Michelle Betz's Notes From the
April 7, 2006 –
Rwandan Genocide Memorial Day
There is no word in Kinyarwanda
for genocide. I learned that yesterday, two days
before the annual commemoration day of the 1994 genocide that
killed close to one million people.
I was in a meeting at the radio station
with all the staff. It was my final meeting with them all
before I left and I wanted to fill them in on a few things
and encourage them to keep going. Aldo, the station manager,
wanted to update everyone on what the station policies were
to be during the memorial week. That’s when I learned
there was no word for genocide in Kinyarwanda; instead, Rwandans
used ‘jenoside’. Indeed, it seems the word genocide
didn’t even exist until World War 2.
This would be the second time I was in-country
during the memorial week, the last time was 3 years earlier.
All I really remember from that time was the constant reruns
on Rwandan television of the slaughter of Rwandans by their
countrymen. They just kept showing the same murderous acts
over and over again.
This year at least I didn’t have
easy access to a TV, and I was definitely glad for that. However,
you’re still surrounded by constant reminders. The first
for me was this meeting about the use of the term genocide
on-air and how on-air folks were supposed to refer to the
genocide – it was to be simply genocide, not the genocide
of Tutsis, not the murder but quite simply genocide.
Next came the solemn faces and my own discomfort.
I knew several of the folks I was working with and many friends
had lost most, if not their entire family during the genocide.
What did you say? What could you say? I had no idea and as
a result I said very little my last couple days in Butare.
I had been planning to have a little party
for the Salus folks this evening but when I spoke to the housekeeper
yesterday as too whether he could help out he just looked
at me and said, “Friday is a holiday.” Duh, of
course. I felt completely insensitive and then I thought how
completely inappropriate it would be to have a party on genocide
memorial day. So I scratched that idea.
This morning as I walked to the station,
I saw a large group marching down the main street. They held
banners and many wore purple scarves around their necks, purple
being the color of sorrow and suffering. I watched them as
they marched towards me, turned the corner and kept going.
I thought they were going to stop at the stadium but they
didn’t, they kept going. I was confused.
When I got to the station I went into Aldo’s
office. He was sitting at his desk, looking pensive, a piece
of purple cloth wrapped neatly around his wrist. One of the
students came in and began chatting with Aldo about what to
cover for the memorial day. I spoke up and said that I had
just seen a large group of people but I wasn’t sure
where they were going. Aldo said they were headed for one
of Butare’s two memorial sites (the other was at the
university). I told him I didn’t know there was a site
at this end of town.
A short while later, I saw the group streaming
into the stadium across the street from the station. I asked
Aldo if he didn’t want to go. In his softspoken voice
he told me that everyone really had their own day of memorial.
I asked him when his was. He said April 28. And he added that
he was still waiting to hear if that would be the date this
year or if it would be a day earlier, or later. He said he
would go to his village on that day to “visit”
his brothers and sisters. I believe Aldo’s entire immediate
family was killed in the genocide. I’ve never been able
to ask him how he survived or how he continues to survive.
2 , 2006 — The beauty and the boys
It’s Sunday morning, the first
day I’ve been able to sleep in while here. OK,
so I was up at 5am to finish my Dan Brown novel and to listen
to the deafening torrents of rain that slammed the house’s
tin roof. An hour later I poked my head outside to see the
most vibrant rainbow just to the north. And then I went back
It had been raining all night in waves ranging
from soft patters on the roof to the latest deluge that had
awoken me. The odd clap of thunder and accompanying flashes
of light had also snapped me awake several times.
Now as I sit out on the front porch drinking
my Maraba espresso, listening to the birds and the singing
of the churchgoers drifting from the Eglise Ste. Therese down
the street I’m struck by the peacefulness and the incredible
beauty. Thanks to all the rain, the flowers are in bloom in
every color from pale yellow roses to the loudest fuchsia
bougainvillea. Yellow, red and blue birds flitter from one
bush to the next chittering happily.
Yesterday on my way to Nyanza I was again awestruck
by the stunning beauty of this tiny country. The sun was still
coming up and the clouds were still down in the valleys, fingers
of mist slowly withdrawing from the hills. The hills and vales
are a million shades of green velvet and silk with the ever-changing
African light doing a masterful job of lighting that I seriously
doubt could ever be captured on film. Maybe that’s why
I don’t take pictures here.
