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Alain Mabanckou on writing after the genocide in Rwanda

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on June 13, 2016
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By Olivia Snaije

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Late last year the Franco-Congolese poet and author Alain Mabanckou was appointed professor to Paris’ prestigious higher education and research institution, the Collège de France. Mabanckou, who usually teaches literature at UCLA is the first writer to fill the annual post as chair of the artistic creation department for 2015-2016. One of the particularities of the 16th century institution is that lectures are open and free to all; moreover videos of the lectures go online soon after. Mabanckou chose francophone literature from Africa and various themes surrounding it as the focus for his lecture series. From talks on migration in African literature to Africa confronting its own history, the auditorium has been packed every time. At the end of May, the dapper author, this time dressed in purple, lectured on writing following the genocide in Rwanda. As an author, he began, it is important to speak of issues like these because writers are active participants within society.

“If I chose Rwanda,” said Mabanckou, “it’s because it’s a perfect example of the disruption happening in African societies and the consequences must be looked at beyond the history of the continent.”

Mabanckou spoke of Rwanda’s geographical situation in the region of the Great Lakes and the borders defined and maintained by various colonial powers. As explorers such as Richard Francis Burton and Henry Morton Stanley searched for the source of the Nile, the colonial empires began to place Africans in a racial context, categorizing and differentiating. Western literature from the 19th century brought to the fore “scientific racism”; in particular in writings by John Hanning Speke, C.G. Seligman or August Knobel that supported the Hamitic hypothesis stating that anything of value in Africa was brought there by the Hamites, an alleged branch of the Caucasian race that migrated to Central Africa. This, said Mabanckou, paved the way to one of the thorns in the side of rising African states: the notion of ethnicity, which was embodied in the ethnic tension experienced in Rwanda in 1973 and thereafter. It was the export of a delusional folly to the African continent, said Mabanckou.

Then, in 1994, between 800,000 and one million men, women and children, primarily Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu extremists in Rwanda.

The first question was how, even, to write about the massacre. There were books that bore witness to the abominable events that Mabanckou called the grand literature of testimony, a cross between journalism and literature, such as Jean Hatzfeld’s trilogy on the aftermath of the genocide.

Then there were a number of African authors who wrote on the subject, all part of a project that brought writers, an artist and a film director to Rwanda for two months in 1998 to write about the genocide as a “duty to remember.”

Djibouti-born author Abdourahman A. Waberi, traveled to Kigali and subsequently wrote Moisson de Crânes: textes pour le Rwanda (Harvest of skulls). Waberi is apologetic in his introduction; he explains that he felt a moral obligation to write about the genocide for his Rwandan friends. Throughout his book he shows how very painful and difficult it is to find the words to describe the horror.

Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop decided to fictionalize his account of the massacre in his novel Murambi: The Book of Bones. Diop said in an interview that since he visited Rwanda, his writing became simpler, less experimental. “After what I saw and understood in Rwanda I simply couldn’t imagine writing as an exercise in style.” 

Guinea-born Tierno Monénembo wrote in his novel The Oldest Orphan that genocide will destroy the innocence of even the youngest of beings.

"Dictatorship in Africa lives on in the form of milk coming from the breasts of former colonial powers,"

Writing about the African continent following the Rwanda genocide is to re-evaluate the status of African writers, stated Mabanckou. There is no single priority, he said, only an urgency to write about the present, to write about the dysfunctionality of the politics of war. It means rethinking the imaginary within the turbulence of political situations in Africa.

"Dictatorship in Africa lives on in the form of milk coming from the breasts of former colonial powers," declared Mabanckou. This colonial link must be deconstructed.

“Rwanda changed our writing,” he continued, noting that recent books by Fatou Diome, or Leonora Miano have brought up subjects such as immigration, or the clash of traditional societies with modernity.

In conclusion, said Mabanckou, there is hope, there is an open window. The important thing is to “redefine ourselves. We mustn't wait for things to happen, we must search for the truth and at the same time preserve memory.”

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.