The most harrowing moments in history, while uncovering the base nature of human beings, also tend to bring out the best in them.
It is perhaps because such moments make us reach to the depth of our feelings in order to cope with them, understand and come to terms with them.
And so what comes out of the mental, emotional and even spiritual grappling are genuinely felt emotions. Adversity of any sort does not lend itself to easy rationalisation. One does not have the luxury of time, or alternatives to put things into neatly logical perspective.
The situation is often so stark, so raw that the only response is one that expresses the truest feelings.
The genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 was one such harrowing period in our history.
It was our lowest point and revealed the evil in some of our compatriots. Paradoxically, the immediate post-genocide period has also been one of the highest points we have reached creatively in recent times. It has been the most productive period in terms of music, poetry, drama and film.
In music, for instance, it has produced the largest number of genuinely Kinyarwanda songs in any single period. The songs are not remarkable for their number only.
They are, in fact, more notable for their authentic Kinyarwanda tunes, depth of feeling and hauntingly beautiful melodies.
It should not come as a surprise that this period has produced some of our greatest music. The majority of songs are about deeply-felt emotions and experiences. Or they seek answers to seemingly inexplicable conduct of, until then, decent people.
They even wonder about divine presence(or absence) and influence in human affairs. The songs are not composed with an eye on the pop charts, chequebook or showbiz stardom. Indeed many of the composers and singers remain largely unknown, with the exception perhaps of Mibirizi, Kizito Mihigo and the more familiar members of the group that came together to perform during the memorial week in the last two years. Rather they are composed in order to give voice to feelings of sorrow of loss, anguish of abandonment, quest for understanding andexpression of hope. They seek to keep alive the memory of those they sing about and immortalise the dead.
This is also true of the poetry. It is, to use a common cliche, composed from the bottom of the heart. Unfortunately, like most Kinyarwanda poetry, it remains unwritten. Again, it is also different from the poetry that we often hear.
The poetry to commemorate the genocide is not commissioned by some government agency, or some other body, to mark an event or sing the praises of the agency in the finest tradition of, “who pays the piper calls the tune”.
It is the work of individuals who have something they want to express and deliberately choose the poetic form as the vehicle of their expression. Like the musicians, these poets are largely unknown, almost anonymous. Nor do they seek fame.
There have been other periods in history when artistic excellence has sprouted from tragedy.
Post-World War Two Europe produced a great body of literature of enduring artistic quality and intellectual depth. It was informed by questions about the meaning of existence in the face of inexplicable determination to destroy life, the capacity of so much evil in human beings and the nature and purpose of human organisation.
Novelists and playwrights posed hard and awkward . questions arising from the doom and gloom around them. They expected no easy answers, and indeed there were none. But they led to great soul-searching about the meaning and purpose of life.
Apartheid South Africa produced some of the best music and literature in South Africa. The creative impulse in South Africa was a call to resistance.
It was a chronicle of man’s inhumanity to fellow man based on the flimsy and untenable premise that one race was superior and destined to rule and the other inferior and condemned to servitude.
It was an inquiry into the nature of man arising from the extent of debasement to which power, privilege and a twisted sense of collective self-worth could carry some people.
But South African art was not a lament or simply protest. At the centre of it was the affirmation of the very humanity of those being debased.
Surely, if people so dehumanised and brutalised could sing beautiful songs, their essential humanity could not be denied.
And surely, if they could write about the heroism and courage of people constantly hunted, beaten, jailed and killed for desperately clinging to their human dignity, their characters belonged to a society where common decency was still alive.
If, in the face of all forms of brutalisation, a poet could write that in spite of all that, “tenderness survives”, surely that is a statement of the indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Also at the centre of South African creativity under apartheid was defiance - that in spite of all the brutalising force of the apartheid regime, the people were determined to defeat evil.
That is also true of Rwandan artistic creativity. The songs may sound sorrowful like requiem songs, which they are and appropriately so since there was never any proper requiem mass for the victims, but like Dennis Brutus they also affirm that tenderness wasn’t and cannot be killed.
The poems, too, sound like eulogies, and indeed they are, for there were no such. And they extol the vitues and innocence of those who died and the indomitable spirit of those who survived.