But perhaps what amazes me most is how much
the beauty and serenity of this country belie it’s horrific
past. It never ceases to amaze me how Rwanda’s beauty
just kind of lures you in — it’s just so incredibly
stunning. But then you see the flash of a machete as it assists
in the chopping down of a tree, or watch the film “100
Days” (as I did last night while the rain pounded) or
drive by one of the dozens of genocide sites scattered around
the country and it all comes back. Sometimes I wonder if I
just have an overactive imagination — like when I’m
in this house wondering if it was around in 1994 and if so
whether any people were killed here. But no, I don’t
think it’s just that. I think this country just gets
under your skin (well, at least mine). On one hand it’s
got this horrendous history but at the same its beauty just
lures you in and it seems nearly impossible for the two aspects
to be reconciled.
And maybe that’s why this country freaks
me out just a bit each time I come. It’s like you just
can’t escape this country’s history despite the
efforts to beautify and to put the past behind. And then this
year I’ve managed to time my visit here (unintentionally)
at the precise time the Genocide is being commemorated. And
I find myself asking myself if I can’t push the genocide
out of my mind, then how can the eight million Rwandans do
so on a daily basis? I don’t know.
But then I think maybe it’s just that
I spent the past 24 hours with some genocide orphans —
Alphonsina’s family. I have “followed” these
kids since I was first introduced to them in 2003 by a photojournalist
friend. I had met Alphonsina and three of her four younger
brothers, the youngest was HIV positive. He died last year.
He was only 11 or 12.
The last time I saw the boys was last November
when I went with my friend Leopold to Gikongoro to track them
down. When we found them they told us that Alphonsina had
moved to Nyanza, gotten married and had a third child. And
that Ariwanda had died.
Coincidentally, a woman in the UK had tracked
me down as she wanted to help the boys any way she could.
The November trip with Leopold was to visit the boys to see
what we could do.
When I saw Leopold last week he told me he
had been in touch with the boys and would arrange for the
boys to take the bus to Butare from Gikongoro for a visit
Friday afternoon. Of course as luck would have it, I got stuck
in meeting after meeting each seeming to last forever. I finally
got home after 6pm just as dusk began to set in. I had managed
to snarf a bite of pizza down my gullet when I heard “Allo?”
I swallowed the first bite of food I’d
eaten that day and went to see Leopold. I was sure he had
the boys with him and sure enough he told me he’d brought
the boys to see me. I went outside. There they were. I hugged
them both and had them come inside. I can’t describe
the immense joy I feel every time I see these boys.
It only became clear later that they’d
probably never been in such luxurious surroundings for later
Bariwanda, 14, asked to use the toilet. I showed him where
it was. I realized there was a problem when a few minutes
later the 21-year-old Alphonse went to assist his younger
brother with something. I quickly followed suit. They were
both hovering over the toilet and finally with hand motions
asked me how to get rid of what they had deposited. I showed
them how to flush the toilet. They were amazed!
A little while later I told them they could
take showers if they wanted. They were thrilled. They loved
the bar of soap I gave them and Bariwanda was still clutching
the soap after he had showered and continued to rub it into
his skin. Apparently he had only found the cold water as I
later heard Alphonse exclaiming after his shower “amazi
ashooshi” (warm water). And he had the biggest grin
on his face.
These boys never cease to amaze me. They can
find happiness in the most simple of things like Bariwanda’s
small plastic, mud-covered toy cow that splits in two. They
love magazines and newspapers even if they’re in English.
Bariwanda impressed me that evening by counting to twenty
in English. But he’s also got a bit of an attitude and
that concerns me as we move them to Kigali (with the third
brother who is living with Alphonsina) and try to get Bariwanda
back into primary school and the two older brothers technical
training of some sort. I just keep telling myself he’ll
I’m thrilled that the boys seem to understand
the implications of what we’re offering and that they’ll
be together again. I’m particularly excited that these
boys may finally have some sort of future and I’m especially
grateful to my friend Leopold who is taking all of this on
even with the demands of his own family and a full-time job
here in Butare.
And I just hope that the next time I get to
Rwanda the boys will be in school.
30, 2006 — Challenges ahead
So not only was I apprehensive about
returning to work with the fledgling university radio station,
Radio Salus, which went on the air last November, but it seemed
my fears were confirmed upon my arrival. The first
thing I saw on the interim station director’s desk was
a copy of a newspaper from the precise week of the station’s
launch — no current newspaper either daily or weekly
— just a paper dated November 2005. Yikes, I thought,
this can’t be happening. Surely they realize some four
months have passed.
