A Deeper Silence


Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory and Silence in Rwanda

By Jennie E. Burnet

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012, 277 pp., $29.95, paperback

Reviewed by Jonneke Koomen

After the genocide of 1994, a small army of English-speaking journalists, novelists, and scholars turned their attention to Rwanda for the first time. They looked to the country to make sense of perennial questions: when and why do ordinary people participate in the mass killing of their neighbors? Can people live together after genocide? Is forgiveness after atrocity possible? What contributions do women make to peace building?

Until very recently many of these international commentators, in venues such as National Public Radio, the Economist, and Business Week, uncritically echoed the Rwandan government’s portrayal of the country: in 2009, the influential political scientist and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria described Rwanda as Africa’s “biggest success story.” Zakaria implied that the country’s economic growth and apparent stability were due primarily to President Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the political-military movement of Rwandan exiles once based in Uganda, which has ruled Rwanda since it ousted the genocide leaders in July 1994. US- and UK-based observers have been particularly keen to draw attention to Rwanda’s women’s groups, efforts to promote gender equality in the education system, and women’s leadership. In 2010, the Guardian described efforts to promote women’s rights in Rwanda as “revolutionary.” Indeed, writes Jennie E. Burnet, the author of Genocide Lives in Us, the Rwandan legislature boasts the highest proportion of women members of parliament in the world, 56 percent.

In the midst of so many grand claims about Rwanda, the value of Burnet’s nuanced, in-depth study of women’s everyday lives and struggles in contemporary Rwanda cannot be overstated. Burnet makes the case for engaged and careful scholarship. Researched over a period of fifteen years, Genocide Lives in Us is one of the first long-term ethnographic studies of Rwanda since the genocide. Where many journalists write about Rwandan women as if they form a homogenous and cohesive group, Burnet presents a thoroughly intersectional analysis of the ways in which peoples’ lives are shaped by gender, ethnicity, and class as interlocking systems of oppression. In doing so, she shows how women’s ability to survive and exercise agency in postgenocide Rwanda may be either constrained or enabled by their rural-urban location, land access, literacy, and social status.

One of the study’s finest contributions is its careful analysis of the ethnically infused and politicized social categories that dominate contemporary Rwandan politics. As part of the RPF’s efforts to promote national unity in the wake of genocidal violence, open discussions of Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa ethnicity are effectively outlawed (or at least considered highly politically incorrect). Instead, “experiential categories” dominate Rwandan political discourse and structure reconstruction initiatives. In this ostensibly ethnically blind “discursive regime,” writes Burnet, pervasive and powerful terms such as “genocide victim,” “survivor,” and “old case load returnee” or “’59-er” (refugees from the 1950s and 1960s who were not in Rwandan during the genocide) denote Tutsi; while words like “perpetrators,” “killers,” “prisoners,” “infiltrators,” “new case load returnee,” (people who fled Rwanda after the genocide), and even “the population” can be used to signal Hutu. These linguistic devices allow Rwandan leaders to employ what Burnet calls “coded ethnic talk” that is clearly audible to Rwandans, though often undetected by foreign observers.

Burnet’s ethnography traces how these “experiential categories” determine women’s access to land, assistance, status, and social recognition. In particular, she examines the ways that violence experienced by Hutu and people of mixed heritage is rendered invisible in public memorialization, and how unmarried women (“maidens”), Tutsi wives of Hutu prisoners (including genocide suspects), and Hutu genocide widows are marginalized in reconstruction efforts. Burnet argues that these powerful categories serve to maintain polarizing distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, mask government-sponsored violence, and make dissidents vulnerable to accusations of genocide.

In these ways, Genocide Lives in Us takes seriously the experiences of “victims, survivors, perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses of genocide, war, and other sorts of violence” in order to delve beyond official slogans, into the messy, painful, and fraught dynamics of cohabitation and reconciliation after genocide. While acts of revenge were common in many communities, Burnet explains that often, “rural subsistence peasant farmers had little choice but to find ways to establish a local truce of some sort so that minimal amounts of cooperation and exchange could occur.” She argues that “government-sponsored memory-making and reconciliation activities prohibited the kind of honest exchange of experiences that ordinary Rwandans needed.” The RPF portrayed its gacaca initiative—large-scale, village-level hearings of genocide suspects by elected lay judges, described by Phil Clark in 2010 as “justice without lawyers”—as a grassroots reconciliation mechanism. Burnet argues, however, that many Rwandans viewed gacaca “as another imposition of the central government on local communities and as another venue in which local power conflicts worked themselves out while appearing to conform to central government policies.” Tracing ways in which the community-based hearings were at times used to settle local conflicts, usurp land, and wreak revenge on individuals and groups, Burnet explores how gacaca processes at times “deepened cleavages within communities and sowed mistrust on all sides.”

