Twenty-two years later, in this era of social media, how do we mourn the Rwandan genocide?
Photo taken by Jennifer Huxta.
By Elizabeth Senja Spackman
April 7, 2015: Candlelight flickered against the photos of students’ faces tacked to poster board. Three years spent teaching and working in Rwanda had accustomed me to the hushed sobriety of memorial: April 7th marks the opening of the annual commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. But I was not in Rwanda, I had moved to Kenya. Early that same week, on April 2, 2015, Al-Shabab gunmen murdered over 147 students at Garissa University Campus. So, on the anniversary of massacre in Rwanda, I found myself once again at a memorial, but this time in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park after dark, as the assembled chanted names.
After the memorial, I felt a familiar disquiet: stopped up, plugged up with grief, without knowing the mourning etiquette. I wondered: How close do you have to be to grieve?
A few days later, I accompanied journalist Edith Honan to the lawn of the Chiromo mortuary. She assured me the stink was better than it had been, but a sweet rot still wafted through the breeze. A tent had been set up to shield waiting families from the sun, and the Red Cross had provided bottled water and snacks. Two families sat in circles on folding chairs, as far apart as they could get from each other underneath the canopy. The families were not preoccupied with questions of grief; they were trying to claim the same corpse. They had been waiting nine days, but the bullets and heat had so disfigured the bodies that they were left to argue over memories of a bracelet and wait for the outcome of a second DNA test to determine who would get to bury their daughter.
Three years spent in Rwanda had accustomed me to April memorials; this year marks the twenty-second anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In Rwanda, the bones of those killed in genocide have been washed and stacked at the country’s memorials. The memorials serve as sites of mourning but also as proof–that genocide almost unimaginable in its size and swiftness happened, in full view of the international community. Work stops or goes to half days. Time seems to slow. The state holds a vigil at the stadium and foreign dignitaries arrive to honor the lost. The work of remembrance—kwibuka—also allows the government to reiterate that such a thing can never happen again. Among Kigali’s tidy, pothole-free boulevards, the viciousness of the genocide can seem long ago, but as survivors recount their stories to the audience, the screams start. Social workers carry the traumatized out to mattress-lined rooms under the stairs lined, and those twenty-two years collapse to haunt the present.
The mechanics are all too easy to imagine: gunmen stalking students through the dorms, demanding they call loved ones only to have the line go dead.
It seems to be a part of human nature that we mourn those nearest to us more than we mourn the multitudes, those separated by time and history and ‘otherness.’ But how we determine nearness depends on our imaginations. As the scope of the Rwandan genocide, of nearly one million dead seemed unimaginable en masse, the #GarissaAttacks seemed all too vivid. I knew no one personally, and yet the attacks felt close, perhaps because universities themselves are places I have spent a lot of time in, both learning and teaching. Universities, even when they are in difficult places, with their politics and paperwork, are aspirational places. Few would put up with the aggravations, both petty and enormous, were it not for the hope, buried somewhere in the bureaucracy, of becoming something other through pedigree or knowledge.
The mechanics of how that aspiration was brutally cut short are all too easy to imagine: gunmen stalking students through the dorms, demanding they call loved ones only to have the line go dead. But the work is not to imagine the horror. That is easy, it surrounds us in news and culture. Instead, the first work is to imagine the other’s lives. In an early written response to the Garissa attacks, Keguro Macharia eloquently imagined the lives of those students: those who were only there to fulfill parental hopes, the slackers, those who found real pleasure in books. We try to imagine our way into those lives to realize the magnitude of what is lost.
Macharia also writes, that there are ‘no maps out of grief.’ I agree but wonder at how we might keep trying for an honest grief when it risks, like war, becoming our permanent state.
“Whose life is grievable?” asks Judith Butler. In the question, Butler refuses to separate grief from the structures that make some lives matter more than others. Grief implies an attention paid to the dead—that their lives mattered. Social Media allows us to respond immediately, in real time, to mark deaths with a comment or at least (worst) an emoticon. I learn from Facebook a high school classmate was injured in the Brussels attacks through a photo of him bleeding on the airport floor at nearly the same time his own family does. Social media can give an immediacy to information that feels like intimacy and looks a lot like attention, like mattering.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Garissa attacks, students held vigils not only in Kenya, but from Belgium to Australia. Unlike the international press coverage of the Rwandan genocide in an era before social media, the #Garissaattack seemed to be both reported and recognized in ‘real’ time, with reporters arriving before government forces. But the attacks resurface, are reenacted and relived, as events out of time as well. After both the Paris and Brussels attacks, Facebook users reposted Garissa events as though they were happening concurrently, citing them of examples of how the Western media only covers violence in Western capitals. Yet, in the posts or the reposts, it’s unclear whether those events were overlooked in the first place or worse, if the date, magnitude, significance and happening of the event had just been forgotten entirely. Just like when Susan Rice mourned the great novelist Chinua Achebe’s death with a tweet two years too late. Africans die out of time.
