|The other day, I thought it worthwhile to revisit American journalist Philip Gourevitch’s classic book on the Rwanda genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. With what is happening in our collective lives, it felt like as good a time as any to seek clarity, if not from a direct witness, at least from somebody who got up close to that monstrous event and wrote about it.
For sure, the events in our country have been a far cry from what happened in Rwanda. I think it is a mistake to bandy the word genocide about, something I am reluctant to do whether we are talking of Darfur or Kenya.
There is little solace in grading atrocities by scale – they all work through the same crazy logic.
AND GENOCIDE DOES NOT JUST HAPpen out of the blue. It is a culmination of calculated acts of incitement that start as localised atrocities that then graduate into something gross and terrible. As Kenyans, we nearly went over the precipice.
When he wrote the preface to the much quoted 1950s-era revolutionary bible, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the late French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre urged his fellow Europeans to read the book in order that they “get ashamed.” Sartre’s rationale? “Shame, as [Karl] Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment.” In other words it is cathartic, it is redemptive.
The time Fanon’s book was published was a period of revolutionary ferment, of Third World upheaval, and Sartre wanted the imperial West to understand what was happening and what had caused it.
By no means not just Kenyans, but all Africans, should read Gourevitch’s book with that same sense of shame and foreboding. When mass killings occur, we see a breakdown of personal responsibility and conscience and a surrender to an atavistic, communal impulse that is difficult to understand when we sober up.
Gourevitch’s analysis of the mentality of mass murder is chilling.
“It is, of all things, an exercise in community building. While genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end, it is also the most comprehensive.”
It begins, he writes, “with a plan whose execution is cleverly designed to look planless.” The trigger could be a rigged election or, in Rwanda’s case, the shooting down of a presidential plane.
Mass atrocity always has a point of take-off and, on the surface, this may look like a reasonable enough trigger. But beneath there is always that layer of blinding hate for this or the other group that has been instilled deliberately over a sustained period of time.
Many people would feel it justified to kill somebody who has killed their child, or is sleeping with their wife. Never mind what the law says. But it’s creepy when that passion gets extended into massacring the entire family, the entire village, the entire community that the wrongdoer came from.
SOMEBODY TOTALLY INNOCENT caught up in such hatred would surely understand the admonition, which is most relevant in our situation, against equating ethnicity with politics and seeking to prove that equation by murder.
Motivations, as Gourevitch keenly understands, differ greatly too.
He writes: “Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions.
The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power.”
It has always struck me as odd that Rwanda never chose to go with a South-Africa style Truth Commission. In a way, I later understood why.
The more traumatised Rwandese were not interested in staging a show in ornate halls for TV cameras and international voyeurs looking for some primeval African peep-show.
INSTEAD, THE RWANDESE WENT to the ground, from village to village, bringing former killers and victims face to face, without fanfare or affectation.
It was a much more powerful and comprehensive way to confront the truth and reality, both for the murderers and the survivors.
The objective was not mere forgiveness. That does not happen where there is no acceptance of guilt, and an honest desire to seek repentance for having done something terrible.
And neither would there be genuine reconciliation where there are no indications of penitence and a willingness to face full justice. It is only after that is assured and the conscience made clear that something more precious comes out of it all – redemption.
It would be wonderful to have a Mwangi and Kipkoech sitting together at Burnt Forest mulling over what went wrong. The same symbolic ritual should take place between a Mogaka and a Chirchir in Borabu, and a Kamau and Otieno in Naivasha. Those guilty should be thinking not merely of being forgiven, but of repentance.