There are many things I never knew about Rwanda and could have guessed and many others that I could never in a million years guess. One of them is that I’ve had some of the best pizza I’ve ever had there. While it sounds incredibly trite, especially considering the extremely heavy and sensitive nature of the work we’re doing there, it is a pretty good example of the country.
Like having amazing pizza in Rwanda, its nothing like you think its going to be. For one, I’m still amazed, and practically driven to tears by how astonishingly brave and progressive of a people they are. I don’t use these words lightly. Progressive not in the quasi-leftists armchair activist sense, but progressive in the we’re officially forgiving a million murderers and want to reintegrate them back into our businesses, neighbourhoods and lives sense. This you would never expect from the Rwanda of the popular imagination. It was very clean, driving was pretty normal and safe and I couldn’t have felt more at home. This coming from a blonde haired, blue-eyed white guy who was basically an alien there. It was extremely ‘nice’ and people treated me even nicer I thought. Nice is deliberate, nice is quiet, and nice usually is about following the rules, not about doing what’s right.
Genocide is never a singular or random operation. Genocide, mass murder, crimes against humanity, whatever you want to call it, requires extremely tight organisation and lots of people not asking questions. Whether it be the completely incompetent and impotent UN waiting and sitting on its hands while watching the butchery from the sidelines, or the rest of the world that also sat by as not only one genocide in Rwanda but another concurrent one in Bosnia at the same time, we were just as compliant as the people who were just following orders no matter how inhuman they may be.
Genocide requires loads of compliance. Loads of people not saying anything, and this is an extremely hard thing to start thinking about designing against, as we have to design against something, not for. To start thinking about designing for speaking up and making things known should theoretically be fairly easy, but first you know how to let people speak up.
How to Speak About Genocide
Through countless interviews, many with survivors, we’ve only managed to brush the surface of things, but started to notice things like the issue of compliance and social structure, and the vocabulary. This was especially fascinating in terms of how things were spoken about and something we’ve had to learn really quick. People use the words perpetrator, denier, minimiser [1. One who doesn’t directly deny the genocide but who minimises its scope, impact or totality], survivor and returnee. There’s an agreed vocabulary, and one that the government has a lot of hand in putting in place. This is was not only an issue of social sensitivity, but one of how we have to work. We’re going to have to work within these parameters: ethnicity isn’t mentioned and the future and prevention are always spoken of.
To be asked personally by a survivor coming to a mass grave of 250,000 to leave flowers to his murdered family to “do something…do anything…to make this not happen again,” is basically what our brief is in a lot of ways.
This was the biggest surprise for me. There wasn’t so much talk actually about even justice, never about revenge, but of prevention. To be asked personally by a survivor coming to a mass grave of 250,000 to leave flowers to his murdered family to “do something…do anything…to make this not happen again,” is basically what our brief is in a lot of ways. This is also what I mean by progressive. Dealing with history as best you can and moving things forward today, and working “towards a brighter future” as you often hear in Rwanda. Hopefully we can help them do this.