With visitors on their way and the Memorial period less than a month away, it’s no surprise that I recently found myself in a conversation with fellow PCVs about the appropriate way to handle introducing people to Rwanda’s past.
The dilemma we discussed is our mounting frustration that the first, and usually last, thing people associate with Rwanda is the Genocide. It’s all many people know about this small hilly country in the heart of Africa.
And when it’s the only thing a person knows, it can easily become the only thing a person sees. They may come to Rwanda to attempt to figure out why. To see the country where it happened, to fulfill their curiosity about the people, and to look around and be moved to tears or moved to action.
Rwanda has become defined by the Genocide of 1994.
When the tremendous rate of development in Rwanda is discussed it’s always said with a ‘despite the past’ signifier. As though Rwanda’s progress is only remarkable due to the past. As if being one of the fastest growing economies in the world isn’t impressive independent of
Is Rwanda special because it has achieved so much in so short a time? Or because it has achieved so much after such atrocious brutality?
Is Rwanda the Genocide of 1994 or is it a country, like any other, trying to develop itself in a difficult world?
And if Rwanda truly is and should be more than the Genocide, when visitors arrive do you take them to the Memorial first? Last? Or not at all?
The National Memorial at Gisozi is one of the most impressive and moving memorials I have visited. Beyond reminding us of the history and circumstances that made 1994 possible, it raises awareness about Genocide around the world. To me, Gisozi demonstrates Rwandans’ commitment not just to never again seeing Genocide within their own borders, but never again around the world. It is a place to remember as well as to educate.
And that, more than anything else, has shaped my answer to the question of when and how much I should discuss the Genocide when I share about Rwanda.
As a child-abuse victim, I have learned that when people discover your tragic past, you fall victim, all too often, of it becoming the defining aspect of your identity. A survivor. Everything else about you is defined through that context.
But I am more than my past.
At the same time, I discovered that sharing my story helps others. Helps them heal or face their own past or that of someone they know and love. It helps people see a new part of the world, be more aware, more sensitive. It creates a commitment against victimization. It increases opportunities to fix the systems of neglect that perpetuate the violence and racism and sexism and hatred and ignorance that haunt our world.
I don’t only want to be seen as a survivor. Or to have that be the lens through which all my accomplishments are measured. But if sharing my story helps other people learn, or heal, or fight for justice in the world, then I will gladly be defined by it.
I will remember for myself and educate for others: To prevent child abuse, to encourage healing; to let my life, my story, be an opportunity for others to learn.
I cannot answer for the opinion of any Rwandan. I don’t know how they feel about being so completely identified around the world with their past. I don’t know if they want it discussed or would prefer burying it and moving on to a new day.
What I have personally seen is a people that did build a National Memorial committed to remembering as well as sharing. A country that does take 100 days every year to commemorate the past rather than hiding it in history books. Friends who do wear ‘Never Again’ bracelets every day of their lives. A reminder to themselves and all who see, that Rwandans do not want to see Genocide ever again; amidst their emerald green hills or anywhere in the world.
Rwanda is more than its past. But it is shaped by its past, as well. What I see tells me that it’s okay to connect the words ‘Rwanda’ and ‘Genocide’. Hopefully not as an end but as a beginning. 1994 was not the end of this country but the beginning of a brighter future for all Rwandans, and hopefully, through the sharing of their story, a brighter, more peaceful future for people around the world. Rwanda is largely defined by the Genocide but its story is just beginning and is about so much more.