For Whom The Bell Tolls: The Case for Kwibuka
I come from a country that has a hard time facing its past. Put another way, I come from a place that has a hard time facing up to the brokenness that is found at the heart of a country called united. The winding paths of pain and suffering stretch back so far and intersect in so many different ways that it is difficult to pinpoint any one origin of the weight that we now live under. We have learned to cope with the brokenness, but like a broken bone that never properly healed, we continue to be re-broken. The evidence of the breaking is everywhere if our eyes are open to see it. And each time the cast is reapplied, we cover the old scars that are evidence of the work that has yet to be done.
From my country, I traveled to another one, Rwanda, where I am now making my home. After eight months here I have a dual sense of having just arrived and of gradually feeling settled in my new way of life. The Rwandan academic calendar is likely unique in its placement of a school break every year during the second and third weeks of April. Academic pursuits are put on pause to formally engage in the opening of the national period of mourning, reflection, dialogue, and rebuilding summed up in the Kinyarwanda word ‘kwibuka’. Kwibuka means ‘to remember’. April of 1994 cast a dark shadow over this country and over the world. The reverberations of what took place in this tiny nation at the heart of Africa sent shockwaves that continue to ripple out across time.
The 18th century British author John Donne penned some poignant words that overwhelm me every time I have cause to read them as I did in writing this reflection . Donne, himself, wrote a series of devotions during a time of severe illness and naturally his thoughts had turned toward mortality. In his time and place, the tradition when someone died was to ring bells from a church steeple. The ringing of the bells would signal to all within hearing range that a funeral was taking place. It would seem normal to inquire upon hearing the bells whose death was being announced. But Donne had a missive to offer to his readers then which is as relevant for us now. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, he instructs, the bell tolls for thee. We, each and every one of us are inextricably linked never more ostensibly so than in the age of mass and social media. Therefore, the joys and sorrows, lives and deaths of each individual, family, community, and country have an impact on all the rest. Every year, Rwandans take 100 days (April 7th - July 4th) to commemorate the lives lost in one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. In my mind, this period of commemoration also reflects on one of the greatest failings of humanity to live up to its own name. Of course, Rwandans here and the world over remember what took place in 1994 every day of every year but this specific time of national remembrance is embedded in the fabric of Rwandan identity. One may wonder why they take time every year to relive the horror, the excruciating pain, the unfathomable loss, and the ongoing trauma. One may ask why they formalize their grief in such a public and persistent way.
In a conversation with one of my cousins recently, she commented that no one really says the word ‘weep’ anymore. Coming from Christian households, we both reflected on how the Old Testament has numerous references to the ancient Israelites weeping, tearing their clothes, pouring ashes over their heads in mourning for their own wrongdoing. Parallel to these exhibitions of grief, there are as many recordings of how they made a habit of telling their children and their children’s children about what took place; of deliberately and conscientiously remembering both the bad and the good in their history. It sounds rather dramatic and I imagine it was. But I also imagine that the custom of deep remorse and deliberate remembrance in ancient Israel created the same kind of culture that exists in modern Rwanda; a culture where remembrance is an ongoing part of the healing and rebuilding process. Okay, Beth, what is all of this talk of Ancient Israel and Rwanda? Why should their historical happenings or present practices have any significance for the lives of Americans separated from them by oceans and years? The answer is simple. Because, the bell tolls for us, too. When all of Rwanda slows the business of daily life to grasp hands and weep, to light candles and remember, so should we, so should I, so should you. Isn’t it enough to read about what happened in a history book or news article, shake my head, and point fingers at someone else who can be held responsible? No. It is not enough. Why not? Because the same kind of evil that rooted itself in the heart of Africa sprouted in the ground of America long before 1994. The difference between here and there is that in my own beloved country, we keep throwing dirt over soil drenched in blood trying to bury the pain of the past and then we wonder why the rivers are still running red. Here, monuments are erected in every district and sector. Bloodied earth is consecrated to the memories of those whose very bones are buried within. There are physical and tangible representations of the lives lived and lives lost. They are places to go to and weep, places to go to and remember. What such **monuments exist in my country for the many trails of tears, the many fields of the fallen, the many trees laden with strange fruit? The absence of such monuments is shameful.
For the past several years, the theme to commemorate the *1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, has been Remember - Unite - Renew. The order of these three words has a real beauty and significance. Remembrance is that first necessary step in national healing. It is impossible to to move forward and learn from a past if its existence isn’t acknowledged. Given the division that is revealed in any national history, the next step is a call to unity; that great harbinger of peace. Perhaps my American-ness will come through in this next idea but I don’t think of the call to unity as a promotion of a homogeneous way of thinking or being. I think of unity as sharing a core belief in common dignity and mutual interdependence which promotes tolerant disagreement while preventing total disintegration. And finally, renewal can take place. We, as the human race, can renew our commitment to harmony and we can do so with a straight face having openly recognized the discord of the past. We can renew our hope in a future of persistent peace while owning up to the cost of war. So, my challenge to myself and to you, dear reader, is to remember. Remember Rwanda. Remember America. Don’t shy away from the gruesome images that are all part of the story, their story, our story. Don’t tell yourself or others that what happened is in the past and should remain there. Lets look to our far off neighbors who are working to rebuild a beautiful country now acknowledged as one of the safest on the continent. Lets try to set the bone right this time around so that the healing can begin afresh. Lets listen to the bells tolling in a distant country and pause from our work to weep because the reverberation of that funeral song echoes in our own hearts and homes. Lets come face to face with our history and do the hard work necessary to keep from repeating it again and again. I believe that if we do this, we can emulate our Rwandan brothers and sisters and begin afresh to build something beautiful.
*This is the official terminology sanctioned by the Government of Rwanda. It’s use is encouraged in order to avoid potentially using erroneous or offensive terminology.
** The National Memorial for Peace and Justice - The first and only memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States.