So this past weekend and through the next week Peace Corps Rwanda is undergoing a review of its programs. I think it's a really positive thing because they are trying to address problems with the programs and encourage the stuff that's working on a more institutional level. I was a participant in one of the focus groups on "Working as a PCV in a 'post-conflict' country" (the others included: PCV leaders, Health, & Education).
It was a really cathartic discussion. First and foremost, because we were able to really honestly talk about things that we don't address that often. For obvious reasons, the 1994 Genocide is a rather sensitive topic here. We don't ask people in our communities anything that could be even remotely connected to those sorts of things. There are all sorts of gov't. restrictions on the things you can say and especially as concerns identification of one ethnic group or another. I'm not sure how you all feel about that sort of policy, but we're not allowed to really address it. Frankly, most of the time, for the sake of our sanity we want to leave things as they are. You catch snippets of talk and some people proffer their stories of that time with no word from us. They come at unusual times, which isn't that rare for such traumas. BUT, that means they blindside you. And it leads to some curious difficulties in small talk. It's hard to get to know someone when you don't want to ask about their family for fear of what that could potentially trigger. They typically phrase the first question about my family as "Do you still have both your parents?" and then continue to ask about siblings. People will mention, "Yes, I was once one of 11, now we are 9 because of the Genocide" (or often, "because of the war").
In addition, every year starting April 7th there is a Memorial Week (or really period of 3 months) that ends on July 4th, their Liberation Day. Throughout that time, there are memorials and ceremonies and marches and visits to various memorial sites throughout the country. We arrived in the country after the biggest part of these ceremonies, but we did experience one such ceremony in our training community. We were brought to a ceremony that we were told was a "Memorial"('with singing and some speeches') The critical part of that description left out of that it was also a 'Reburial ceremony'...
Now here's where it gets even more complicated. We were really uncomfortable at this. We felt we had no right to be there, what did we know of it all? How could we possibly relate? How could we sympathize or comfort even? Wasn't it bad that they were distracted from the ceremony by the herd of Americans walking around?
So we felt guilty for being there. We feel guilty that we can't relate. We feel guilty when we want to avoid the trauma or pain of even these events because how does that even begin to compare? One volunteer was told once, "It's interesting that all the muzunugus leave during April because that's what they did when it all happened in the first place."
How do you respond to that? But then, how can someone from our (more likely than not) relatively sheltered existence be present at these events without being overwhelmed by it all.
It's something we may not struggle with on a daily basis, but these things are in the back of our minds and simmering below the surface of interactions in our communities.
I'm not entirely comfortable about even putting this all up here but I feel like you should know. I think you couldn't imagine reconciling the picture you have of Rwanda in your head from Heart of Darkness or Hotel Rwanda with the Rwanda that I've described before this post. If you knew nothing of Rwanda's history and came here today, I think it would be very difficult to imagine anything like that had ever happened here. But, it did and we can't change that it did. But knowing that certainly makes the utterly common site of a boy kicking a ball while holding a machete more uncomfortable. As volunteers though, we're constantly asking ourselves to look past that to do our work and work with everyone...but how do you disassociate like that? The better question I find myself asking is...how do they? Do they?
OR are they just putting on the Rwandan neutral face to get through today next to someone who may have killed their whole family. Just trying to move from yesterday to tomorrow.
If you're curious,these are several good books, (that I've read personally) that you can read on this topic and the path the country has taken since then:
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families:Stories from Rwanda by Phillip Gourevitch
Machete Season:The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld (**I've also heard great things about Jean Hatzfeld's other two books but have yet to read them*)
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire
A Thousand Hills:Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer
Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence by Scott Straus & Lars Waldorf