“Nelson, how can you work at the Memorial?”
I have lost counting of how many times my friends and relatives asked this question. For two years and a half now, I have been working at Aegis Trust, an organisation that prevents genocide and mass atrocities, and manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM).
I remember the look on my mother’s face when she learnt that I work for Aegis Trust at KGM. “At the memorial?” she asked, shocked. I politely nodded to respond. She urged me to join other organisations and arranged a handful job interviews in any place she could find. Then she tried to push me to go for the interviews.
Call me stubborn, but I never left KGM.
When I joined Aegis Trust, the first project I worked on was named ‘Art for Peace’. It was exciting to use artistry for remembrance and community conservation. It involved across the country to meet and interact with young people. In fact, this experience found me ready, after an ample time I spent abroad studying, and shaping my approaches to contribute to Kwibuka.
Since I was 16, I participated in peacebuilding and remembrance activities that impacted my community and I. Whatever extent, though, I was never ready to be part of the KGM staff. Nobody can be ready to be in a deep memory refreshing environment, not just for a specific remembrance function but on a daily basis. Time after time, I understood my mom’s shocked face or puzzled friends who barely decipher the reason behind my enthusiasm.
Working at the memorial is emotionally challenging. It weighs heavy and deep memory on self to embrace every day. As a survivor, you share a tragic past of yourself, your family and friends with visitors. You unexpectedly break down when listening to testimonies from fellow survivors, or the perpetrators, and the rescuers for they speak volume to you or someone else’s history. It is standing strong, even when you are at your lowest, to radiate bravery and strong heart before all.
Going to the office is rather going home: To families that are laid to rest, my wrecked sisters and brothers whose hearts ache when they recount their route of escape. I allowed myself to be vulnerable, truthful and be the answer to why I am at the Memorial. Over the years, I hid my past, I never felt emotionally able to share my story with the world. My 2015 blog post detailed how the Memorial restored my humanity, broadened my perspective of places as such as a home of living souls.
Memorials provide a dignified resting place for our beloved ones and offer visitors a glimpse of unfathomable history. They are important sites for remembrance and learning history of atrocities.
Few weeks ago, the President GAERG, an association of graduate survivors of the genocide, Charles Habonimana, expressed his wish to see more communities commit to organise Kwibuka events, even with little or without financial support from the Government. This fortifies personal responsibilities of remembrance and education of the Genocide.
Last month, I travelled to the Western Province, where I met a man who advocated for the construction of a memorial at Nyange Catholic Church, where thousands of innocent bodies were massacred. Despite the Catholic leadership’s project to of reconstructing a church on the same ground, he and his community continually pleaded them to honor the victims and transform it into a memorial site. It took all sorts of efforts conducting Kwibuka events in the area, and now a beautiful memorial is nearly completed.
An hour drive from Nyange Memorial flashes a different story. You find a hospital built in former Gatwaro stadium ground where more than 10,000 Tutsis were killed. Survivors consistently express their complaints, that after 22 years authorities found money to build a hospital and not a memorial.
Yes, hospitals are essential. But significant memories that the area holds would immerse visitors in the cruelty of Hutu militia towards the Tutsi population of that region in 1994. It is really urgent and important that we own Kwibuka and continue to build memorials.
It is our collective memory and history as individuals and a nation. We can’t outsource or transfer this responsibility.
For memorial staff to continuously engage and educate the community beyond the physical spaces is key to fighting genocide ideology. We shouldn’t wait for people to come to the memorials – we should think of ways to reach them wherever they are, and keep developing tools to teach the history of the genocide. And memorials should be empowered to record, collect and document evidence of the Genocide.
I wasn’t ready to work at the memorial then, and I don’t think I will be ready – but I know one thing: I cannot fail to make, or keep, the memorial a feel like home.
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