Now Return My Story, and Wipe My Mouth with Bread | Renée Akitelek Mboya | Tuesday, 25.04.2023

i. Kwibuka, the ‘Remembering’

The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local.
– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), 35.

Early in the day on the 7th of April, as we in Rwanda wake into the paroxysm of collective mourning, an editorial exercise begins to take place online. The mood is measured, careful. No pretty girls dancing on TikTok, no rappers spitting lines, no comedians – no music, no laughter.
First, clips from a video – well-worn camcorder footage – start to circulate online and immediately a question arises: What happens to the images we cannot show – and where do we stand in the online space, unwitting witnesses to horrors that, for many of us in the present generation, preceded our capacity for imagining, our knowledge and the bounds of our empathy?
Here we leave space for a graphic content warning.
A little girl, six or seven years old at most, the same age I was 1994. She’s wearing a white cotton T-shirt that’s too big for her size, and a flared skirt. She is barefoot. We follow over her shoulder as she walks forward pointing ahead of her. It’s a moment before we realise that she is walking through a mass of corpses in various stages of decay. She steps over them, through them, alongside them – they are everywhere and she is so small.
She points ahead, the camera swings away from her and into the crowd: ‘I recognise him, that’s my dad.’ It swings back to catch her start and exclaim, ’And over there is my mum. They cut mum’s head off, and dad was shot.’ She hiccups, chokes back tears, the camera zooms into her hands, fingers raised to her mouth in a nervous gesture.
The little girl’s name is Marianna.
The 7th of April marks the day the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi began, and for the next 100 days, the whole community of Rwandans, locally and internationally, will engage in rituals to observe this collective loss, and the horrors that they experienced and witnessed. Alongside the official commemorative images – corporate banners against the backdrop of a lit candle, poetry enclosed in wreaths of red roses, an endless loop of speeches by bureaucrats and dignitaries – another set of images emerges. A different type of memorial that establishes new parameters for witnessing and new invitations to see, to look past the unseeable images. An edit, so to speak.
Rwanda is, first of all, incredibly picturesque. A place of rolling green hills and bright equatorial light, winding rivers and deep valleys – it is impossible to resist the impulse to lift one’s camera to the eye, at each instant. It’s not uncommon to hear that Rwanda is where god, Imana, comes to lay his head at night.
An ancient myth is told of the creation of Rwanda: that once upon an ancient time, Imana – the supreme being, creator deity in the traditional Banyarwanda religion, an almighty and gracious god – was busy creating the world. When Imana reached the hills above Lake Tanganyika and in the south of Rwanda, he was tired. For this reason the south of Rwanda is beautiful rolling downland, while to the north and further into the Rift Valley the hills are very steep and high. Imana was fresh while creating the central country, but he tired towards the end and finished in a hurry.
As with this creation story, the creation of a counter archive in some way generates its own mythology. Alongside the frank and graphic images of the victims, online space in Rwanda on the morning of kwibuka seeks to re-establish their place in society, by installing them as the dominant images of the memorial. Mothers, hair coiffed and lips tinged red. Children, one washed in the confusion of infant tears, the other, reaching towards the camera. Fathers, so many fathers – captions always the same. We miss you, we remember you. Perhaps, even, we remember you in the way we see you in this photograph. Smiling or stern in the fashion of identity documents. Caught off guard turning into the flare of the flash. The photographs themselves often rain-damaged, dirt-smeared, burnt – but always possessed and presented with pride, perhaps for the sake of those who will never know what their loved ones looked like or, like Marianna, last saw them amidst a mass of corpses.