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I would like to thank His Excellency, Ambassador Phillip Rukikaire, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uganda and His Excellency Joseph Rutabana, Rwandan High Commissioner to Uganda, for this truly East African moment, where a Kenyan is in Uganda, and no less in Makerere University, invited to talk about Rwanda.

Thank you also to Prof Umar Kakumba, the Acting Vice Chancellor of Makerere University for making the honour possible by hosting this event. 

I am moved by this event because Makerere is the home of many East African scholars. We, the second generation of post-independence university students, were taught by the first generation of Kenyan academics of whom many had studied at Makerere. 

I also happen to be a child of parents who were members of the East African Revival, a fellowship whose roots are in Rwanda and Uganda. So being here means I’ve finally visited my intellectual and spiritual home.

How my education journey led to Rwanda

I have been asked many times by Rwandans how it is that a Kenyan, who looks like a Rwandan, actually speaks French and knows some of Rwanda’s history. So I beg your indulgence for a few minutes while I tell you about my years in school, because they explain how we have got to this East African moment where a Kenyan is invited to Uganda to share her reflections not only on Rwanda, but on an event of so much pain and grief, and whose ripples are still felt 30 years later, which is the genocide against the Tutsi. By discussing my school years, I would also like to talk about the importance of knowledge when it comes to how we remember and heal from the genocide. This is a university where knowledge is our main work, and I am looking forward to hearing from the panellists and the audience.

And so, I begin.

I studied French in high school in the 1980s. I was good at it, and my teachers liked me. One of my teachers was Rwandan, but at the time, we were told that she was Ugandan. I also had a classmate whom I thought was Ugandan but eventually found out was Rwandan. I was therefore aware of a complicated history behind the association of the two countries, but I didn’t understand what brought these nationalities together, because we were busy twisting our brains to understand Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre. For a young African mind, studying the existentialist plays of Sartre was torture.

In high school, my goal was to join university and study law, because we were told that law was the only respectful career available to students in the arts and humanities. I didn’t score enough points to get into law. I was admitted for a Bachelor of Education in French at Kenyatta University. And even in Kenyatta University, I had Kenyan, Ugandan, Rwandan, Congolese and Tanzanian lecturers.

By the time I graduated, which was in 1994, I had felt the call to be a teacher and had given up my ambitions of going to law school. I wanted to be a scholar of education because I saw how students struggled unnecessarily in school with bad syllabi. Both the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University turned down my application to study Masters of Education, but Kenyatta University admitted me to study for a Masters of Arts in French.

Then I got a job at Daystar University, where I still am. I still had dreams of studying education, but I was told that I had to pursue my doctoral studies in the subject which I had been employed to teach. So I had to continue studying French. But since I wanted an international experience, I went to the linguistic attaché of the French embassy to ask if there were opportunities to study in France. He told me not to bother pursuing further education. His advice was in line with his government’s position to support only high school teachers of French.

I then applied to study French in the United States and I was accepted. Thus began my journey full circle back to Rwanda. When the time came to write my dissertation, I wanted to study literature in French from countries closer to home, namely DR Congo, Rwanda or Burundi. But I had no one to guide me. None of the faculty in our department specialised in those areas, and in most American universities with studies on Francophone Africa, the dominant countries of study were Senegal, Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire.

However, as I was searching for literature from DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, I came across the book by Yvonne Mukagasana, La mort ne veut pas de moi (translated as Not my time to die) and N’aie pas peur de savoir (Don’t be afraid to know). I was blown away by what Mukagasana wrote. I was determined to study more about what happened in Rwanda in 1994. 

In 2002, I went for a nine-month stint at the University of Strasbourg in France. My ambition was to find out more about Rwanda, and if possible, meet with Mukagasana. But I was walking blind. Again, at the University of Strasbourg, there were no specialists in anything – and I mean anything – related to Africa. Eventually, I located a Belgian professor who was based at the University of Metz, not far from where I was, who had published some work on Congo. So I took a train journey to Metz, met with him, and told him I was interested in working on literature about what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and asked if he could help me locate some sources or writers. What he told me still makes me shiver, to this day.

He said that there is no point studying the genocide because no one wants to talk about it, and Rwandans were still not ready to talk about it. He said that I was not going to get anything from a Rwandan. What makes me shiver when I think about it today is that I actually believed him. So I left Metz having decided to find a different dissertation topic.

After I returned to the US to complete my studies, I attended a conference of the African Literature Association, where one of the keynote speakers was Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop, discussing his then newly published book Murambi, Book of Bones. It was from his lecture that I finally understood the political dynamics of the genocide against the Tutsi from an unapologetically African perspective. After I completed my studies, I had the opportunity to meet Jean-Paul Karegeye and Aloys Mahwa who invited me to Rwanda, under the summer programme of the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center, to meet with various Rwandan artists, academics, clergy, government officials, genocide survivors and perpetrators. And on that trip, I finally got to meet Yvonne Mukagasana. We even visited her at her home in Kigali.

Why am I telling this story?

Infrastructure of ignorance

I’m telling this story to illustrate how imperialism has ensured that Africans learning about each other’s countries is extremely difficult. I had access to scholarly resources well out of the reach of most Africans, but my search to understand what happened in Rwanda in 1994, was consistently frustrated. And yet, one of the factors that made the genocide against the Tutsi possible was global ignorance about Africa, but especially about Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, all areas that suffered the brutal force of Belgian colonialism. In 1994, Rwanda was barely known internationally. In Raoul Peck’s film Sometimes in April, there is an iconic moment that illustrates this ignorance when a foreign journalist ignorantly asks at a press conference during the genocide: “The rebels; are they Tutu or Hutsi?”. It is rumoured that the best that senior US government officials had read on Rwanda at the time of the genocide was a cycling tour guide book written in the 1970s. In his book Complicity With Evil, Adam Lebor argues that the UN is useless in intervening in genocide, be it in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, due to the ignorance of UN bureaucrats of the unique political dynamics of specific countries. They are content to lament over cocktails about “ancient tribal hatreds”. 

It took my interaction with Africans, Boubacar Boris Diop, Jean-Paul Karegeye and Koulsy Lamko, to finally get in touch with a politically conscious, African-centred understanding of the genocide against the Tutsi. Diop had spent time in Rwanda under the project “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire”, which had been organised by Lamko. For Diop, Africans beyond Rwanda are still deeply implicated in the genocide against the Tutsi because the logic for the genocide was European, and the world’s inertia during the genocide was possible because of racist attitudes towards Africans. The world refused to intervene in the slaughter of one million Rwandans because African lives are not worth the trouble.

When I returned home, I hoped to teach a course on the genocide against the Tutsi. But unfortunately for me, my specialisation was literature, and the neoliberal competition for market-friendly subjects made students hesitant to take classes in my department in the name of avoiding courses that are not market-friendly. This neoliberal, anti-arts propaganda is something with which Makerere University is familiar, and it has been captured in Mahmood Mamdani’s book Scholars in the Marketplace. And so, despite all my scholarship and interactions on the genocide against the Tutsi, I have been able to teach about it in a Kenyan classroom only once in my entire academic career. Only once.

And yet, the ignorance about the genocide has serious ramifications in the Kenyan public square. A few months ago, a Kenyan journalist, who considers himself a foreign correspondent and expert on African affairs, wrote a post on X (formerly Twitter), asking why Kigali cannot sit down and talk with the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda]. A few Kenyans, myself included, reminded him that the FDLR counts genocidaires among its members. I have also seen in Kenyan universities a number of theses and dissertations with elements of genocide denial that pass undetected by their Kenyan academic supervisors.

How is such a lack of knowledge possible?

To answer this question, I want to turn the spotlight on Kenya.

Liberalism

In Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the genocide against the Tutsi for two reasons. One is that for many Kenyans, the rubric through which we understand the genocide against the Tutsi is the 2007–2008 post-election violence. We assume that Tutsi and Hutu are two distinct ethnic groups with different languages, and that the Tutsi are like the Kikuyu. So just as the Kenyan post-election violence ended with agreement between the principals Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in 2008, we reason like the Kenyan journalist that the RPF and the FDLR are engaged in a similar conflict.

The second blind spot comes from Kenya’s dedication to the European principles of liberalism. The instinct of European liberalism is to automatically distrust all African leaders and to insist on regular elections and term limits as the solution to all problems. On this basis alone, without any knowledge of history, the politician Victoire Ingabire’s message resonates with Kenyan liberals. She appears as a vocal human rights critic of dictatorship, who is fighting for freedom of speech and the rule of law. Trying to contextualise the problem with what she is saying, through referring to the genocide against the Tutsi, is casually dismissed with “the genocide is no excuse”.

This is a serious problem which, I must admit, has made me reduce my public discussion of the genocide against the Tutsi. One, I have limited resources to consistently study the genocide and the ensuing ripple effect on the region. With the neoliberal onslaught on African higher education, we have resorted to relying on Western donors to fund our research, and no Western donor will give us funds to study other African countries for reasons that are our own. As I have already detailed, there is an intellectual infrastructure in Africa that blocks us from understanding one another through direct conversations between Africans themselves. 

Second, Western liberalism and its extensive PR and media machinery have also ensured that immediately Congo or Rwanda comes up in conversation, one is goaded to explain the Paul Kagame presidency and the problems in Congo. And as I said, any mention of the genocide as one of the roots of those problems is casually dismissed as an excuse. Mentioning imperial interests in Congo and the colonial roots of the problems in the region is talked of as blaming the colonialists. 

This kind of dismissal points to the inherent character of liberal discourse. Liberal discourse is frustratingly linear, narrow-minded, individualist, obsessively moralist and hostile to complexity, and so the lives of millions of people disappear from the conversation immediately the name of a political leader is mentioned. Liberalism pretends to offer robust debate when in reality, it offers us a simplistic view of politics where discussion is only between the dominant side, and a ceremonial opposition. 

This simplistic liberal formula of politics is, in my view, the greatest driver of denial of the genocide against the Tutsi.

Genocide denial through media framing

Let me illustrate my point with a recent news bulletin by the Deutsche Welle Television entitled “30 years on: Talking with those who survived the Rwandan genocide”. This particular segment has an African female anchor, Christine Mhundwa, which already lowers our guard as Africans on the need to be critical. Putting aside the documentary’s insistence that 800,000 people were killed, what is fascinating is how the news bulletin pits genocide survivors against genocide deniers in the name of democratic politics. 

The problem becomes clearer when we come to politics, which is a question of power. The Deutsche Welle TV news fails to note the role of the government and elites, the education system and the media, in creating a wave of extremism. Instead, we’re told that the genocide occurred when “extremists from the majority ethnic Hutus” waged war “against the influential minority Tutsi population”. 

We have to pause there for a minute. The TV segment is telling us that the genocide was an ethnic and civil conflict; two, that Tutsis were influential; and three, that the state had no role to play in the genocide. 

However, the Tutsi could not have been influential since the Belgians had reduced them to a stooge in the early 20th century, and extremists had been in power since 1959. 

We also need to explain, again and again, the problem with ethnicising the genocide. Many have done so by pointing out that the so-called Rwandan ethnicities were not real ethnicities but colonial constructs, so I will not belabour that point. The issue for me today, speaking among people who have made ideas their vocation, is that this focus on ethnicity is a European liberal problem. As Issa Shivji once said, European liberalism decontextualises and abstracts the human being. The result is that liberalism judges us not by our actions and our thoughts for which we can be held responsible, but by our identity, which we can’t change. Of course, such a dehumanising way of thinking is convenient for Europe, because it allows the West to say that it is rich because it is white, not because it is exploiting us, and that we Africans are poor because we are black, and not because we are exploited.

But before we have time to reflect on this, the bulletin moves to a survivor of the genocide. The journalist Mariel Müller walks us through Nyamata Genocide memorial from where the genocide survivor Chantal Uwanyirigira escaped with serious injuries. I wonder whether due diligence was taken to be sensitive to her trauma, but I will leave that matter aside. My point is that the role of this section is to appeal to our empathy. This is fair enough because, after all, we cannot understand the genocide without seeing the events through the eyes of the survivors.

The problem becomes more obvious, to a trained eye, not a passive observer, when one notices that the people who are interviewed as victims and perpetrators are villagers with little political power. The journalist throws the very dishonest question to these villagers about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a complex philosophical question which requires more than a simple yes or no answer. But that is not what Muller is looking for. The question of forgiveness is designed to maintain the genocide as a personal and individual matter, not a political one. 

For Deutsche Welle TV, the only political problem that Rwanda is facing is a ruler who has stayed too long in office. For help with stressing this point, the journalist seeks the performance of none other than Victoire Ingabire. The question the journalist asks her is insidious: has the current government dealt with the divisions that led to the genocide? Remember, the news bulletin has already framed the problem as an ethnic one.

And true to form, Ingabire continues with the double genocide thesis, says nothing about the role of the West in the genocide. And really, she cannot talk about the political aspect of the genocide, because as I have previously argued in another publication, Ingabire’s political career rides on espousing the principles of liberalism. She fits the profile of opposition which liberalism considers necessary for politics. She gives us the usual talking points the West loves to throw at Africa – development, term limits, electoral competition, threat to the government, bla bla bla.

After that interview, the next interview of a Rwandan is of the filmmaker Samuel Ishimwe regarding his recent and excellent documentary on the colonial roots of the genocide. Funnily enough, Christine Mhundwa starts her interview by saying that she did not know that Hutus and Tutsis were not ethnicities but social groups, even though the first half of the news report has been about ethnicity. And then her interview of Ishimwe proceeds to his personal loss in terms of the murder of his parents during the genocide.

Why am I giving a detailed sequence of this news bulletin? 

Because the heaviest weight of the genocide denial in the TV news segment is not in the framing of the genocide as ethnic, or even in the interviewing of a genocide denier. To see the weight of the genocide denial, you have to look at the news segment in its totality, in terms of plot and characters. The video introduces the idea of the genocide being an ethnic conflict, numbs our minds with a melodrama through following a genocide survivor, then frames the current political issue as a matter of elections, and finishes off with an interview of a filmmaker. One Rwandan is talking about pain, the other about electoral politics, the other of cultural history. They may all be talking about the genocide, but they have been positioned at cross purposes. The only consistency in the news segment is the German journalist herself, whose job is to reiterate, without saying it in so many words, that the genocide was African tribes fighting each other, and who need to forgive, reconcile and embrace Western liberal democracy. 

The political problem that we are dealing with here is simple. Intellectual laxity. And the university is the place to talk about it. If Deutsche Welle TV wanted to do justice to its obsession with the two opposing sides, they should have interviewed someone to contrast Ingabire’s views. If we must stick to the simplistic two sides of a story, we must compare equal actors. A survivor of genocide and an opposition politician are not equals. One is talking about personal pain; the other is talking about power and ideology. 

Similarly, the emphasis on the West’s involvement in the genocide being colonial fixes the genocide in the past, and the only present left up to Rwandans is to forgive at a personal level, and at a political level, hold elections. But are we sure this problem of colonial categories is stuck in the past with no life in the present?

The value of pitting genocide survivors against genocide denying politicians is to basically push the ideology that genocide and colonialism belong in the past, and that the job of Africans is to stop these “ancient tribal hatreds”, sort out their identities and forgive one another. When it comes to politics and the present, what we need is Western liberal democracy.

In the end, the news bulletin leaves us under the impression that it has discussed the genocide. But it has not, because it does not discuss the role of the state, the elites, the media and the international community in setting up the conditions for the genocide to take place. We’re essentially back to the colonial divide – culture for Africans, political economy for Europeans. The past for Africans, history for Europeans. Nothing has changed except the aura of imperialism. The structures and logic remain intact.

Let me clarify that my remarks are not blaming the interviewees for their interviews. Many Africans find themselves in the same position, generously sharing their ideas and experiences in the interests of truth and justice, only for their experiences, pain and ideas to be co-opted in a different intellectual framework with different political interests that negate the generosity of the interviewees. 

In addition, I would like to clarify that I am not calling for ignoring the regional aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi, or for ignoring the political dilemmas with which Rwandans and the entire region grapple. My point is that we cannot understand them if we are using simplistic liberal formulas that are hostile to complexity.

The importance of knowledge

The gist of my reflections today is that knowledge – how we think, with whom we think – remains a central issue in remembering the genocide and rebuilding Rwanda. We Africans, and East Africans, must take the commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi as a duty of all of us. All the struggles of Rwandans to understand, to heal, to recover, and to remember, are the struggles in which Africans across the world have been engaged for the last five centuries of colonialism and racism. Tracing the roots of the dilemmas we face is often dismissed by liberal discourse as nostalgia for a non-existent past or blaming westerners.

The practice of having conversations like this, as East Africans, among ourselves must be streamlined. We need centres of East African studies in our universities where we commit to learning each other’s histories and to having conversations among ourselves. While I am grateful that my learning about the genocide against the Tutsi was triggered by a Senegalese writer in the United States, we all know that this model of education is elitist and unsustainable. We must therefore make these conversations more frequent and more accessible to the people of our region.

And this leads me to my exhortation to young Africans and East Africans. Your duty is not limited to learning and understanding what happened in Rwanda that culminated in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. You must go a step further. You must pursue knowledge, as Prof Olufemi Taiwo said in his TED Talk, with maniacal commitment. Do not listen to ideologies that lock our history in the past. As he said, do not accept the lie that studying and learning is only for jobs and employers. If we restrict pursuing knowledge to solving problems in sight, we will not be able to deal with new problems that arise. 

We have made one step forward in ensuring that the West does not make us avoid history. Now it is you, the youth of Africa, who will teach us not only to know what happened to us, but to also make our history a living present and the foundation of our future. Teach us how to resist the onslaught of liberalism that seduces us with notions of equality, but in reality, reduces and imprisons our humanity in identity, our memory in moralism of forgiveness, and our history in the past, making it appear as if we Africans need Western interventions to enter the present. In the words of the poem by African American poet Nikki Giovanni, you must invent new games and teach us older ones how to play. I hope that today, you can tell us elders what you think could be the way forward.

Thank you once again, Your Excellency Ambassador Philip Rukikaire, Your Excellency Ambassador Joseph Rutabana, and the leadership of Makerere University, for this unique opportunity to share these thoughts with you.

In memory of the victims of the genocide against the Tutsi, with compassion for the survivors, in honour of our ancestors, and in solidarity with my fellow East Africans, I end with these words: Mungu ibariki Afrika. May God bless Africa.