Opinion

Lessons from Rwanda: Talking about genocide in church

From my time in Rwanda, I saw that people don't like to talk about the genocide in their recent past. Then I heard a church sermon there whose universal message of 'life after mass death' seemed perfectly fitted for a country full of one-time perpetrators and families of the murdered.

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    Christine Uwimana stands inside the home that she shares with her mother, Madamu Theresa (seated), in Kigali, Rwanda, March 21, 2009. Uwimana is a survivor of the 1994 genocide. Op-ed contributor William Collins Donahue worked at the Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators. He asks: 'Why is no such project underway in Rwanda now, while the memory is still fresh?’
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Officially, I’m here to study genocide memorials. Unofficially, I’m here to visit my wife, who is on a one-year assignment with a USAID-funded project run by the Rwandan Ministry of Health. She, along with dozens of other nurses, doctors, and health-care educators, is valiantly attempting to raise the level of health care in a country that largely lacks the infrastructure necessary to make good use of their high-level skills. But they all keep trying. Every day my wife makes her way to one of the many under-served hospitals in this beautiful “land of a thousand hills,” each with a murderous past.

I’ve spent a lot of my scholarly career examining how Germans have come to terms with the Holocaust. In “Germany Confronts the Holocaust,” a course I teach at Duke University, I always tell my students it is important to know what is to be commemorated before thinking about the how. Moving too quickly to aesthetic or ideological considerations of remembrance can distract from the underlying crime against humanity. So I always take them first to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I want them to get the “what” straight first.

Following my own advice, then, I made a visit with my daughter to the Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. It is built, like so much else here, into the side of beautiful rolling foothills and is stunning for reasons I didn’t expect. It doesn’t add a whole lot to the horrific story many already know about the 1994 genocide in which almost 1 million Tutsis were murdered by the majority Hutu population. No one knows exactly how many were murdered; the Hutus were not as into record-keeping as the German SS.

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What strikes you when you exit the cramped, dark exhibit is an opening to beautiful terraced gardens, complete with a gift shop and café. You are actually standing at the site of mass graves, but the adjoining wall features just a few names. Was it, like so much else in Kigali, still under construction, we wondered? But then we felt it, the jarring weight of the large blank spaces where the names of the dead should have been. Nobody knows their names.

When I was a graduate student, I worked for a short time with the Shoah Foundation, the documentary group inspired by Steven Spielberg in the wake of his unforgettable 1993 film “Shindler’s List” (1993) dedicated to preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators.

Why is no such project underway in Rwanda now, while the memory is still fresh? What I hear again and again here is that Rwandans are still (and understandably) deeply traumatized; they don’t want to talk about it, and certainly not with a strange Mzungu (white person). Kigali is overrun with do-good Mzungu nongovernmental organizations, and I’ve met with many dedicated, hard working, and sometimes despairing expats. None has anything conclusive to say about how Rwandans are coming to terms with the genocide. You get plenty of anecdotes and speculation, but answers are hard to come by.  

In the meantime, I went to church – the only place where I experienced truly joyful Rwandans who don’t seem to mind me being among them, the only time when our interaction is not commercial, academic, touristic, or philanthropic. The choir members sway back and forth to their own happy melodies, keeping time by clapping as their director urges the congregation to follow along with the rhythm.

The priest, a visitor from Nigeria, sways comfortably to the hymns and flashes the most charismatic smile I’ve ever seen, holding tenderly the babies he has just baptized and joking with the congregants. I’ve rarely heard so much laughing in church.

And then, when and where I least expect it, I finally hear about the genocide. It is Jan. 6, the Feast of the Three Kings, and the gospel reading is about the three magi, who have come from afar, following yonder star, but who stop first to check in with Herod (the Roman-appointed monarch) to see where this newborn King of the Jews is to be found.

Herod is no fool: He thinks he has duped the magi into revealing the whereabouts of the baby Jesus, whom he sees as a rival to his throne. But the Wise Men prove worthy of their name and take another route home. They leave their precious gifts and depart Bethlehem so as to avoid the ruthless Herod and his minions.

The joyful, smiling Nigerian priest says the way we respond to Jesus is a bit like the way we greet all newborns – either they are made welcome or they are unwanted. Maybe, he offers, the husband really wanted a boy, but got a girl instead; so he is sad, rather than recognizing the great gift of the child.

So far, so good. He has done what any good homilist would do: relate the scripture to everyday experience.

But then he warmed to his real theme, glossing a part of the gospel that had not been read that Sunday – namely Herod’s indiscriminate “massacre of the innocents” (as it has gone down in history), the mass killing of all boys under the age of two, one of whom, he concludes from the magis’ visit, could be a challenger to his throne.

What the gospel means, the cheerful priest said, is that we don’t have to be like Herod. We can turn away from murder, violence, injustice, and instead adopt the attitude of the magi. The lesson was clear: We can put the murderous Herod behind us. This is a time to welcome new life, start again, to forgive, to reconcile, to make friends with the strange baby whose parentage appeared so uncertain. And to see ourselves in the eccentric and foreign magi.

In that moment, I had my own epiphany. He was referencing the genocide – here in this half open-air church, in front of a congregation that by any good estimate must include a number of murderers.

As my daughter pointed out when we later discussed the sermon (something we’ve done since she was a little girl, a practice that helps us both hold fast to otherwise forgettable homilies), the message of turning from evil is a universal one – a sermon we could have heard in any church anywhere.

She is right, of course. But here in Kigali, just 18 years after the genocide, and the country teaming with one-time perpetrators, and with families and friends of the murdered, didn’t this priest send a very special, Rwandan message about life after mass death? I think so.

William Collins Donahue is professor of German Studies and Jewish Studies at Duke University, and is author of “Holocaust as Fiction: Bernhard Schlink's ‘Nazi’ Novels and Their Films.” He holds a Master of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School.

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