Now Return My Story, and Wipe My Mouth with Bread | Renée Akitelek Mboya | Friday, 05.05.2023

ii. Babonana, We See Each Other

I solicit a quick grammar lesson from a friend, early on the tenth day of Kwibuka.
My dear, I need your help. Wake up, please.
In Kirundi, the verb to see is kubona? As in, we see? Can I use it like that or do I have to conjugate it?
Is it the same in Kinyarwanda?

Tubona, we see.
Babona, they see.
Babonana, we see each other.
We see each other.
We continue with the theme of a counter-archive. What does it mean, and in what ways is it empowering, to witness the construction of a counter-archive, alongside public performances of grief and articulations of loss? By counter-archives we mean alternative sources, and resources, which allow the expression of a counter-narrative that conventional archives cannot, in many respects, accommodate.
A tentative reference, an attempt to define in English the things that in our languages are not so tongue-tied:
'In this formulation, the ‘counter-archive’ represents an incomplete and unstable repository, an entity to be contested and expanded through clandestine acts, a space of impermanence and play. Taken as an action, the term entails mischief and imagination, challenging the record of official history. Employed as an artistic strategy it pushes our archival impulse into new territories, encouraging critique and material alteration/fabrication, and emboldening anarchivism. To counter-archive is to counter-act, to rewrite, to animate over'. 1Brett Kashmere, 'Cache Rules Everything Around Me', in Counter-Archive, Incite 2 (Spring–Fall 2010),
To sing – in the specific, tuneless style of an aunty who is forever wrapped in precious piety – in a way that only family can recognise. I think about the two drunkards who chat endlessly, night after night, on the street corner outside my bedroom window: an urgent transfer, a ritual of recalling and recitation infecting the dreams of the whole of KK Avenue 3. The secret recipe that added exactly three drops of lemon to a sweet dish. A strip of fabric recovered from a pile of ash, blue and red, printed for the 8March 1994 celebrations, ‘Rien sans les femmes’ framed against a backdrop of gold crowns.
To work with an archive is to be constantly confronted by its failings. There are some places, some images, that the archive cannot see. How does the archive, the photo archive in this case, limit the production of knowledge about the past? How do the archives we choose constantly privilege specific forms – the traumatic images of dead bodies piled high – while suppressing others, the tender images of the moments before, and somehow after, this violently imposed separation?
I’m struck by another personation from a film. A static shot framed under the harsh fluorescent lights of a survivor’s tidy living room, tinged yellow by the cream-painted walls, the tonal obsession of landlords worldwide. The crocheted squares recall my own mother’s living room, strategically placed to hide oil stains from past hair-salon encounters –salooni – which incidentally are also often photo days: shiny foreheads pulled tight so that they can last the school term, clean shaves sprinkling shirt collars with shards of shaved hair.
In the corner, mounted in lightly varnished timber, the survivor – Claudine – points to a propped-up acrylic canvas. A reproduction – a reprocessing of a photograph. An image reactivated in the domain of domestic life, tinged by a persistent encounter with grief and the impossibility of linear time. Claudine commissioned a painter to paint a portrait of her late husband copied from an identity photo, to reanimate it and bring him closer, bring him back as a permanent feature of their household. The painting, colourised from the original black-and-white image, fails in many respects to represent the inner life of the dead man. Identity photos are in the first place meant to depersonalise. Death completes this act. Paint cannot restore the nuances that bright studio lights have already removed.
I struggle to find a way to name this. Is it an edition? An interpretation? A ploy by Claudine to transport herself into a past before talk of family was tinged with talk of tragedy; with words like murder, machete, corpse? What is the effect of making the photo a painting and then photographing the painting to distribute amongst WhatsApp aunties and church groups? What does this do?
In this way we approach counter-archives as a way to unsettle linear understandings of time. Let us be timeless. They are more than a process of diversifying conventional archives, more than adding previously hidden traces of history into the archive: rather, they are a way to better access and address the logic of archives and to think about how they serve the communities they claim to represent.
Communities have always had their own way of engaging with material culture and, in a place like Rwanda where objects were lost and places and landscapes are stained with the very present and visceral trauma that was experienced, the additional challenge of accommodating the limitations of what a photograph, for example, can mean – and what its implications are – is stark. A smooth face, unmarked by age leads us to the realisation that a person didn’t live long enough, rather than generating a comment on their timeless beauty.
I wonder if, in some respects, this approach to reproducing images corresponds better to the way memory actually works, unreliable but for the occasional prompt. The truth is that memory relies on these prompts. How do we build memorials in a place where all the prompters are dead? How do we refer to images that themselves rely on references that – who – no longer exist?