Conflict, Memory and Reconciliation: Bridging Past, Present and Future, SIT and National University of Rwanda, 10-13th January, Kigali

I attended this conference in Kigali last month, and just wanted to share a few thoughts and highlights from it.

In his introduction one of the two keynote speakers, Professor Anastase Shyaka, highlighted that Rwanda is an evidence-base for research on memory, conflict and reconciliation, and alongside this the importance of applying conflict sensitive approaches to teaching and research. Professor Shyaka who is currently executive secretary to the Rwanda Governance Advisory Council, was instrumental in setting up the partnership from which this conference emerged in his role as director of the Center for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda. He highlighted the importance of the conference as a ‘catalyst’ for starting conversations and creating a network where those conversations can continue to happen.

The other keynote speaker was Dr Elizabeth Jelin, Senior Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council. She gave a fascinating paper on ‘Social and Political Struggles for Memories – Recent History in South America and Beyond’. A few things that had a particular resonance for me:

  • She defined memory as a combination of remembrance and silence, and the need to study both. While accepting the challenges of studying silence, she argued there are always clues and processes going on behind the scenes. This was important for me as I’ve been thinking about how to identify not only which narratives of history or memory are being published, but also those that aren’t.
  • She talked about the need for more ‘South by South’ dialogue in the field of memory studies, and the inter-relationship between different national histories.
  • She talked about cultural products as ‘vehicles of memory’. I like this phrase! Although it is perhaps too close to Rousso’s phrase ‘vectors of memory’.
  • She also talked about the need for more research on the complex relationship between long term and short term memories. This is something I’m continuing to think about a lot, given I am looking at writers who deal with the very recent past alongside writers memorializing events that took place before they were born.
  •  She also highlighted in her remarks closing the conference that while there is a need to allow for multiple memories – this leaves conflict, and that memory is part of conflict.

I will definitely be reading more of her writing, although unfortunately for me most of her publications are in Spanish.

Another paper I got a lot from was Okaka Opio Dokotum of Kyambogo University, Uganda talking about ‘Re-membering the Tutsi Genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004): Negotiating Reality, History, Autobiography, and Fiction.’ His talk on the controversial film Hotel Rwanda asked important questions about the role of film in relation to public memory, and the way in which entertainment and creativity is balanced alongside history and in particular genocide memory. He argued that while the film had played a role in drawing attention internationally to the Rwandan genocide, by Hollywoodising Paul Rusesabagina as a hero figure for dramatic effect, while marketing the film as a ‘based on a true story’, it ignores competing memories and ultimately betrays the victims of the genocide.

I presented a paper at the conference on ‘Literary Responses to the Post-Election Violence in Kenya: Creating Cultural Memory through Writing, Production and Circulation’.  This was a great opportunity to share for the first time some of the research I’ve been doing on the Concerned Kenyan Writers group and Kwani 5, and some early thoughts about the role of literary networks in the creation and mediation of memory.

The paper was part of a stream on ‘Memory and the Arts’ and I was on a panel with Anna Imperial, a graduate student from Columbia University, who talked about ‘Segments of a Historically Political Existence: Diaries and Scrapbooks – A History in the Making’. Her paper looked at Charles Cotton’s pocketbook diaries (1850-77) and Alexander Gumby’s amazing scrapbooks documenting African American history from 1900-1960. It was fantastic to be presenting alongside someone who was also using a methodology from across memory studies and book history. Her talk was also very interesting for me in the questions it raised about the relationship between private and public memory. The texts she was discussing were in many ways ‘private’ (they were never published) yet she was arguing that by communicating in this way the authors were making a decision to ‘make public’ and showed the way in which these texts inscribed not a just personal but also collective memory.

Our panel generated some important questions – some of which I couldn’t answer – but that were powerful and provoked some great conversations. For example: What impact did the Concerned Kenyan Writers group have in the space of Kenyan politics? Why is it important that stories are told? How much truth does a society need to hear?

I realise this is another rather epic post, and I still haven’t had a chance to mention:

  • James Waller’s fascinating paper asking the question ‘can extraordinary evil have an ordinary cause’ and what the implications of this might be for survivors of trauma.
  • Tatsushi Arai showing how multiple histories can be used as a tool for conflict resolution.
  • The evocative and powerful mixture of dance, music and testimony that made up ‘Africa’s Hope’ by Rwandan performing arts company Mashirika at Ishyo.
  • All the amazing people from Rwanda and elsewhere that the conference enabled me to start conversations with – from artist Odile Gakire Katese about her ‘Book of Life’ project – to Chijioke John Ojukwu, Phd student and creative writer, who so aptly concluded the conference with a poem.

However, I better stop there for now…

Categories: And Other Words...

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