17 cartoonist bodies in Paris = 147 in Garissa but > than hundreds of Boko Haram deaths; 28 children dead in Newton > 143 in Peshawar
With violence in places that engages Western expectations of safety—New York’s skyscrapers, Paris’s cafés—the debate rages online to the lack of attention to other places—much to the irritation of journalists. But the expectation of safety is not about one city over another, but about the imagination of safety for white or Western bodies. These expectations make it acceptable—some would argue necessary—to broadcast photos of black Kenyan students face down and dead in a university classroom as proof of atrocity, while the corpses of American soldiers return hidden within flag-draped coffins.
The students’ corpses were splayed, digitized, and circulated, anonymity perversely preserved only by the degree of their wounds. Where massacres are covered up or ignored, some want proof of victims themselves. The ‘proof’ comes in images of the victims’ bodies—dark bodies, who are not being remembered for their lives, for their studies, for being some mother’s child. They present not as lives to grieve but rather reduced to proof, an image to flicker across our feeds and compete for attention on our crowded screens.
We answer “When is life grievable?” by sliding into a grotesque unconscious calculus of how many and who or what kind of people have to die for things to change. Seventeen cartoonist bodies in Paris = 147 in Garissa but > than hundreds of Boko Haram deaths; twenty-eight children dead in Newton > 143 in Peshawar though still no change in American gun control, and we’ve neglected Lahore and Baghdad and… Never mind those dead from other structural, less dramatic casualties like healthcare inequality, or those killed in by the drones and airstrikes of imperialism, of the violence inflicted by the west. No one wins at this math.
That a hashtag has the ability to assert what should be obvious, that #blacklivesmatter (and even the naive whitewashing retort that #alllivesmatter, because of course they do) means what we knew all along: We are not equal, not even in grief. Especially not in grief.
At the raw grief of the mortuary lawn, I asked a young relative of a missing women what she felt after nine days of waiting. “Sad,” she said. “And angry.”
The family was angry that the Kenyan government hadn’t helped them identify their daughter, that the campus hadn’t been secure, that the bodies hadn’t been refrigerated. Months later, some still searched for their dead. The dead were uncounted, and did not count enough for anyone to believe anything would be different next time.
Three days after Garissa, Binyavanga Wanaina bemoaned his country’s failure to memorialize the dead: I want to go to a place. A piece of ground, also a place online, where we can find the names of all those who have died for Kenya since 1963. I want to know their names. I want to walk and listen and witness…know the lives of those no longer visible to me, but whose blood mattered.
Perhaps the first steps can begin to be learned from those already immersed in the work of remembering the lives that once animated those stacked bones. In 2009, for the fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Rwandan artist Odile Gakire Kates (Kiki), asked widows, orphans and genocide perpetrators to write letters to their dead. She asked that they not focus on the moment of death, but on who that person was in life, on who they might be now. Tell us your news, more than one letter asks. And some of the memories are small and intimate—the color of a t-shirt, a favorite nickname—that guy nicknamed Red Cross because he took care of everyone, the memory of a single smile. These letters became the Book of Life, a project that is still ongoing, perhaps a book that can never end. She leaves the last page of the book blank, for readers to add their own letters.
Edith Honan saw no reason that the Garissa victims shouldn’t be covered with the same interest. Who were these people? What did they love or want?
There are limits to imagination, at least when it is claiming to know. I do not know what a family who has traveled from upcountry to spend days at a morgue searching for a body, waiting for fingerprint results, is feeling. Can we claim that we are in solidarity in grief, but do not assume to know it? It seems a paltry offering to say we will grieve with you, us who don’t know how to grieve. Maybe all we can really hope to offer is that other act of memorial: listening, to the witnesses, the living and the dead.
After Garissa, suddenly on Twitter, details of the dead emerged. The demand came with the hashtags organized by Kenyan entrepreneur Ory Okolloh Mwangi (@kenyapundit) #147isnotjustanumber and #Theyhavenames. Journalist Edith Honan had covered Newtown. In America, where gun violence is common and media coverage slick, victims’ families have press agents. And the victims are named and mourned, and their stories are told. Edith saw no reason that the Garissa victims shouldn’t be covered with the same interest. And so she asked: who were these people? What did they love or want? She tweeted the words of their families. We read that one man’s fiancé liked to walk with him to the river to feel the breeze and they never got enough time together. That Mildred Yondo excelled at theatre and loved mangos. That Beatrice Njeri Thinwa wanted to get a Phd and loved Kenny Rogers. That these small details build up to be a life. The details are our lives. Their/our lives matter.
This remembering and writing is work and practice. And it is not enough. Not enough to rectify the inequalities, not enough to dismantle the structures that make these violences possible. And still. Still there are writers, artists, journalists, and those who have simply lost and are willing to share by doing this work. It is necessary work. It is as Kiki says, how we keep the dead among us, comment on lutte contre la mort. This is not a fight we will win; we will not vanquish death. We will not remake time. But it is restoring life to the numbers, intimacy to the memorials, remembering that those lost were never just numbers or bodies or even names to etch in binary or carve in stone. We write the Book of Life even as it just keeps growing. And perhaps in doing so, we stay, those of us with the chance to still be here, we stay human.
Elizabeth Senja Spackman is a poet, playwright, who is currently based in Nairobi and Naselle, Washington. Find her @esenjas or firstname.lastname@example.org.