Why history matters

The commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi is a time to remember the victims and express solidarity with the survivors.

In a little over a month and a half, Rwandans will be commemorating the Genocide against the Tutsi. Though it really doesn’t bear thinking about, the period is important in the history of Rwanda.

It is a time to remember the victims of the genocide and express solidarity with the survivors.

It is a moment to face up to our past the better to fashion a future we want and commit to such horrors never happening again.

For all this to happen, we need to keep a proper historical perspective, both of the events being commemorated and, more generally, of history in broad terms. That requires the understanding of history and appreciation of its importance in our lives.

History matters. Dr Jean-Damascene Bizimana, the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide, put his finger on it at a news conference Friday, February 8 when he announced that this year’s commemoration activities will focus on the youth and history.

He said that a whole generation of young people, about 60% of the population were born after the genocide and know little or nothing about the history of the period and so must be educated about it.

He is right, of course. But it is not only young people who need history lessons. Adults too need them, some to stop them running away from the real events or falsifying them, others to have blinkers they have been wearing for a long time removed, and many more to appreciate the true value of history.

This is necessary because we do not hear much about history, for a number of reasons.

One reason is that we live in rapidly changing times where new developments mean that past events become quickly outdated and easily forgotten, and the tendency is to look almost entirely to where we are going and hardly where we have come from.

Yet, while change and the dizzying pace at which it is happening has become a fact of our existence, it should not make the past irrelevant. We need to maintain a balance and a common sense view of the world that history gives.

We understand today and make projections for tomorrow because we know about yesterday. We can only make sense of the present when we have a good view of the past and understand the relationship between them.

A second reason is that today’s talk about science and technology, the very things responsible for the rapidly changing world, has drowned history from the popular discourse.

There is an understandable rush to get on the science and technology rocket. The marvels of recent innovations are so bewitchingly seductive and their applications to ordinary life so attractive that they have simply taken over everything.

The danger, of course, is that we may start looking at the world from a utilitarian viewpoint only and ignore or undervalue the less tangible or the creative aspects of human existence like history, literature and art. Indeed a few years ago the history department at the University of Rwanda nearly closed.

History has also suffered from a popular but mistaken view of it as a catalogue of past events and dates with no bearing on the present. This view is an undesirable product of our school system where history is presented as a disconnected set of facts, dates and events to be memorised and reproduced when required by teachers and examiners.

Yet this need not be so. Those untainted by the school system have a better understanding of history. They see it as a story or stories with plots and characters and real settings.

There are heroes and villains, loyal people and traitors, the brave and cowards, all playing their part in momentous events that shaped various societies.

That is how many of us were introduced to history, not at the feet of learned professors (although that became important later on) but from the lips of great story tellers. They told of events of great moral or political import, of exceptional courage or despicable cowardice, of people who brought honour and glory to their societies or who visited infamy on them.

It was always so whether they were narrating the shifting fortunes of great battles, succession struggles often decided by treachery and cunning, or of famine or disease when acts of ingenuity saved a nation from destruction. They told stories that started in the past, ran to the present and continued into the future. Even today the greatest historians are also excellent story tellers.

In all this one thing is clear. History matters. We still have to learn about human experience and progress over time, discover the values, creativity and inventions that have enabled our continued existence, and the relationship between events and change that explain who we are, where we are today and the likely place we will be at tomorrow.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.