindered for a hundred days after its bloody commencement on April 7th.

I write this post to my American friends and family not to incite guilt, but to encourage a willingness to educate ourselves on events outside our front door. The genocide has become an infatuation for outsiders who are unable to look past this single event to see a people with a rich culture. The genocide was not just a ‘tribal’ conflict within a troubled African country, it was a human conflict. Our best interest lies not in the fear of emotional or physical self-preservation, but in our own education and shared experience. Even though most of the world may not be in Rwanda or have its problems, we can understand and acknowledge their past because it is also ours.

I will attend several of the community meetings this week because I was invited and encouraged to be a part. My role will be none but to show some small support, a hand to hold, as needed. This non-partisan role is the same for the rest of the international community and media. Take time to understand what happened (there are a few links to articles found below to start with) and offer the same prayers, thoughts or moments of silence that one would offer to a neighbor in crisis.  My hope would be to divert attention from celebrity’s weight gain and that, instead, we can admit that we once had a role as passive bystanders in this piece of history. Because in the end, the world’s hope is united against all acts such as this; never again.


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