From Hatred to Hope: Rwandan airwaves against animosity

Photo: Arja Oomkens

Photo: Arja Oomkens

By Arja Oomkens

In Rwanda, the radio is deeply interwoven into the social fabric of everyday life. Wherever you travel, from the capital city to the rolling hills beyond, the frequencies of the radio resound. On a hazy morning in Kigali, I too find myself listening to the radio while waiting for a Rwandan friend. This is my second visit to Rwanda and I am excited to tell him about my plans to conduct research on the role of the radio in the country. When my friend finally arrives, I ask: “do many Rwandans still listen to the radio?” He smiles and replies that everyone does and even if they do not have a radio at home, people will visit their neighbors to listen together. When I continue to ask if there are things that are not allowed over the airwaves, he looks surprised and says: “Of course there are. People have the right to say what they think, but not something that would destroy this country.”

During the genocide in Rwanda, the private radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) functioned as an important tool for the genocidal authorities to disseminate their hate propaganda against the Tutsi ethnic group. RTLM dictated the rules set-up by the genocidal government and presented this playfully in a talk show format. In its daily programs, announcers made historical allusions by recalling the foreign origin of Tutsi and thereby claiming this ethnic group had no right to be Rwandan. Tutsi were dehumanized as “cockroaches” and stereotyped on the basis of their physical appearance. But the macabre practical use of RTLM was only realized during a later stage of the genocide, when the radio station even directed Hutu perpetrators by providing specific information on how, where and when to kill. After the genocide, RTLM was prohibited and one of the main RLTM announcers, Ferdinand Nahimana, was found guilty of indirect and public incitement to commit genocide by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR).

Given the propagandist role of the radio during the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan media sector has been the subject of special attention to both the Rwandan government and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For the RPF-led government, the aim to unify and reconcile Rwanda goes hand in hand with upholding a high level of censorship for the media sector. In 2002, the RPF established a law against “divisionism.” This law prohibits “any act of division that could generate conflict among the population or generate dispute.” Like my Rwandan friend noted before, it is not allowed to say anything that would destroy the country. On the same note, referring to someone’s ethnic background is also strictly prohibited. But what exactly falls into the category of forbidden words and utterances that could “destroy the country”? Here, the government to this day remains anything but clear.

Despite this lack of freedom, the RPF did allow the media sector to slowly open up in 2003, when it legalized private radio stations. Therefore, and since the radio remained as popular as before the genocide, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have incorporated the radio as a means to sensitize and reach out to the population. One of those NGOs is Radio La Benevolencija (RLB), a Dutch initiative that combines education and entertainment to encourage “hope, empowerment and benevolence.” Since 2004, their radio-soap called Musekeweya (meaning “New Dawn”) can be heard twice a week over the Rwandan airwaves.

RLB has fundamentally changed the use of the radio in Rwanda. Conceptualized as a media intervention, the purpose of Musekeweya has been to relief some of the psychological pressures that, according to RLB, contribute to transgression into mass violence. The main pressure to which RLB refers in Musekeweya is the practice of scapegoating (or the encouragement of hate and fear towards the “other” group). In the radio-soap, examples are provided that explain how scapegoating can contribute to deterioration into violent conflict. Inherently related to these examples is the idea that an understanding of the influences that lead to mass murder and genocide will reduce the possibility of recurring violence.

In the 2003 Design Document of Musekeweya, RLB made clear that the radio-soap would not be about the legacies of the 1994 genocide, as this would have been too distressing in regard to the traumatic experiences almost every Rwandan had gone through. Instead, their objective has been to identify and promote positive role models in Rwandan society. These role models have been incorporated into the main storyline of Musekeweya, wherein the citizens of two fictional villages, “Muhumuro” and “Bumanzi,” are entangled in a conflict over land distribution. To heighten tensions between the villages, and with the aim to create an understanding amongst the audience that the radio-soap is similar to Rwandan history, the citizens from Bumanzi and Muhumuro have been given a different, yet unnamed and equally fictional, ethnic identity. In doing so, RLB believes that a safer space is created for the audience to discuss and reflect upon sensitive and traumatic issues that are currently present in their own country or village.

A prominent example of promoting positive role models that runs through the storyline of Musekeweya is the love relationship between Shema, a man from Bumanzi, and Batamuriza, a woman from Muhumoro. On both sides, their parents try to convince them not to relate with someone from the other village, because of the long-lasting and deeply rooted conflict between the villagers. Rather than listening to their parents’ negative statements about the people from the other village, Shema and Batamuriza decide to marry each other. In doing so, they move away from the conflict between the two villages (and their families). The moral of the story is clear: Shema and Batamuriza do not only personify present-day difficulties of interethnic love and marriage in Rwanda, they also present the possibilities of transitioning into a peaceful society. More specifically, by presenting how Shema and Batamuriza overcome the conflict of an older generation, RLB envisions to prevent scapegoating and overcome passivity in times of crisis.

Even though the current media landscape is very much restricted, RLB has been able to address sensitive issues by drawing a fictional, yet clear and transparent, analogy to Rwandan history. In doing so, RLB actively supports a change in the meaning and function of the radio. This change has been clear throughout the conversation I had with my Rwandan friend. When I asked him whether he was familiar with the radio-soap Musekeweya, he replied: “of course I do, everyone does. It is a theater show that makes us laugh and brings us together.” Our conversation demonstrated that the radio continues to be interwoven into the social fabric of Rwanda, but that the loom is now different. Thanks to the efforts of RLB, the radio has changed from being a symbol of hate and destruction to one of hope and reintegration.

See for further reading: Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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Arja Oomkens

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