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Forgetting the Past

September 5, 2011

I want to move on with my sort-of-backward history of Rwanda without lingering too much longer on the Rwandan Cycling Team and Philip Gourevitch’s July article in The New Yorker. One aspect of that piece, however, really made an impression on me: how the trauma of the 1994 genocide had prompted the young riders of the Rwandan Cycling Team to forget their past. Gourevitch seemed to imply that this was part of a national project: intent on looking forward, boosting Rwanda’s economy and place in Africa.


A lot of Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi, tell you that they wish they could forget their country’s history—that they could account for their own lives without having to account for the genocide and the civil wars. The urgent question in the aftermath of the genocide was: How can a people divided by such extreme and intimate bloodshed live together again?

This is a critical question. How do you live with neighbors who, not so long ago, were slaughtering members of your immediate family? How do you erase the personal and collective memories of such violence and mayhem? How do you move on?

My other qualm has to do with history’s social role and its suppression in post-genocide Rwanda. Outside the academy, when constructed by groups of people, history is an exercise that articulates the politics of identity. Who we are, how we belong, how we draw boundaries around us and others are all driven by a kind of collective historical emphasis. If collective histories are erased, so too is much of the heritage and identity that links groups of people.

This is an interesting facet of the Rwandan recovery. To suggest that Rwandans are foregoing any notion of historical identity is to put much too fine a point on it; rather, the manner in which history is being redrafted—even restarted—is compelling. For the historian, this is an intriguing cultural project. In a future post, I’ll explore Rwanda’s innovative methods of “moving on.”

Gourevitch’s point with respect to the cyclists is that they are already a generation removed from genocide—they are innocent—but the weight of the brutality still rests on their shoulders.

For a young generation that is scarred by is historical inheritance, but free of any direct accountability, it is not enough simply to coexist and to bury the memory of the slaughter; there is a need to make the idea of being Rwandan have greater value.

Rather than rebuilding the country on the back of blame and recrimination, the idea has been to craft a collective identity—inclusive of all Hutus and Tutsis—that promotes unity over division, out of the shadows of an incredibly divisive past. As Gourevitch points out, this is a double-edged sword:

That identity … has the disadvantage of any universalist diktat, that many other truths have to be suppressed, blurred, and ignored in order for it to take hold. The paradox is that in the name of putting the genocide behind them Rwandans have had it held constantly in front of them, as a warning of the perils of divided identity.

A topic for another post, too, perhaps, but Gourevitch also observes that “it is far easier for Tutsis … to speak openly about their memories than it is for Hutus. After all, surviving genocide is Rwanda’s official story.” This collective identity erases another part of the national history, which is little known outside Rwanda: civil wars before and after the genocide resulted in numerous deaths and slaughters of Hutus and Tutsis; this is not a feature of Rwandan history that is commemorated. Indeed, what we remember and what we forget is just as important as how we remember and how we forget.

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