23 August 2013: In the first of a series of posts, Katherine Conway looks at the role of memory in guiding the current narrative of Rwandan society, institutions, and reconciliation.

Rwanda-Ntarama-memorial Image credit: Deutsche Welle

Since the end of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide the Rwandan government and institutions within civil society have promulgated an official narrative of the events. This version of the narrative or “official memory” has tailored public remembrance and discourse, limiting the debate about the past.

In present day Rwanda, controls exists that curtail open public remembrance, education, and conversations. The role of memory thus becomes a primary consideration in government, civil society, and in the social fabric of the Rwandan people.

The government and social institutions control much of the collective memory, limiting discussions of ethnicity and events that took place outside of the specific time frame considered in the official memory. Limits to memory include restrictions on the freedom of speech, a focus on minimizing ethnic identity, methods of memorialization, and control over the versions of memory that are taught in schools, celebrated during the month of April, and discussed in public spaces.

This is the first in a series of posts will assessing the role of memory in guiding the current narrative of Rwandan society, institutions, and reconciliation – ultimately addressing the friction caused in collective remembrance, identity, and social fabric. Subsequently, the posts will address potential processes of engaging with memory in the present about the past that could include wider truth-telling and grappling with the historical record in order to shift a population towards deeper understanding, and potentially reconciliation, in both private and public spaces.


“Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” – Luis Buñuel

Memory plays a particularly central role in how post-conflict societies understand their identities and how individuals within these contexts heal and move forward (The assumption is made here that healing and moving forward is possible or desired. Again, this moves beyond the framework that “forgetting” is an acceptable response to conflict and trauma, which is a point some scholars would disagree with). Thus, before turning to the role of memory in a post-conflict society, we must first consider what memory consists of. The University of Cambridge Post-Conflict and Post-Crisis Research and Discussion Group defines memory in the specific post-conflict context:

Memory is a label for a diverse set of cognitive capacities with which human being retain information about and reconstruct the past in (and for) the present. It is related but distinct to perception, imagination, or knowledge, as well as significantly connected to emotion, trauma, reasoning and morality.

Memory also plays an important part in the constitution of individual as well as collective identities by sharing, constructing, and transmitting memories within a society or group.

“. . . Different approaches concerned with recalling the past, giving it a place and reconstructing it into the future, such as historical accounts, narratives and remembrance.” (see: Memorialization of Grave International Crimes”)

Memory, as an action, has individual, collective, and cultural dimensions. It is the force by which the past interacts with the present. Thus, it becomes a driving force behind conflict, how it is carried out, and how it can be resolved.

In the aftermath of conflict, individuals and societies re-create narratives of their past. Memory is a central component in the re-creation of the narrative or history, as it becomes a prism through which individuals and societies experience their environment. Memory and the creation of a narrative may be a pre-requisite for healing, which will subsequently support processes of coexistence, and reconciliation. Memory initiatives may involve the competing goals of a search for the truth, a means of producing information/accountability, and support for court hearings.

The consideration of a healthy memory environment is crucial in creating the space for individuals and society to heal (The word “may” is used here, because this is not the only element required for healing; however, it may set the stage for the possibility). While there are a variety of definitions and strategies within post-conflict societies that address the issue of memory, there is no common understanding of the elements of memory or how it is used that make a “healthy environment.” A healthy memory environment is one where healing is possible on the individual and societal level.

These posts seek to tease out what the important elements are of a healthy memory environment. Many more definitions, theories, and cases exist explaining the elements and effects of a challenging memory environment, which will undoubtedly be important in the case of Rwanda. However, this does not mean that the reverse or absence of the unhealthy elements will set guidelines for elements of a healthy memory environment. While memory, itself, ranges from the nostalgic, to the everyday, to traumatic, this assessment primarily assesses in the context of healing on the individual and social levels.

Reviewing pertinent literature in the field of memory studies revealed the following elements of a memory environment:

  • Understanding: Falling within the new universally recognized norm of the “right to the truth,” the literature refers to the ability of individuals and society to access memory and to understand history. This category manifests itself in understanding crimes that were committed, participating in dialogues that further understanding, visiting important locations, etc. The International Center for Transitional Justice focuses its work on truth seeking as a central element to memory, and thus memory initiatives play a role in “public understanding of past abuses.
  • Contestation: The literature demonstrated the importance of the ability of individuals and society to contest memory, in essence, to freely tell their story.
  • Levels and spaces of memory: While memory inherently exists at all levels, including the individual, collective, and national, this category speaks to the recognition of the levels and potential divergences of narratives that may exist. Memory is both a public and private phenomenon. The literature speaks to the freedom to engage with it in both spaces, thus the individual and society can both heal with in their own space and this is understood and recognized in the public space.
  • Identity: How individuals and societies engage with memory is ultimately a part of the individual or group’s identity. Thus, memory is intrinsic to the formation of community and identity.
Memory exists within a nexus of politics and power, at times silencing sections of a population. Memory environments are guided by power: whose memory is remembered? Who is silenced? What narratives are public? The following series of posts will address each of the above elements within this theory of the creation of a healthy memory environment.

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