Friday, April 12, 2013

The Price of Memory

This week, commemoration week, genocide is constant. Strange twinkly songs spill from the radio, the only of word I understand is 'genocide', televisions flash image after image after image of the dead. Kigali turns to a city of the dead. The whole town shuts down during genocide memorials, by mandate, and so I when go out to buy a mango or an avocado I often wander past locked doors and darkened windows for miles.

Sunday I went to the main memorial: a long 'walk to remember' to the national stadium for an evening of songs and speeches and thousands of candles, flames spread from the memorial bonfire. In Rwandan culture when someon
e dies you keep a fire going for seven days and seven nights and stay by it, remembering the dead. This week fires burn all across the country, and we are all around them.

Candles at the stadium. You can see the lights better out of focus. 

Memory comes with a price. As we left the stadium on Sunday there was a scream in the dark: a howl of grief so brutal I cannot even comprehend the physical pain that must have been at the center of it. Three volunteers ran past us, carrying a writhing, screaming woman. She wailed and beat against them, lost in the torture of memory, while they repeated 'Ntakebazo' – it's ok – over and over again.

This is not uncommon during commemoration week. As we walked I heard screams again, and again, agony so physical it seemed to cut the dark and twisted my guts, made my skin prickle and shudder. Before Rwanda I thought there was a limit to pain. I believed because I cannot imagine grief beyond a certain point that the human spirit must not be able to take it, that we must simply break from the weight of it. Now I know better. We are made to endure, and this is our blessing and our curse. This is the price of memory. The dead never die. The screams in the night do not cease. Genocide in Rwanda is never entirely over. This week it goes on behind the eyes of every face I see.

I write this from another memorial. I am here with AVEGA, sitting quietly with my psychologist mentors to be there when and if the screams begin again. It is past midnight, raining and cold, and the faces around me are heavy with grief and exhaustion. I am on blood-stained ground: at the beginning of the genocide many Rwandans and foreigners fled to this school to escape from the Interhamwe. The UN came to the rescue: but only for the whites. They took the few foreigners out of the screaming begging crowd, and drove away. As the UN cars disappeared down the road the genocidaires moved in. Guilt seeps into my stomach -- I am nauseous with disgust. As a student turned researcher I feel out of place, a voyeuristic observer of pain too sharp for me to ever touch. In the cold air, orange from smoke and streetlights, I begin to imagine myself not an outsider peering into someone else's pain, but a mourner, keeping vigil for the dead.

Tonight we keep them close.  


  1. Your ability to clear your mind sufficiently from the daily activities of life that sometimes cloud our inner vision and to focus on a higher plane of existence where we know our deepest hopes and our clearest dreams and our highest ideals is an impressive gift that you have. Thanks for sharing it with me.

    Love, Dad

  2. Powerful words! How had I managed to miss them for almost 2 weeks?? Thanks for posting both insights in to a very intense experience.