Rwanda: Memory Management of the Younger Generation

Photo: Ivo Posthumus/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Photo: Ivo Posthumus/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

By Arja Oomkens

As 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, the country is moving away from its past but the painful burden is still vividly engraved in the minds of the Rwandan population. The difference with twenty years ago is the more prominent, and hopeful, voice of the younger generation. For children growing up in post-genocide Rwanda, life has not been easy. Many young ones lost their parents, almost everyone faced death in their immediate family and 1,2 million children were left orphaned.[1] Even for those that were born after 1994, life has not been without challenges. They are expected to remember the tragic events of the past and often have traumatic memories transposed onto them by close relatives. Even so, their voice is hopeful and their perspective of the future is bright.

That young Rwandans differ from the older generation is reflected in the way they perceive older relatives. During my research in Rwanda in the summer of 2013, many young interviewees (between 16 and 25 years old) explained that they feel that the older ones continue to live in the past while they prefer to focus on the future. In an interview, a seventeen-year-old boy from Byumba, the Northern part of Rwanda, stated that “old people are the ones that make you remember the differences… the young ones work together and play together. But once you go back home, they will make you remember that the friend you are playing with is the son of the bad guy… you know.” Another example that often came up is that marrying someone from “the other side” is not done and will most probably be prohibited by older relatives. Reasons given are that the other person is the daughter or son of someone that was responsible for the deaths in their family or, from the other perspective, that his or her family is the reason why most of “our” family is in jail. While this reasoning leads to much frustration among the youth, they are aware of the differences between the younger and older generation. One day, a Rwandan friend eloquently characterized this difference: “old people are like trees, they do not bend. For us, it is much easier.” Even though the younger generation has to deal with many imposed challenges, they do not stigmatize as much as the older one. As many young Rwandans demonstrated in their interviews, they are prone to engaging in dialogue and don’t shy away from critical assessments of their older relatives.

How did the context of post-genocide Rwanda create a social space to develop these young and bright perspectives of the future? One of the most important reasons is the top priority of the RPF-led government to create access to education. Rwanda has seen remarkable improvements in enrollment rates at primary schools. In 1997, there was a primary net enrollment rate (NER) of 65,3 percent, which rose to approximately 94,2 percent in 2008. With a NER average of 70 percent in 2006 for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda finds itself well above average. With this grand improvement for primary education, Rwanda has evidently invested in the future of the young generation. In doing so, the government has created the foundation for further stabilization of the country.

Yet, Rwanda’s educational policies make it questionable whether these high access rates to primary education are truly promising for its youth. According to the government of Rwanda, the education system has to train citizens to be “free of any type of discrimination, exclusion and favoritism and thus contributing to the promotion of peace…” Ethnic differentiation is forbidden by government policy: All Rwandans belong to the same identity and must act accordingly.

Hence, in school, the youth learns not to criticize in order to attain the politicized purpose of national unity. The outcome of this policy is meant to be beneficial, as it is supposed to encourage the aspirations of the youth to live in an integrated and peaceful society. Yet, the downside is that critical thinking is not allowed outside the boundaries of the government-approved narrative. Therefore, to talk politics in Rwanda is a practice that makes its citizens nervous, as they are afraid to say anything that could be interpreted as criticism towards the government. This stands in sharp contrast with the earlier described mind-set of the progressive younger generation – who have shown themselves to be excellent critical thinkers when it comes to their perception of the “undbendable” older generation.

If young Rwandans already show that they are willing to work and play together and are able to move away from the embittered mindset of the older generation, it seems that there is space to allow critical thinking, especially on a political level. Critical thinking, in the form of open dialogue, allows young Rwandans to become objects, and not just subjects, on the road towards peace. Instead of their memories being managed by one imposed narrative, the younger generation must be given the possibility to manage their own memory and transform this into positive action.

[1] Paul Geltman and Eric Stover. 1997. “Genocide and the Plight of Rwanda’s children: letter from Kigali.” Journal of the American Medicial Association 277(4): 289 – 294.

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Arja Oomkens

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