A poet and social anthropologist, Andrea Grieder first came to Rwanda in 2005 for her PhD research.
That time, she stayed for only a month. But such was the impression the country left on her, that the following two years she was back in the country for seven months each, reluctant to take her academic research to new frontiers.
She eventually completed her research paper in 2012, and since then, has been returning to the country twice every year.
Grieder’s research focused on how to deal with a traumatic past and genocide in the particular context of Rwanda. She has been organising cultural and artistic events on Rwanda in Switzerland regularly.
“Sometimes it just happens, and I find I really have to come to Rwanda, however short the trip,” she says.
Grieder has travelled all over the world since she was 18 but today most of her travel is to Rwanda for almost the same reason.
“Sometimes you just want to come and see how the country is developing. Sometimes you accept to look at how people live, or something very painful but that makes you transform who you are, so for a long time I was emotionally connected to Rwanda.”
Grieder describes social anthropology as simply “the understanding of the other.”
“I came to Rwanda to understand how people can destroy each other, and also what strengths they have after the heavy destruction. There must be something in human beings stronger than violence, and that is life: the value of dignity, or the belief in what is good. Many of these I have discovered only after coming to Rwanda.”
Grieder, the poet
She describes poetry as “a particular way of being in the world, and how you feel connected to it. It takes a sensibility to feelings and emotions, which you curb and express through your own words. It’s really this wish to create, so it demands to be connected to self and to hear your inner voice. You go into the crowd, then just delve inwards of you after words to express this in a poem. It demands not to fear to confront the inner landscape of emotions we harbor inside. When solitary, it gives you a way of expressing self in a very intimate but also public way. And when you start talking, you give meaning to the world at a very basic level.
To her, poetry is the best conduit through which to express and bring value to the beauty in the universe.
Between April 25 and 26, at a workshop dubbed Transpoesis – Figures of Transformation held at the Goethe Institute in Kiyovu, she asked participants to think of three incidents in their lives where they felt beautiful and strong.
“One participant said it was when his son was born. Another wrote about the smile of his mother. Someone wrote about having success in filmmaking and playing football, and another mentioned his birthday,” she explains.
Asked what it means to be a poet, she takes a measured pause then says: “If you’re not a poet, you say ‘you make me happy’. If you’re a poet, you find new ways of saying ‘you make me happy’ each time.
“Poetry gives you this power of transformation. It gives you the power to transform bad things to beauty, anger to joy, and disappointment to happiness. When you are down you start writing how you feel, and eventually there is this human strength that makes you move on into more light. It enables you to look very closely and deeply at the world.
“If you see beauty in a flower, you can also see beauty in the person in front of you, and your own beauty. When you look very closely, you discover new facets, new colours. To be a poet is to be the person who incorporates or expresses the memory of society.”
Grieder did not wake up one day to pursue poetry as a vocation. Rather, “with time people start saying to you that ‘I like your poetic side’, and things like that,” she explains, adding: “I do it without actually knowing I’m doing poetry. It’s pretty much my way of expressing things. It can happen at a seating in a bus; an inner voice asks me to write. When I listen to this inner voice, it’s like inner truth, and the expression of this truth is poetry. It gives you the ability to communicate what’s not always visible.”
She contends that the real essence of poetry is to give meaning to life. As a facilitator at the workshop, she asked participants to come up with symbols that represent themselves. One of the young men said he was a shield, while another compared himself to a book that could be opened and read. One girl said she was a flower.
“When a person realises this beautiful moment, it can bring them more value, and strengthen the feeling of happiness and of being beautiful,” she submits.
“Another had a conversation with death, and when you start having such dialogue, it gives you ways of dealing with it. Death can make us speechless, but when you find a way of talking about it, even in a poem, then you can transform the meaning.”
Has she come to terms with the inevitable fact of her own death? “I don’t think often of my own death, but every time someone dies, we are confronted with the fact that life is not eternal. There is this pain at the beginning, but what helps me deal with it is that I find the right words and I write a poem to this person to remember their life, but also keep memories of them that I have inside me. Often I realise when I’m writing, I come to a point where I create a universe for the dead person, where they can stay.”