Today was my first day of meetings and the first time I felt
like I was making real headway in my work.
I started off the day at Ibuka, a local non profit for survivors of the
genocide, which acts as an umbrella organization for fifteen other
organizations. I had the opportunity to
meet with the executive director who took an immense amount of time to explain
the work that the organization does, and how things are now since the
genocide. He also allowed me to record
the interview, so I could just focus on our conversation. I have yet to transcribe it, but once I do I
will write something about our conversation.
Ibukas offices are located at one of the mass grave sites,
where about 11,000 people are buried.
They are interned in the same grey concrete rectangles that appear at
the main genocide site. They are sterile
and do not emit much of a reaction usually.
Today, however, a local school was holding an event at the burial
grounds. When I walked out of the Ibuka
offices I saw almost a hundred students filing out of the space. Some of them were composed, whereas others
were huddled to the ground overcome with emotion. I noticed there were certain individuals in
yellow vests, that were there to comfort and aid students who were emotional.
On my way out I stopped a man, who appeared to be a teacher,
named James, and asked about the event.
He said that starting April 7th, the school holds nearly two
months worth of different remembrance activities and events. He then asked what I was doing in Kigali,
which led to an onslaught of further questioning. It turns out he had gone to primary school
with the director that I had been meeting with.
It turns out he is the accountant for the school, and when he is not
working there he is a taxi driver. He
offered to give me a ride back to town.
I accepted. I figured it would be
more efficient, since I was late for my next meeting, and he gained legitimacy
through his position in the school and his friendship with the director. We walked back to his car, where it became
clear the emotional students were waiting.
Here in Rwanda, they have a word for these moments of trauma
or grief. They call them traumatisme,
and it refers to when a survivor is so overcome with pain, emotion, and
suffering that they lose control of themselves.
I had read about this in my research, but to see people so physically
and emotionally ripped by grief was shocking.
I did the math and James drove a
5 seat car, and there were four young women experiencing traumatisme, who were
already filling the seats. Joseph then
went to move one of the women from the front, into the backseat. He offered me the passenger seat, I tried to
refuse, saying the women were upset and I did not want to intrude, but he
insisted. I was treading the line
between offending him and massively infringing on these women’s privacy. I got in the car and immediately regretted
it. I felt like a white western voyeur
to these women’s pain. We reached the school. I asked Joseph if he could apologize for me,
he laughed and said that they were fine.
At this point I was ten minutes late for my next
meeting. I called the secretary and
asked her to pass along the message that I was stuck due to unforeseen
circumstances. Then Joseph said there
was another woman back at the burial site with traumatisme and we would need to
go fetch her. We went back again, I was
now thirty minutes late and sincerely wishing I had taken a cab.
We finally reached the school the second time and James
dropped off the other women. He then
spoke very briskly some of them and turned to me with smile asking about our
destination. One thing I have noticed
when traveling, is that even with a language barrier, the intention of words is
not lost. This man exhibited a kind of
situational kindness that I had seen before and always unnerves me. He was overly nice to me a foreigner, in
English, but when he spoke to Rwandans and switched to his mother tongue the
attitude changed. Either way he was my
ride to my next meeting.
We talked in a mix of English and French and during the
conversation he admitted that I was the first white person he had ever spoken
to. He was excited to practice his
English and he kept thanking me for taking the time to listen to me. He asked to exchange numbers so that he could
be my regular taxi man whenever I needed a ride. I exchanged numbers, but was hesitant to
enter a business deal. During the rest
of the conversation, he invited me to his home for a meal, and then asked if I
was single because he had two sons. We
arrived at the final destination of the “free ride” and then I asked if he
needed money for gas, which is the expectation here. He then asked for money equivalent to two
taxi rides. I agreed and headed to my
next meeting, an hour late. I don’t
think I plan on following up with him
I walked into the genocide archives at the main museum and
began looking for the man I was supposed to meet. I was told that he was in the cafeteria. I walked up and introduced myself, to which
he replied he had been waiting a long while.
My message did not reach him. I apologized
got some lunch of my own and waited for him to finish his meal. When he was done he came to join me and I
apologized again. He is busy with work,
and it was totally reasonable for him to be frustrated. After a few minutes of
conversation, thankfully, it seemed as though he forgave me and warmed up to
He is the manager of the archives at the genocide center,
and he had offered to help me track down some files, such as perpetrator
testimonies and confessions. He was very
knowledgeable and willing to talk about his experience. At one point we were discussing the
difference between the older and younger generations of survivors. He said “if my parents were alive” they would
probably have more resentment and anger than he does. It struck me, the informality in which people
approach loss here. In the US, becoming
an orphan is an event and something that does not enter into conversation
lightly, but here, like other places that have experiences mass extermination,
it is a part of an odd normalcy.
Later in the conversation he told me that soon they will be
launching a new website that offers a virtual tour of the center. Once this is available I will share it with
you all. I also asked him if I had any
hope of tracking down the 1991 census, which was the last one taken before the
genocide. He said no. He said that archivists in Rwanda do not even
have access to that document and that the government classified it. He then went on to explain that the census in
1991, was less about understanding the population and more about mapping the
location of the Tutsis in the country in preparation for the genocide. It was a simple tactic that had never
occurred to me, that a census could be used as mapping mass murder.