HMDT Blog: Jo Ingabire – The power of words

Jo Ingabire was five years old when her family were murdered in their home in Kigali by their neighbours who were influenced by propaganda. Lucky to survive with multiple gunshot wounds, she hid for the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda with her mother.

HMDT Blog: Jo Ingabire – The power of words

In this blog, she shares her thoughts on the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018: The power of words.

I love Kinyarwanda. It’s a wonderfully poetic language that easily lends itself to proverbs, riddles and poetry. Born out of a rich history of oral tradition, the elders often painted histories with only words and passed them down the generations for a record. I remember as a child listening to the old men reciting poems of epic wars of ancient kings and warriors not unlike the Iliad except it would be nearly impossible to translate to a non-Rwandan.

I was born in Kigali in 1989, the sixth child in happy family but shortly after my father was imprisoned. He was arrested for somehow evading the authorities and making a successful living as businessman in a time when Tutsis weren’t supposed to. When I was 5 years old, the teacher asked my class to separate with Tutsis on one side and Hutus on the other. Being so young, I had no idea what she meant but on that day I learned that one word was enough to label me as an outsider, as a lesser of two.

When I asked my parents, they advised me to hide the truth. When asked, I was to answer that I was Hutu for my own safety. They explained that they had been doing that their entire lives and it was necessary for survival. I was all the more confused when they then played banned music by ‘Tutsi’ artists. My older siblings were fiercely proud of it and told me it was who we really were. We ought to be proud of that word my teacher had uttered as a curse. It seemed that we were meant to say one thing inside our home, and the complete opposite when outside.

It was then that I learned that what I said had the power of life and death. It was then that I also learned to listen carefully because the subtext was usually more important. Looking back, I wonder if that’s why Kinyarwanda is complex and almost impenetrable. When the person in power who deems you their enemy shares your culture, traditions and language, the only means of survival is to speak like they do, emphasise kinship whilst also speaking carefully and in coded form to your own as a form of rebellion. It might appear duplicitous but to the Tutsis born under the Hutu power it was simply life. There was no other choice.

As a means of propaganda, the genocidal government of 1994 set up a radio station in Rwanda with the sole purpose of dehumanising Tutsis. With vitriolic messages normalised then believed, it was then easy to turn friend against friend. In contrast, the current narrative on the radio, on television sets and in newspapers is one of reconciliation and that too is being believed. The power of that cannot be underestimated.

The Gacaca courts in Rwanda that allowed victims to face their abusers and perpetrators to confess their crimes in the midst of their communities allowed in a freedom of expression that had not been seen in Rwanda for almost a hundred years. Victims were allowed to voice their pain in plain language. Perpetrators could also express themselves just as simply. They were no more caricatures, no cockroaches, and no devils, just human beings.

My family is significantly smaller today having lost a father, a brother, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. I rarely mentioned their existence to friends in case they thought of them as merely genocide victims because even today they are still very much alive to me. I resented the label genocide survivor, it was another identifier that marked my otherness. In search of another identity, I too, found that self-expression was the means not only to healing, reconciliation but also a rebirth. Surviving is a mark of strength and defiance not weakness.

I am working with Survivors Tribune, a London based charity that supports victims of genocides and offers a platform for testimonies. These testimonies are shared with schools and universities and used to educate as part of genocide studies. They have been paramount not only as a counter to those who deny the atrocities against the Tutsi happened in Rwanda but also serve as a reminder of what happens when hate ideology goes unchallenged.

We have recently launched a campaign to collect 100 stories from victims, perpetrators, lawmakers, journalists, artists, and scholars locally and internationally to commemorate the 100 days of the genocide against the Tutsis. The stories focus on a single moment associated with the genocide that’s most profoundly affected the contributor and are expressed in varying formats. They range from short stories to songs, a piece of art to letters. The aim is to build an easily accessible creative collection constructed by Rwandans.

There’s a Kinyarwanda proverb that loosely translates, ‘Better to be choked by a man than to choke on a word.’ This is again becoming part of the Rwandan identity. Students in schools apply themselves to debating on topics ranging from religion to history to politics. There’s a post genocide generation that is committing restraint and subtleties to riddles and building platforms that encourage engagement through discussion.

So far our 100 stories project has highlighted the willingness of people to speak about a difficult subject because they acknowledge that the individual and collective voices can create history. In an age of misinformation and fake news, it is vital that voices that speak against bigotry, racism, and oppression are heard loudly.

As a young writer, I watch the example of Rwanda, a country actively redefining its identity to re-emerge with a culture that’s built on inclusivity, whilst allowing diversity with great interest. I look forward to rediscovering the suppressed voices and histories of my ancestors, to looking at my family tree with no shame.

I look forward to being part of a generation that is creating an honest, creative culture through the written word that is distinctly Rwandan and accessible and open to friends of Rwanda.

For more information:

Read Jo Ingabire's life story here.

Find out more about the 100 stories project.

Visit the Survivors Tribune website.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.