I tried to ignore the paper, but couldn’t,
I mean it was right there — one of the few things on
his desk. It wouldn’t escape my peripheral vision no
matter how hard I tried.
With the old newspaper as our audience, the
interim director began to fill me in on the happenings of
the past four months. It didn’t start well. The previous
director had left almost two months previously (which I had
been aware of) and Aldo was the interim director. What I didn’t
know was that Aldo had already taken another job and would
likely already be gone by the time a new director was hired.
I was mortified. There would be no continuity, no historical
Our chat continued and despite my abhorrence
of the word ‘problem’ it was used a lot…and
not just by Aldo. I was just as guilty. There had been several
technical problems many of which were solved by our French
savior, Vincent, who worked for the university’s computer
department. The second transmitter was still being held hostage
by Rwandan customs and there seemed to be no idea when it
would be released, nor when it could then be installed. This
second transmitter will allow the station to reach Kigali
and will mean Radio Salus will reach almost 100% of the country’s
population. It also means there is greater potential for future
regional radio partnerships.
Currently, the signal reaches the southern half
of Rwanda extending into northern Burundi. And while we don’t
get all the way up north, depending on whether you’re
on a hill or in a valley, you can get the signal all the way
in the northeastern part of Rwanda. The station often receives
call from Ruhengeri, famous as the starting point for visits
to the mountain gorillas.
Three days have passed and after numerous meetings
and chats I realize how far the station has come. Yes, of
course, there are issues, or problems (I still prefer challenges)
but I’ve been completely impressed with the initiative
of the students and the journalists. They believe in what
they are doing and that is something that I’ve always
found encouraging — the fact that the journalists I’ve
worked with in Rwanda want to make a difference. And that
is clearly the case here at Radio Salus. Somehow, despite
the absence of solid leadership (or, dare I say, any leadership
at all) they’ve organized themselves, their programming
and the station as a whole.
They’re archiving their material, maintaining
program logs and basically doing the best they can with what
they’ve got and while we still have a lot of work to
do, at least for the moment I’m impressed.
But I have yet to find out why last November’s
newspaper was sitting on Aldo’s desk.
2006 — Return to Rwanda
My husband keeps asking me how I feel
about my trip to Rwanda. He’s a psychiatrist
and I leave tomorrow for my third trip to Rwanda and my second
since November of last year. I keep telling him I’ve
been too busy “to feel” anything. But now I’m
being forced to think about it as I prepare for my departure.
Funny, this time I’m departing from within
Africa as I now live in Accra, Ghana. I’ll be flying
overnight across continent to Nairobi then catch an early
morning flight to Kigali. I’m looking forward to what
I call “the smoky African” smell when I get off
the plane in Kigali; that smell is hard to come by here in
West Africa, but for me it is almost symbolic and incredibly
evocative of East and Central Africa.
I’m looking forward to the drive from
Kigali to Butare, a route that I know well now. I can’t
wait to see my good friend Ines Mpambara, a Rwandan-Canadian
who moved back to Rwanda several years ago and became the
director of the School of Journalism for a few years, and
her newborn baby boy. I’m looking forward to seeing
my friends and former students with whom I stay in email contact
when I’m not in country. And I suppose I’m looking
forward to seeing the state of Radio Salus, the university
radio station I helped get on the air last November.
But I’m also incredibly apprehensive.
The station manager recently resigned and I keep getting coded
messages from a number of students about a myriad of “problems”
at the station – students not getting the stipend they’re
supposed to, programs not being produced and instead replaced
with almost non-stop music, equipment issues (mostly lack
of), and so on, and so on.
I can’t help but feel at least partially
responsible for the success (or failure) of Radio Salus. I
was around in 2003 during its inception (on paper) when I
participated in talks at my then home, the Credo Hotel in
Butare, with a rep from UNESCO and an American Fulbrighter
and professor. The professor has since passed away, the UNESCO
rep is on maternity leave which leaves me – the only
one with any kind of historical memory about Salus.
But together with the apprehension is an energy,
an energy that seems to wondrously kick in when I need it
most. I’m going into this knowing I’ll be working
incredibly long and very likely frustrating days. But I’ll
be working with students who want this station to be a success,
who believe in what they’re doing and who desperately
want the legacy of the Rwandan genocide and the complicity
of the media in the genocide to be something of the past.
They want to show the world that Rwanda is not just about
genocide and hate media; they know there is so much potential
in this incredibly beautiful country.
And so do I.