The organization of historical events into a comprehensible narrative/set of narratives is common practice (and maybe even natural tendency) in human societies throughout the globe. We construct them about our own past; we construct them about the history of others. I think that this past week of class and readings has raised, for me, a number of questions both about the politics of falsifying one’s own historical narratives for political reasons, and about the consequences of “correcting” false-but-influential historical narratives about other nations and peoples.
Two things seem completely clear to me from this week’s readings. First, the fact that the predominant (RPF-supported) official Rwandan line on its own history has to do with a view of the traditional “cultural and linguistic unity of the Hutus and the Tutsis” (Shyaka 17), upset only during the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods. The other is that the predominant western line on Rwanda is not so far off: though not necessarily emphasizing former unity to the extent of the current RPF government, many sources seem to take as a given the “colonial introduction of race thinking” (Straus 40) – as if it was introduced into a power vacuum.
Poitier elaborates on the way this blame of the colonizers for Hutu and Tutsi categories has become cemented in the new wave of commentary on Rwanda in the western press, and especially in “an ongoing series of statements regarding the roots of ethnicity by mainly Anglophone analysts, who have neither research experience in Rwanda nor any great understanding of its vast literature” (111). These western sources project backward a model of Rwanda as categorically fluid and rooted in a unified society. Poitier notes that “its history was…presented as a simple linear progression from a time about one hundred years ago, when ‘Tutsi and Hutu lived in relative harmony’, to a transformative colonial episode” (118). The collusion of RPF rhetoric with the western press could seem convincing in its overlap; however, given some of the other evidence cited by Poitier on the distinct effort by Rwandan powers to rewrite its own past, one begins to more than wonder about the overlap, particularly about the lack of attention paid to the potential layers of elitism woven into the discourse.
On some level, the idea that the Rwandan historical narrative is potentially being reframed and reconceived by the current RPF government (“Gasana…confirmed that one of the priorities of the new government was to rewrite the history books” (Poitier 127)) is absolutely unsurprising, as this process is unfortunately a central piece in the typical undermining of alternative narratives in order to build any nationalism (it is true in America as well – the Thanksgiving story? I mean comeon). The government has an obvious incentive to promote unity and vilify western colonial involvement – especially French and Belgian (thus the influence of the Anglophone connection) – to sustain peace in the country, and ensure its continued nexus of power.
The western scholarly line and its flaws seemed initially more surprising to me, as many of these scholars are not as invested in boosting perspectives of historical Rwanda as they are intent on vilifying colonial rule – thus the focus on “western-imposed” ethnicity. When I initially “learned” this perspective, I thought of it as radically forward-thinking in contrast with the initially popularized “long-standing ethnic hatred/tribal conflict” bit bought by many westerners off the bat. But as Poitier states provocatively, “critiquing international intervention is one thing, understanding local politics quite another” (127). In vehemently criticizing the colonial project in Rwanda and all but blaming it for the genocide, some western scholarship seems to carve out and bolster a subsequently over-large space for the internal misrepresentation of Rwanda’s less-than-perfect past.