A different kind of 4th of July…

This is Ramy writing in the wake of the 4th of July holiday, a day which carries many meanings.

In Rwanda, we recognized a different kind of July 4th than Americans celebrate. Rather than proudly brandishing red-white-and-blue at a backyard barbecue, gazing at loud booming fireworks in the distance, we spent a significant portion of our day in silence.

July 4th also happens to be Liberation Day here in Rwanda, and this year marked the 18th anniversary of the end of the country’s tragic genocide carried out in 1994. Over a period of 100 days, from early April to July 4th, over 800,000 people of the Tutsi minority were brutally killed by people of the Hutu majority. With 1.1 million Tutsis living in Rwanda, the mass killings eliminated over 75 percent of the Tutsi population.

To pay homage to this monumental day, we students paid a visit to the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali. We showed up with a basket of flowers tied with a purple ribbon (purple represents grief here) that read: “Always Remembering Our Rwandan Brothers & Sisters.” We started our tour with a visit to an unsealed mass grave where we could place the flowers we brought and have a moment of silence. It was intense, to say the very least. With only glass separating us from coffins draped in purple and white cloths with crosses on them, it was a surreal experience to actually face what we had only read about in advance of coming to this country. Not surprisingly, a few of us got a bit emotional standing there, acknowledging the harsh reality of this terrifying chapter in Rwanda’s history. Through our silence and stillness, there was a peacefulness that came over me.

The Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali is a stunning site. Outdoors, there are a series of sealed mass graves (giant concrete slabs) in which the remains of over 250,000 people are interred. Walking along those concrete coffins, reading the names of the victims on the walls, you can’t help but pinch yourself as a reminder that this was actually real. That something this unimaginable really did happen. That there are really hundreds of thousands of people’s remains just a few feet away.

Most of those killed have family members who are very much alive and who remember the horror of those 100 days as if it was yesterday. In many ways, it was. 18 years is not that long ago. I know I was in the 8th grade at the time and can remember hearing of mass killings in a faraway land called Rwanda.

There were also a series of gardens which offered many layers of meaning in their construction, the most obvious being the plethora of beautiful purple flowers planted within them. The first garden, the “Garden of Unity”, featured a circular fountain representing a unified Rwanda before the genocide (before colonialism). A stream from that garden spills into a waterfall which leads to the next garden below, the “Garden of Division.” This garden featured an explosive star as its fountain. Elephant statues sitting at each point on the star were facing out, turning their backs on the center of the fountain to symbolize the state of disunity that made the genocide thrive. The stream continued on to yet another garden below, the “Garden of Reconciliation.” In this garden, there is a fountain with a pile of rocks as its base to symbolize the building of a new Rwanda with elephant statues carrying cell phones symbolizing remembrance and communication about the genocide to future generations.

Indoors, in the museum portion, the walls telling the harsh truths of the facts about the genocide were hard to digest. It was a stark contrast to the serenity of the gardens outside. The walls told the history of Rwanda and what exactly led this once unified land down the road to multiple instances of genocide (the first was in 1959). What sits with me the most is how in pre-colonial times, Rwanda was a land (a kingdom) in which the people coexisted, unified by a common language and common work: cultivators and cattle raisers. It wasn’t until colonization by the Germans and later the Belgians that ethnic classifications were imposed on the Rwandans. The new colonial masters promoted the notion of Tutsi (15%), Hutu (84%), and Twa (1%) as distinctive ethnic groups in a way that had never been done before, thus creating internal conflict between the people and sowing the seeds for a genocide ideology.

The fact that the entirety of Africa was colonized by Europe and hacked into several pieces with false borders is not new information by any means, but to see what the long-lasting consequences of colonization are makes me think about how when we are taught imperialism in schools, it rarely comes with a critical view.

It’s ironic that we visited this place on the U.S.’s national holiday celebrating our resistance to British colonialism, but the U.S. is no less guilty of colonizing other people’s lands. What about the fate of the native people of America? Wasn’t that a genocide as well?

It is important to clarify that we M.A. students did not come to Rwanda to directly deal with the genocide and the national movement towards reconciliation after such a horrific history. We are here to share applied theatre techniques with the people so that they have the tools to use theatre to address whatever social concerns that they have. If the genocide comes up in the work, it must come from them. Not from us. That would only be another instance of Westerners coming in and imposing their agenda on the people. Applied theatre is participant centered and can be used for many different purposes. When I look at what has come up in the past week and a half with some of the drama students we’ve worked with, it is rarely directly about the genocide. The concerns we’ve heard the most often are about street children, abuse of women, police corruption, gambling and drug abuse, among others.

Though our work is not meant to directly address the issues of genocide, it is important that we know this dark chapter in this country’s history. It is a very recent chapter in which many of the people we are meeting are still closely related to. In advance of this trip, we all had to read Philip Gourevitch’s moving book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about this complex chapter in Rwanda’s recent past. The visit to the Genocide Memorial Centre concretized much of what was shared in that book. I am grateful for the opportunity to have had a lot of that information supplemented by actual images and artifacts and quotes and footage by the people that lived through it.

I would like to close with a quote from one of the walls within the memorial:

Genocide is likely to occur again,
Learning about it is the first step to understanding it,
Understanding it is imperative to responding to it,
Responding to it is essential to saving lives.
Otherwise “Never Again!” will remain
“Again and Again…!”

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One Response to A different kind of 4th of July…

  1. Jess Levy says:

    Thanks for this post, Ramy. It’s good to be reminded of what July 4th means in other places. I’m thinking of you all, wishing you well, and looking forward to reading more of this blog when I get home tonight. Hugs from NYC. -Jess

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