Readers do not need an extensive background in the politics of the Great Lakes region of Africa to appreciate the value of Burnet’s research. While Genocide Lives in Us will be essential reading for scholars of Rwanda, this book is highly recommended for all students of gender-based violence, human rights, and peace building. In particular, the book offers an important contribution to an emerging literature that examines how ordinary people negotiate social repair after atrocity in their everyday lives. While many authors speculate about national reconciliation in general terms, Burnet examines how particular individuals and community groups reestablish their relationships in the wake of mass violence. Her account explores the efforts of childhood friends, neighbors, and strangers to share and respond to one another’s suffering. She describes attempts to mend relationships, such as symbolic gift exchanges between former friends and frank conversations between co-workers from different ethnic groups. In doing so, Burnet points to ways that the sharing of personal histories of suffering at times may help individuals “avoid falling into generalizations and globalization of blame.”

Burnet also examines how particular congregations, women’s groups, and youth associations have achieved some success in reestablishing trust between people—though she is careful to point out that reconciliation was not the initial aim of many of these groups:

They originally set out with more specific goals such as helping victims of sexual violence, assisting genocide widows, improving the socioeconomic conditions of women, or helping youths to worship Christ. In the process of helping people rebuild their lives after the genocide and war, these organizations realized that rebuilding had to start with economic wellbeing and then move to the psychological health of the individual. In their work they discovered that an important aspect of psychological health included the rebuilding of the social self, which could not be accomplished without reestablishing relationships with others in the community.

Burnet’s ethnography provides an invaluable guide for students and scholars wishing to engage in field research in Rwanda and beyond. With humility, she details her own fears, missteps, and moments of panic as she embarks on her project as a graduate student in the mid-1990s. She recalls her entrance into Rwandan social life through her host family, where she “began to experience the divisions within Rwandan society that at the macrolevel correspond roughly to ethnic and regional difference but at the microlevel are much more complex and personal, involving issues of class, education, family history, and gender.” Because her research spans a decade and a half, Burnet is able to convey both her evolving understandings of Rwandan life, cultural norms, and linguistic complexities, and the key developments in the postgenocide period. Her discussion of intersubjectivity and situated knowledge is particularly valuable as she engages with fraught, deeply contested and often contradictory narratives of violence, ethnicity, and memory. As such, Burnet’s ethnography centers on “empathetic listening” to diverse and often contradictory voices and silences, an approach which allows her to consider why some individuals fail to acknowledge or refuse to speak about mass violence. In these ways, Genocide Lives in Us serves as a valuable reminder of the vital importance of long-term, engaged fieldwork and language learning, combined with critical self-reflection, all of which are all too often lacking in popular English-language accounts of postgenocide Rwanda.

Rigorous research and writing about Rwanda is difficult and sometimes dangerous. As the political scientist Scott Straus explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2011, “researchers tend to tone down their concerns about contemporary Rwanda, or avoid writing about them, in order not to fall afoul of the regime.”To protect her Rwandan collaborators and informants, Burnet’s otherwise rich account eschews the kind of thick description that would identify individuals, groups, and communities. Readers looking to contextualize the people Burnet writes about in the specificities of their local context may initially find this writing strategy somewhat jarring—though many Rwandans and scholars of the Great Lakes will recognize its necessity. This is in no way a failing on the part of the author. Indeed, Burnet’s judicious editing signals to the careful reader the intense public silence that surrounds postgenocide authoritarian rule which, she argues, “drives a wedge between Rwandans and limits the possibilities for reconciliation.”


Jonneke Koomen< is an assistant professor of Politics and Women’s and Gender Studies at Willamette University, Oregon. Her research examines witness testimony on sexual violence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

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