Rwandan Genocide, The Task of Translation, and Western Markets for Testimony: Part I—by Kim Rostan

Whoever writes is exiled from writing, which is the country—his own—where he is not a prophet.

Maurice Blanchot,  The Writing of the Disaster


When the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, the “era of testimony” (as dubbed by scholar Shoshana Felman) was already well underway. Following the Nazi genocide in Europe, there was initially relative silence from Shoah survivors in the wake of such devastation. How to speak of the unspeakable? Who is permitted to speak for the dead? What form should testimony take? Since that time, however, Westerners have become practiced readers and viewers of collective atrocity—from Holocaust memoir and fiction to Rigoberta Menchú’s account of massacres in Guatamala and Zakes Mda’s fictional account of Apartheid.  Literary representations of human rights catastrophes sit side-by-side on my bookshelf with judicial and historical writing—transcripts of survivor testimony, interviews, and court records.

Unlike the years after Shoah, writers in the West bounded into action in the years following the Rwandan genocide (this in spite of American and European governments’ failure to take action during the actual genocide). In the US, we read the journalism first, such as Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, the scholarly political science and sociological studies, Peter Uvin’s Aiding Violence (1998), Alison Des Forges’s Leave None to Tell the Story (1999), then the memoir Shake Hands with the Devil from the Canadian general, Romeo Dallaire, and eventually the films Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. None of the writers or directors were Rwandan, and all of them were translating that experience, so to speak, from their interactions with Rwandans and international NGO workers.

Why so many testimonies from beyond Rwanda’s borders? The silence from Rwandan and other African writers was palpable. Too close to home, this atrocity brings home Maurice Blanchot’s suggestion that survivors do not write the disaster, but are written by it.

In an effort to bring non-western voices into the discourse of witnessing in Rwanda, Fest’Africa, an annual festival of African film and literature, invited ten writers to Kigali for a writing-in-residence program, which they called “Rwanda: Ecrire par devoire de memoire” (Writing with a Duty to Remember).  The project, which was Funded by the Fondation de France and the European Union, culminated in a presentation of the authors’ works at an international Fest’Africa event in Kigali in June 2000. Of the ten writers, only two were from Rwanda, while the majority were from other francophone African countries. From the Fest’Africa program, four novels, two travel narratives, two essays and one work of poetry were published in 2000. Four of these works have been translated into English (below).

One chapter of Koulsy Lamko’s work has been translated for Words Without Borders. 

Texts published in French that remain untranslated include Monique Ilboudu’s Murekatete and Nocky Djedanoum’s book of poems, Nyamirambo!


Véronique Tadjo, Côte d’Ivoire, In the Shadow of Imana (2002, Waveland Press). [L’ombre d’Imana]. Translated by Véronique Wakerley.

Tadjo builds testimony about the Rwandan genocide from a montage of Rwandan voices. Her poetically wrought account incorporates traditional tales, explores the spiritual legacy of the genocide, and uncovers a healing vitality as well as a commitment to forgiveness.



41NiETwmcXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tierno Monénembo (Guinea), The Oldest Orphan (2004, Bison Books).  [L’Ainé des orphelins]. Translated by Monique Fleury Nagem.

Powerful testimony to an unspeakable historical reality, this story is told by an adolescent on death row in a prison in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Dispassionately, almost cynically, the teenager Faustin tells his tale, alternating between his days in jail, his adventures wandering the countryside after his parents and most of the people of his village have been massacred, and his escapades as a cheerful hoodlum in the streets of Kigali.


51DUC0ONybL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Boubacar Boris Diop (Senegal), Murambi, The Book of Bones (2006, Global African Voices from Indiana University Press). [Murambi, le livre des ossements]. Translated by Fiona Mc Laughlin.

Now, the power of Diop’s acclaimed novel is available to English-speaking readers through Fiona Mc Laughlin’s crisp translation. The novel recounts the story of a Rwandan history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana, who was living and working in Djibouti at the time of the massacre. He returns to Rwanda to try to comprehend the death of his family and to write a play about the events that took place there. As the novel unfolds, Cornelius begins to understand that it is only our humanity that will save us, and that as a writer, he must bear witness to the atrocities of the genocide.

51DSr3jBv4L._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Abdourahman A. Waberi (Djibouti), Harvest of Skulls (2017, Global African Voices from Indiana University Press). [Moisson de cranes]. Translated by Dominic Thomas.

In this multidimensional novel, Abdourahman A. Waberi claims, “Language remains inadequate in accounting for the world and all its turpitudes, words can never be more than unstable crutches, staggering along… And yet, if we want to hold on to a glimmer of hope in the world, the only miraculous weapons we have at our disposal are these same clumsy supports.” Shaped by the author’s own experiences in Rwanda and by the stories shared by survivors, Harvest of Skulls stands twenty years after the genocide as an indisputable resource for discussions on testimony and witnessing, the complex relationship between victims and perpetrators, the power of the moral imagination, and how survivors can rebuild a society haunted by the ghost of its history.

These are tremendous works, I’ve taught three of them in upper level courses on representations of atrocity; they all convey unbearable loss and the limitations of language.  In a way, the distance of these writers, none of whom are Rwandan, amplifies the exile from language Blanchot describes as inherent to writing about genocide: “whoever writes is exiled from writing, which is the country—his own—where he is not a prophet.”  

Gathering a group of African writers together to write out of a sense of duty does have its shortcomings, however. That scenario calls to mind the (now outdated) twentieth-century notion that all African literature is necessarily motivated by urgent political issues or conflict—“all third world literature is necessarily… political” it was put most famously by Fredric Jameson. Actually, that’s not so far off from the twenty-first century expectation that African writing will re-inform Westerners against longstanding colonialist stereotypes about the continent. As Binyavanga Wainaina illustrates in his satirical essay in Granta, “How to Write about Africa” (2006), the West prefers to imagine the continent as a place in crisis: “Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket.”

Just because we in the West were more quick to publish in the aftermath of atrocities, however, doesn’t mean the process of reflecting and contextualizing trauma in Rwanda should be hastened in concert. Our retrospective jumpstart, made easier by a sense of distance from the event, doesn’t necessarily indicate a superior response to trauma. As we’ve learned from Shoah, it may indeed take generations; moreover, the notion of a “talking cure,” the idea that a survivor’s ability to tell the story signals healing, widely accepted in the West, is not a universal practice.

The West’s failure to respond to pleas for assistance in the months leading up to the genocide, coupled with France’s history of support for the group that perpetuated the massacre of more than 800,000 Tutsis, makes this dynamic even more complicated.

Join me for part 2 of this blog post where I discuss the challenges faced by translators as a way of understanding the difficulty of giving voice to atrocity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s