1994 Genocide: How social media has changed the way we remember

Rwanda’s first TV channel aired for the first time in 1992. It was named Télévision Rwandaise (TVR). Compared to the Burundian TV that had been on air for decades, the late arrival of television in my country seemed surprising by the quality of images and programmes.
Serge Nyambo
Serge Nyambo

Rwanda’s first TV channel aired for the first time in 1992. It was named Télévision Rwandaise (TVR). Compared to the Burundian TV that had been on air for decades, the late arrival of television in my country seemed surprising by the quality of images and programmes.

Visual content offered people an education and a glimpse into outside world. Mixed with the uprising multi-party system that stormed local politics, coupled with an ongoing war from the north-eastern part of Rwanda, mass media tools like TVR pushed the pre-genocide frenzy to its climax.

Yet, words like Information or Communication Technologies were unknown. A few computers had started being imported by European-funded projects, or bought by rich and highly knowledgeable individuals, to replace typewriters and make some offices look smart and hip.

Communicating between individuals, mail exchange, documentation and reading were all done on paper : For students and teens, dating was tough as handwritten letters had to be sent though post-office and received by headmasters or worse, parents.

For their Catholic safety, these strict and overzealous priests, nuns, rectors, directors, mums and dads used to read letters before handling them to girls or boys. Some screening schemes on their behalf went beyond today’s Homeland Security Systems and practices.

20 years later, TVR is absorbed by several medias from regional and worldwide pay-TV resellers. Human interactions and exposure to real time news and instant messaging have been empowered by a countrywide transformation based on IT-oriented telecommunication infrastructures. Mobile technologies are at every average citizen’s reach.

 The social network

Facebook was launched 10 yrs after the Genocide. Today, if you want to keep yourself up-to-date about gossip, slander and buzz around Rwandan people, welcome to Facebook. Their food, events, love matters, sad news, breaking news, achievements, it’s all self-service.

But remember, all walks of Rwandan lives inside and outside of the country are represented on Facebook. And these are sons and daughters of the genocide stricken generations.

In the wake of the 20th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, Facebook became a cornerstone in a massive resurgence of familiar faces. Many pictures that Rwanda families had been keeping in remembrance of their loved ones are now being posted on Facebook.

In less than 24 hours, when a picture is displayed on someone’s wall, several people you have not heard from for more than a decade react upfront when they see those faces. Then contacts are renewed between people who grew up together and parted ways in the post-94 struggles to survive.

But looking at a picture of your classmate, roommate, neighbour’s son or daughter killed in 1994 can be seriously damaging. It gets you back in that classroom, that basketball court, those afternoon jokes and those outdoors activities shared 20 years ago.

One picture can reframe your hidden thoughts and explode the inner bullet-proof box that you forged to bury images of what you saw and went through before surviving, having realized that half of your classmates had not made it.

If both of you were aged 20, then one is now 40. In a picture, all your life is scanned and you realize how fragile you are. Your dreams get back into perspective. You’re alone with a glimpse of naked truth : to be or not to be a genocide survivor.

Posting a message or a picture on Facebook is not only crude and quick, but also reflects the instant state of mind. You can feel the endless grief that the Rwandese “genocide generations” will have to live with until they leave this world.

The culture of Rwanda is not keen on exposing one’s feelings in a such a raw manner. Facebook is a cultural revolution in this matter. The impact of social networks in our communities demonstrates our thirst for psychological redemption, expressing our feelings as heavy as they might seem.

Thanks to e-networks and web platforms, we can give our soul some relief, keeping in mind that our core DNA protects fervently what a typical Rwandese fellow really thinks.

But, at least, in showing a picture of one or many dead family members on Facebook, survivors can also teach a lesson to the killers, showing them that memory of genocide victims lives on and life will always prevail.

Pictures can help our eyes and hearts re-connect again, showing Rwanda and the world that genocide survivors are standing upright, re-creating their families, recovering their identity and humanity, through technologies such as Facebook, to write the books of their family faces.

Other networks such as Twitter are so far reserved to journalists and Rwandan ruling class.

For a society crafted in noble human behaviour, defensive and non-exuberant culture, in which reading between the lines and hearing the unspoken hidden messages is paramount, Facebook and other social networking platforms have opened a new myriad of communication channels to liberate rural cultures and change once and for all the destiny of world’s villagers by transcending their sociological core DNA.

To Africa in general, and Rwanda in particular, real change has come.

The writer is a Rwandan living in Paris, France.