August 29, 2016

by Jenna Zhang

Earlier this week, I spoke with Fiona, a young woman living in the Kicukiro district of Kigali. Our conversation was relatively brief, yet it was unusually memorable—and disconcerting—though not necessarily for the expected reasons. Hence, I have decided to devote my last blog post to my interview with her, and the fascinating set of issues which it involves.

Fiona was an infant during the genocide, when her parents were killed. Following the war, she lived in an orphanage for a short period of time, before being adopted by an aunt. Her story is tragic but sadly not uncommon: the Rwandan genocide left behind some 75,000 orphans, some of whom are still struggling in spite of government programs.

Fiona at home. Photo by Jenna Zhang.

Fiona at home. Photo by Jenna Zhang.

She herself was remarkably shy during the interview, speaking in low tones and responding to questions with succinct affirmatives or negatives. Needless to say, the subject matter is deeply sensitive, but even so, she displayed none of the self-awareness that interview participants often exhibit unknowingly. The way in which she told her story was unusual in that it seemed to serve no particular end. People who have come to terms with their trauma, people who are accustomed to speaking about it, tend to incorporate their pasts into the present: painful histories are rehabilitated as cornerstones of present-day identities, whether personal (i.e. the notion of the “survivor”) or political (i.e. the kind of collective memories that cultivate a certain national identity). To cope with the past, people—individually and collectively—tell themselves stories, constructing tidier, more linear versions of history with narrative progressions.

There was no sense that Fiona’s story was the product of sophisticated deliberation, that it had been told with any particular personal or political narrative in mind. This is by no means to suggest that Fiona has not yet come to terms with the past, or that her own process of reconciliation lacks complexity. Quite the contrary: she appeared to be a thoughtful person, and I’m almost certain she told me less than she might have had I not been a foreign researcher. Her reticence was completely understandable. Besides, there was a purity to the way she spoke, which has become almost unusual in some circles—those in which people have gradually adopted the ideas and lingo of human rights organizations and civil society groups, so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between what people really believe in and what they think they ought to believe in.

That day, my usual interpreter was ill and so, he had asked a friend, Albert, to take his place. I think Fiona’s general reticence and the brevity of her responses began to concern Albert after a while. My knowledge of Kinyarwanda is extremely limited, but still, it was not difficult to see that some responses were being embellished during the translation. For instance:

Question: Do you think the idea of “Rwandan-ness” has caught on?

Fiona: Yes.

Albert: She says that the idea of Rwandan-ness has become important to many people. She thinks that people don’t think of themselves in terms of ethnicity anymore and only in terms of their Rwandan national identity.

The first response reveals very little about what Fiona really thinks about national identity. That’s fine: it is her prerogative not to speak, and as I’ve written in my previous blog post, silence in interviews can be just as important and provocative as speech. But the second response, I think, reveals even less. At best, it’s the PR version of what she might have meant; construed less optimistically, it’s a total fabrication in the sense that she didn’t actually say any of those things.

I think Albert intended well. He was very solicitous and probably worried that I wouldn’t “get what [I] wanted.” And yet I wonder what else gets lost in translation, or who else is precluded from participating in these interviews altogether, to ensure that the Western researcher—the customer, as it were— “gets what they want.”

I’m not sure that this particular example of mistranslation can be isolated. In the few weeks that I’ve been in Rwanda, I’ve had the sense that there is a great deal of self-censorship going on during interviews. “Rwandans are very closed,” my usual interpreter told me at one point: “they don’t talk about how they really feel, so it’s very hard to know for sure.” From the way this is phrased, one might interpret the restraint of Rwandans as a cultural phenomenon, something intrinsic to the nation’s character. Somehow, I doubt it is. There’s certainly a lot of historical baggage which contributes to the general reserve toward certain issues, not to mention the fear of repercussions. Given Rwanda’s tumultuous history, I don’t think silence is necessarily a bad thing in itself; in general, I’m not entirely sold on the (Western?) notion that talking about everything is integral to healing. For some people, the wound may still be too fresh for them to talk about the past. And that’s perfectly comprehensible.

What concerns me is the dangerous degree of control which an authoritarian regime like the government of Rwanda exerts over collective memory. Every nation has its own rendition of history, yet in liberal-democratic regimes, there is space for civil contestation and for alternative interpretations of events to be presented and evaluated. But in the authoritarian state, personal histories merely constitute strands in the dominant political narrative; there, inharmonious elements are culled. Whether or not Fiona actually thinks the “idea of Rwandan-ness has become important to many people,” I may never know for sure. As a matter of fact, I haven’t found a single person, in all my interviews thus far, who believes that ethnicity is still relevant; and yet, the secondary literature indicates otherwise.

I wonder about the price of the reconciliation process, as it has been handled in Rwanda—about the inherent cost of appropriating personal narratives, whether it divests people of the capacity to formulate their own identities. At the same time, I wonder about the political cost of exclusion, of precluding certain histories from the process of collective memory formation, and by extension, their custodians from the public sphere. In Rwanda, there are those who still retain genocide ideology. What becomes of dissent made invisible? Does it eventually dry up, for lack of sustenance? Or does it explode?


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