Diaspora Rwandans and the power of storytelling

28 years ago today, I was a young man in my early twenties and the No1 goalkeeper for Rwanda’s big- gest football club, Rayon Sports. On April 6, my teammates and I went to training at Mumena stadium, to prepare for our next game in the CAF winners’ cup tournament. The Confederation of African Football Cup last 16 was due in two weeks’ time. It was just another normal afternoon in Kigali, although a ‘normal’ afternoon in Kigali did include explosions, grenades and shootings. Still, I didn’t have the slightest idea that this day would be the last day of my old life, and the worst in Rwandan history, a day to reduce every single Rwandan to tears.

As I reflect on the memories of 28 years ago and prepare to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, I want to stand with all my fellow survivors and to remember our loved ones by making sure that we all survived for a purpose: to make sure our loved ones weren’t lost in vain. In doing so we have to make sure that what happened to our parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, unties, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends and neighbours, never ever happens to our children. As a Rwandan living abroad, I feel the sense of responsibility to engage the community of Rwandans here to be part of the work of reconciliation and rebuilding both in Rwanda and in the diaspora.

The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda has left a lasting effect on the survivors whose lives have been devastated. Their suffering did not stop with the killings but lingers on. Surviving the genocide itself is a big achievement, yet survivors carry their memories with them every day of their lives, remembering their lost loved ones and continuing to battle with the physical and emotional scars that the legacy of genocide entails. The world needs to know about their journey since those dark days and to learn vital lessons from what Rwandans have experienced.

I personally have found it important to use the power of sport and storytelling to contribute towards building reconciliation. It foregrounds the voices and experiences of genocide survivors to raise awareness of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and other modern genocides so that young people and communities can learn lessons from the past and contribute to more tolerant and peaceful societies now and in the future. Sporting and cultural activities empower participants by fostering respect, team spirit, critical thinking and resilience.

It is important to create opportunities for genocide survivors to share personal stories with young people and the wider public in schools and institutions around the UK to educate them about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and about other modern genocides and mass atrocities. Many young people in the UK have very limited, or no knowledge about genocide, aside from briefly studying the Holocaust under the UK educational curriculum. There’s a need therefore to work with schools and teachers to provide a broader understanding and to support a greater depth of knowledge of the cause, effect, and consequences of genocide.

Further, it is essential to regularly connect survivors with schools across the UK to deliver talks and workshops at schools where students listen to survivors’ stories and work with them to write their own pledges for humanity and to build a network of ambassadors who are able to ensure that the memory of the genocide will be preserved. Young people in particular are central to this work of actively fighting against all forms of prejudice and intolerance.

These platforms for storytelling are needed to raise awareness of genocide, which inspires hundreds of thousands of young people in the UK.

There’s a need to give the British public a concrete understanding of what happened in 1994 as well as looking at post-genocide Rwanda and applying the lessons to other areas beyond Rwanda. Just as the Holocaust has been widely disseminated and taught, in this current climate it is important that other, more recent genocides are understood; mass atrocities are continuing in the world today and the public needs to be equipped with

a strong understanding of these complex histories to be able to navigate these challenging topics.

Further, there is an urgent need to expand teaching about the genocide against the Tutsi to the national level in the UK, in the same way that the Holocaust is taught in British schools, and to provide educators and young people with the tools they need to understand and educate others about the history of Rwanda and other modern genocides.

Despite efforts to look forward rather than backward by making sure that they are part of the pro- cess of rebuilding a new Rwan- da and better world, genocide survivors today are still exposed to many risks and indeed are victims of things such as denial and distortion, which is done with intent to cause mental harm to the survivors. In recent years we have been experiencing an increasing movement of both Rwandans and non-Rwandans attempting to re-write our sad and tragic past with a deliberate effort to manipulate the present and shape the future.

Genocide denial is an attempt to deny or minimize statements of the scale and severity of an incidence of genocide. With regards to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the tactics of denying the Genocide have come in many forms including but not limited to: questioning terminology and minimising the statistics, attacking the motivations of the truth-tellers, blaming the victims and turning them into perpetrators, and claiming that the atrocities do not fit the legal definition of genocide – even when it is utterly clear that over one million people were massacred.

It’s important that we all play a part in countering genocide denial and the rise of extremist ideology in global politics and media. By using the power of storytelling, challenging perceptions about refugees and other victims of conflicts and works to highlight the role of divisive governance in creating conflict.

 

The best way to counter genocide denial and the divisive narratives that are prevalent in the diaspora is through education, sharing the stories of those who survived the genocide, reaffirming the facts of what happened and ensuring that this knowledge is transmitted to the younger generations – both Rwandans and non-Rwandans alike. British youth need to learn the lessons from Rwanda in order to become champions of memory and ambassadors for peace. This way, efforts are made to unite Rwandan and British youth around shared values of tolerance, respect, and hope for a peaceful future.

Furthermore, the use of the correct wording, which is intrinsic to spreading accurate information and figures, particularly regarding the education and awareness of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is a must. Failing to do this contributes massively to the growing confusion around the understanding of the true nature of what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

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 Our message to Rwandans abroad and friends of Rwanda is to always use this particularly special period as a time to stand with survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi by joining them in remembering and honouring loved ones, supporting them to share their stories, and learning from their lessons of tolerance and resilience. We also encourage them to always use this occasion to remember where the country of Rwanda has come from, and where it is today, to use it as an opportunity to contribute to the process of sustaining and protect- ing what Rwanda has achieved as a nation. We remind them of the dangers of the rising voices of denial and distortion of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and call them to do everything they can to counter those voices through awareness-raising and education, particularly of young people everywhere.

It is vital for young Rwandans here in the UK and in other parts of the diaspora to develop a close relationship with their local community and their home country, to develop a better understanding of what Rwanda of today and of tomorrow needs. Growing up in the diaspora, young Rwandans have a strong understanding of the local community and a command of the language that gives them the power to tell the story of Rwanda better than most. Young people with a clear understanding of who they are as Rwandans can be the best Rwandan ambassadors in their educational environments, workplace, and wider British communities. As such, Rwandan youth in the UK can and should play an essential role in sharing the Lessons From Rwanda, particularly during this important period of commemoration, reflection and solidarity.

This is what we have done. In order to ensure that their stories are told beyond the borders of Rwanda – specifically in the UK – the Ishami Foundation was created to bring the lessons from Rwanda to the British public, drawing on genocide survivor experience to connect us all to our common humanity.

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