Coronavirus and the changing practices of memory in Rwanda

12:00 by Annalisa Bolin

Every April, Rwanda observes the official commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in 1994. People gather in large groups to remember the victims, pay respects, and mourn together; wreaths are laid at mass graves and the flame of remembrance is lit at Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital.

This year, coronavirus hit Rwanda only weeks before the season of Kwibuka (“to remember”). Rwanda has witnessed enormous change and development since 1994, but it remains relatively impoverished, and while most Rwandans are covered through a system of universal healthcare, a coronavirus-induced spike could—as in most countries—quickly overwhelm the country’s healthcare capacity. The government responded swiftly to flatten the curve, closing Rwanda’s borders and instituting a nationwide lockdown, complete with provision of food and essentials to some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable.

For Rwandans, as for much of the world, this spring brings immense changes to everyday life. But it also changed Kwibuka, pressuring organizers to find ways of reconciling the mandate to remember—a mandate fulfilled every April through mass commemoration and public participation—with the imperative to reduce virus transmission.

Kwibuka not only provides space for memory, but also ensures that this memory is passed on to younger generations—an urgent need in Rwanda, where a majority of citizens was born after the genocide. This desire to educate has been a driver of the growth of Kwibuka into a major national event, shaping commemoration in the country. Rwanda’s lockdown has forced changes in these practices, potentially endangering the ability to maintain collective memory into the future, as well as posing obstacles to meeting the needs of survivors and commemorators today.

President Kagame acknowledged the challenge in his Kwibuka address to the nation: “This year’s commemoration for survivors and families and for the country is hard because we cannot be together physically to comfort one another,” he said. “It is not an easy thing to do, Rwandans are used to coming together with solidarity and collective strength.” But, he added, “The current unusual circumstances will not prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to commemorate this solemn anniversary, honor those we lost and console survivors.”

There are resonances between April 1994, when Rwandans hid in their homes, and April 2020, under a national lockdown order. “It is April again, and we are on lock-down but this time not for being killed!” writes genocide survivor and author Claver Irakoze. “This time we actually feel safe to be locked down. We feel protected, not ambushed or surrounded.” Kwibuka has gone on, although the photos from this year’s ceremonies look very different. The President and First Lady light the flame at the Kigali memorial alone; high-ranking government officials lay wreaths one at a time, while the Rwandan Army Band performs, each member seated two meters apart from the next.

The changes in Kwibuka are difficult, as Nelson Gashagaza and Samantha Teta acknowledge. “Kwibuka26 is going to be exceptionally hard for survivors who will not be able to visit their beloved, lay down flowers on grave or water-bodies or meet in one place,” they write. New ways must be found to commemorate, especially online. These are especially important, Gashagaza and Teta point out, for survivors, who can find the anniversary of the genocide traumatic. “The best we can do for now is not allow survivors to experience the worst part of holding the memories: the loneliness of it,” they say. Being unable to visit shared spaces for commemoration is a loss, but not one that requires survivors, or any Rwandan, to go through Kwibuka alone. “Just because we can’t convene in lieux de mémoire,” Gashagaza and Teta say, “doesn’t mean we can’t create milieux de memoire—an environment of remembrance” online, using the digital platforms that are helping Rwandans connect during lockdown to facilitate communal gathering and support for survivors.

In Kagame’s speech, the Rwandan New Times reports, the president “highlighted that historical lessons have taught Rwandans the importance of working together to build a better future for all Rwandans”. Rwanda’s post-genocide development has been built, in part, on the pursuit of self-reliance, and the attempt to solve Rwandan problems with “homegrown solutions”. Lessons from Rwanda’s past are helping it manage the challenges of the present in contexts as different as the pursuit of development and mitigating coronavirus’s impact on the most difficult, important season of the year.

For Kwibuka26, Rwandans are helping to ensure their collective survival through finding new ways to be together while having to be apart. Although it is easy to think of memory as past-oriented and static, in fact the many ways humans remember—including Kwibuka’s commemorations—are dynamic. They respond not only to contemporary conditions, but also to what is anticipated that the future will need, as in Rwanda’s efforts to educate younger generations through collective commemoration. Coronavirus has prompted changes in memory practices, opening up new possibilities for the coming years. In Kwibuka27 and beyond, perhaps some of these new milieux de mémoire, and other solutions Rwandans develop, will persist as part of the changing landscape of commemoration.

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Annalisa Bolin
Annalisa Bolin is a postdoctoral fellow in the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, Linnaeus University.

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