April 7, 2018 marked the 24th year since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. A short overview for those who are unfamiliar, understanding that history is biased and everyone has opinions on how to narrate this history in particular: Rwanda’s history has been full of ethnic exploitation by colonizers and local leaders both, resulting in ethnic cleansing several times in their history. Hutus were considered inferior during early rule by Rwandan kings and were exploited by colonial powers; years upon years of hardship and inequality led to ethnic killings against the Tutsi in 1959 until the balance of power shifted with independence in 1961. A Hutu government took control and reversed many of the policies that favored Tutsis; inflamed by years of oppression, the extremist government incited ethnic hatred against the Tutsis, culminating in the 1994 genocide where approximately 1 million people were killed in 3 months. The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, assisted in the military overthrow of the extremist government, ending the genocide, and carried out retribution killings against Hutu folks while pushing them out of Rwanda into Congo. Kagame then rebuilt Rwanda over the next 24 years, an amazing feat when glistening, beautiful Kigali is compared with a city like Goma in DRC, which barely has water or electricity and sports only a few paved roads.
Commemoration is celebrated on April 7th each year and over the following week. It is a time when many must relive the trauma and sadness from the genocide. To get even a small sense, imagine a loss you’ve experienced or someone close to you has experienced. Particularly imagine someone who was taken before their time, a young child, a middle-aged adult in their prime, a teenager. Imagine how that premature loss impacts a family—how the loss of a daughter, a father, a new baby consumes a family in grief and puts them on long road to healing and recovery. Now imagine that mourning, that hurt, magnified on a national scale—it’s not just one family grieving, it’s millions.
That being said, I think that 24 years later, many folks are trying to simply move on, move forward into the future rather than backwards into the past. I went to my first Rwandan Unitarian service on Sunday (who knew there was a Unitarian church in Kigali?!) and the focus of the message was not on sadness and grief but on the hope for the future. They shared the need for us all to use our tragic histories to move forward and become a new, stronger person, working towards a new, stronger nation and future for everyone.
I’m hoping to go back to the Unitarian service; despite it being Christian-focused, as a Unitarian, I’m quite used to hearing “God” and interpreting it to fit my own personal beliefs and worldviews of a loving, inexplicable force that exists within, among, and around us giving strength and hope. It’s not the radical UUism I’m used to in that there’s no boundary pushing around gender or complex discussions about race or open acceptance of LGBTQI-identifying folks. What’s radical about it is that it exists as a space for freedom of thought. As their lay minister explained to me, not many church spaces exist in the region that call on their congregants to think for themselves rather than just believe and act in accordance with what their preacher is telling them. This is what is radical within these spaces—the freedom to think for yourself. That’s been part of the adjustment to Rwandan life: I’m used to free and open people sharing their beliefs and opinions often very loudly (we’re Americans after all), and I’m used to this liveliness, this loud joy for life and freedom of expression, as indicating a people that are “alive.” Rwandans in comparison are closed, reserved, quiet—many of the women especially—making it difficult to adjust, get to know people, and feel comfortable. And while of course Rwanda has a long way to go in terms of building the capacity lost after their country was destroyed only 24 years ago, I’m seeing that it’s this quiet resilience that makes the people “alive”. It’s the “simple” act of surviving that is their form of “liveliness”. The people here aren’t loud or openly full of joy or publicly pushing boundaries. It’s within the quiet spaces—like a Unitarian service, like within a family’s home, like in the old town that has seedy little places quietly challenging norms—where I see people living.
I feel like I’m rambling at this point and don’t make much sense. Because during commemoration week many shops/restaurants/etc. are closed, my project this week has been painting a mural in our apartment. This may mean that the paint fumes have gone to my head a bit, but I hope you enjoy: