Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lessons from Gerald Prunier on Understanding Rwanda's past, Part 1

Do you like this post?
Immediately after the holocaust, many Jews survivors deserted Germany vowing never to return. They boarded boats to the new world and the others would find a new if hostile nation in the Middle East. This, I am told, is one way of regaining healing after many years of close to death experience. But for Rwandans, this has never been an option. Most of us have had to go through the agony of living next to the people who killed our relatives and persecuted us during the horror-filled days.

My usage of “us” here is for the purpose of encompassing the multi-ethnic torment that often gets obscured, from time to time, as we fall into the traps of glorifying one dominant narrative at the expense of the other.

The way the story of Rwanda has told has had tremendous consequences on the new nation and the people of Rwanda. The narratives relayed around the world whether through the media or books, have become the definition of our humanity. Everywhere I go, I am spotted to explain whether I am Hutu or Tutsi. My life is interpreted through the lens of good and evil, victim or murderer, interahamwe or the RPF. There is an addiction to simplified stories in the west that is hard to overcome.

While reading Gerald Prunier’s excellent book, “Africa’s World Way”, a fellow class mate disliked the fact that Prunier had appropriated violence to all sides of the conflict and lacked the usual virtuous hero character.

“This is very complicated to read. It is hard to identify the good and the bad”, she complained.

While I admire the student’s honest, it is more useful to explore how the “good vs. bad” dichotomy has affect Rwandans. Where did it come from? It is useless to deny that genocide was committed in 1994, and that the majority of 800,000 targeted were Tutsi.

Similarly, it is not useful to ignore the other parts of the puzzle which lay the context in which the new Rwanda army committed a possible genocide against Hutu refugees.

Prunier, more than any other writer on Rwanda, has taken an extra mile to deal with his own biases and account for his shortcomings. This level of humility is unprecedented in the vast works on Rwanda. The usual line is that the expert understands everything about Rwanda. Of course, as is often the case, the dynamics of the story are understated.

I find the last chapter of Prunier’s book to be most enriching. If only because Prunier graciously allows the reader into his inner feelings. He explains his personal struggles, how do you tell the story of two sworn enemies while remaining neutral? In answering this question, his chapter, “Groping for the meaning: the “Congolese” conflict and the crisis of contemporary Africa” is a priceless gem. Prunier writes:
Intellectually the hegemonic position of the Rwandese genocide as a global frame of explanation was all the more tragic because. It was almost impossible to achieve a reasonable modicum of objectivity on the topic. I have often asked myself why it was that there could be so many white Hutu and white Tutsi, so eager to prove the virtue of their adopted camp and the evil of the opposite one.
The phenomenon of “white Tutsi versus white Hutu” is one that I find intriguing. And one that I feel deserves more intellectual curiosity. Apart from the academic world, how did this phenomenon affect the other international stakeholders?

If there is one thing time offers, it is not healing but the ability to reflect and reexamine our past. Time confronts us to deal with our memory. From my own experience, I think this is unavoidable. I hear my voice asking, “What has the fighting been all about?” 16 years later, my comprehension is still an inch deep and a mile wide. But the questions—there are many, continue to overwhelm me.

No comments: