I spoke with Rudzani Muloiwa, the photographer behind the picture “Emmanuel Mugenzira Remembers.” Our conversation is about that picture, that man, and his circumstances. But because the conversation took place on Canada’s Remembrance Day, November 11, what began as a story about a picture was woven into a bigger conversation about memory, God, nations, and history.
I was wearing a poppy, in remembrance of the Canadians who fought and died in the great wars of the twentieth century. That poppy sparked a conversation between Rudzani and me about how our respective stories shaped the way we remembered the world wars. Rudzani is a South African, born in Venda during the height of the apartheid era. He recalled stories of his grandfather’s brother’s avoidance of colonial authorities as they pressed men from South African villages into service to fight, and particularly of the death of hundreds of these South Africans when the troop ship SS Mendi sank off the coast of Britain. For Rudzani, the poppy evokes a cord of memory that is inevitably tied up negatively with South Africa’s colonialist history, and with the struggle for South Africa’s freedom. I am a Canadian of Dutch descent. My grandfather fought in the Dutch resistance before his country was liberated by Canadian troops. For me, the poppy evokes a cord of memory consisting of three strands of gratitude. Here is our discussion about memory, family, nations, history, and God.
BD: Rudzani, we’re both speaking of the same wars. Our remembrances derive from our respective families’ stories about the same thing.
RM: Yes, it’s true. You know, look: the thing about memory…there are right ways and wrong ways of remembering, aren’t there? You can remember wrongly, but remembering wrongly doesn’t simply mean that you’ve got your facts wrong. Can you remember rightly with very few facts but still remember correctly?
BD: What I think is so interesting—having listened to your story, and your father’s and grandfather’s story, and then comparing that story with my father’s and my grandfather’s story—our memories are so different, yet, at the end of the day, it’s the same war, right? Your memory of it is correct and right, I think. But your memories are different because your story is different.
RM: You’re very right. The facts often make the skeleton and the framework for the purpose of remembering. But that gets to the heart of memory: we have to understand why we remember; we remember for purpose and for reason.
That’s the policy of Israel. When Israel crossed over Jordan [Joshua 4] it came into the promised land with a policy for remembrance. It says, “‘When your children ask you, what are these stones for, what do they mean?’ say, ‘Because the Lord took us through the River Jordan and the dry ground.'” It’s not just remembering a historical fact, it’s remembering what was behind the memory. Memory is meaningless outside of context. That’s why historical facts by themselves don’t necessarily change anything.
What changes things is why you keep the memories. And that shapes your intentions for keeping those memories. Even if someone has the right facts they may very well remember wrongly because the purpose behind the memory is skewed. You can say that this-and-this happened and respond by saying: “You must never forget this, because you must never forgive these people.” I’m just giving an example. Or you could say, “Don’t forget this, because such an evil should never be repeated again.” It’s the same facts.
So memory is not divorced from the reason and the purpose for remembering. At least that’s how I see it.
BD: Rudzani, this reminds me of our conversation in January of 2009. You had just taken a trip up to Rwanda, and you told me about a photo that you had taken on that trip; a picture of Emmanuel Mugenzira. I’d love to hear you tell that story again. Tell us what was going on there, and why you took that picture.
RM: I just found that pose very striking. It was almost like what I was talking about just now—about memory and purpose. It was taken at a memorial site. And that site, Murambi Genocide Memorial, is actually a tool designed specifically for memory.
People come in every day to visit the memorial site, and they ask the question, “What happened here?” Emmanuel is the one who stands up to share the story. And you can read that story in many places; he repeats the same story every day.
I was sitting there at the site, and there was this other girl. She is twenty-two years old, I think her name was Deanne, but I could be wrong. She’s listening, she’s Rwandese, and then she walks out. I think she was doing her final year of university or something. So she walks out and I follow her outside and I say to her, “Why did you walk out?” She says it’s because she’s feeling upset, because there are always government officials who talk about how bad it was, that the people were not bad, but it was the government of the day that was so bad that it led to the genocide. But then she says, “But that is not true, because before the genocide happened”—she came from the northern part of the country in a place called Gisenyi, just in the corner, near the top of Lake Kivu, directly across the border from the DRC city of Goma—she says, “all this time people from there would come in, they would harass the family, they would beat up the father and the whole family, and they would all have to run away and spend the next three to four days in the bush.”
She said that it was not like things were fine until the genocide actually became “the genocide.” So I asked her, “Did you lose people that were very close to you?” She said, “Yeah, I was six years old and I lost my father. I lost my two brothers. And I lost my sister. I survived because my father’s friend managed to carry me, and he ran away with me. We went to Goma, and after three months in the refugee camp, I found my mom and my other sister. But if anyone is going to come and tell me that a government can tell a forty-year-old man to kill someone, I’m not going to believe it.”
So the memorial site for genocide is a place that remembers things differently than she remembers it. And when Emmanuel tells this story that seems rehearsed, it’s got an angle because memorials are not neutral. He tells this story, and after telling that story, he turns around. And at that moment, the one in the picture, you can see part of a different memory, which was so disconnected from this staged memory. The memory in the picture seems to be different from the created one.
I think that’s probably the only real photo I took on that trip. For me, I was wondering what he was remembering, what the meaning and purpose of his memory was in the context of the other memories that are staged in this case.
The memory that he rehashes every time is for a listening audience that is more historically curious than anything else. For him, it seems different. You see, real memories don’t take you into the past. They keep you forever in the present.
That is the reason why I think this rabbi, Hillel the Elder, said that if you could summarize the whole of the Old Testament, it would be summarized in one word: remember. The whole Torah, the Prophets, consist of one word: remember. Because remembering gives us the present. Emmanuel told us he lost five kids, and that his brothers were killed. I don’t think they will ever be part of the past. They are forever present to him. And you see him not so much remembering as being forever in his present.
That is why I think of the Old Testament.
BD: I think you’re right. When you read the Old Testament, you think right back to Genesis 1, and it says “In the beginning.” And this is the beginning of a story that begins in a way that almost says, “Remember when?” When you read, or say, “In the beginning,” you are effectively saying, let us go back to the time when….let us remember….Then you have Genesis 2, “This is the account of.” The Old Testament is a recounting of God’s mighty acts through all sorts of things. You hear that again and again in the Old Testament—you alluded to the crossing of the Jordan. They are warned not to forget. There’s also that passage in Deuteronomy that says something like “When you’re eating fruits from trees that you didn’t plant, and drinking wine from vines you didn’t plant: remember.” It’s basically saying, don’t remember your history for the sake of it, but remember who acted for you.
RM: Yes, it’s the most remarkable thing. When you look at all the things—I spoke about the memorial sites, the poppy on your chest, Emmanuel Mugenzira telling his story over and over again—you realize right away that remembering is not passive. In fact, it has to be active to be a true memory. That is why all the time when you read the history of Israel it’s the story of forgetting. It’s the story of negligence. Because remembering is custodianship of a way of living. To remember is the key to actively retaining what’s important. To put up stones, to wear a poppy, is to actively remember. And just as you can act rightly and wrongly, you can remember rightly and wrongly.
And where there is a disconnect between the two remembrances—like the one I think Emmanuel has, and the one he tells—there is something else that happens. What’s the word that we use in Latin, no, in Greek? Schizophrenia.
Remembering wrongly is a kind of divided mind. And when I took that picture, I felt very sad for Emmanuel. I’ve called back that picture a number of times, and it feels so heartbreaking to see that disconnect.
BD: Yes. And this leads me to think of another question that will become more pressing over time. Rudzani, at some point Rwanda is going to experience what Canada is experiencing in its attempt to remember World War I. And South Africa will too. That is, there will be a time not that long after us when you and I become old and grey and die, when the children who are born will have no firsthand experience of apartheid. Canada no longer has any more World War I veterans, and our Second World War veterans are dying. And there will be a time when no living Rwandans will have firsthand experience of the genocide. You talk about the disconnect between Emmanuel’s memory and the memory that he tells as part of the Murambi Memorial. You could say the same thing even with the memorials that are being put up in South Africa to remember the apartheid, or those that are put up to remember the world wars. They are there to ensure that that awful, wicked thing does not happen again. How does a country remember well? Can we avoid that disconnect?
RM: That’s a difficult one, Brian, because a nation’s remembering presupposes some sort of moral consensus. It presupposes some things of value that a country holds dear, which provide the reason behind why it wants to remember.
Take the Germans. The Germans do not want to forget—the decent, honest, sincere, good Germans do not want to forget Hitler’s genocide. Think of Angela Merkel’s refusal to buy Netanyahu’s story that it was an Islamic scholar who was responsible for the genocide. She refuses to buy that story because to do so would be to absolve the Germans. It’s offering them a different memory of the past; a much better and rosier one in which they are less involved.
Merkel was brought up a Lutheran—her father was a Lutheran pastor in East Germany. And she knows that you need an ethical approach to a memory. And that memory does not allow her to go and blame others for the genocide. And her memory is not divorced from some kind of moral consensus among Germans, of what right and wrong looks like, and what right ought to have been like.
I think it matters for us too. I know very well that we can’t choose to remember apartheid differently. I think memory and what we choose to remember is basically a product of who we are, and this is why I worry about Africa. Because sometimes I worry about where we are and where we are going. I can already see traces of how we interpret the facts, how we remember differently, because it’s either convenient or it sells the current political agenda. That worries me.
If you heard our president over the weekend, he was quoted as saying that loyalty to the African National Congress is more important than loyalty to the country. Now if a party were to give us the means to interpret rightly and remember rightly, it would be obvious that loyalty to the party is higher than loyalty to the country. What worries me is that he’s in a place where you can control resources to make a memory of a different sort that what it is. That’s why people complain. Because he’s trying to make it seem that the ANC was the only party involved in the struggle. Forget the mine workers, forget the church and its role, and so forth.
But you could go the other way too. You could minimize the role of the party. Or you can fight for a true reflection now, at a time when we can still remember well, so that our memorials and our histories reflect our true consensus as a nation.
BD: Yes, you highlight the dangers well, and the importance of getting a nation’s memory right. There seems a natural tendency to whitewash even our own motivations and so on. Sometimes literally, right? When you talk about moral consensus, you also look back on the times when you failed. People may say that this is disloyal, but if, as you say, true memory is a moral act, then it’s incumbent to actually look back honestly.
RM: Right. Think about it, think about the foundation of our faith, the Hebrew Scriptures. They are the most amazing stories; the heroes are actually naked. David takes Bathsheba away from her husband and he has her husband killed. David is a hero of the Jewish people, but that hero’s negatives and positives are equally displayed. It’s amazing. You often miss that, but in Scripture, the heroes are largely human, and remembered rightly, with their faults and their greatness. Because if we only remember them as some kind of holy saints in the classical thinking of what saints are like, their memory does not assist us in how we make tomorrow. It’s the reason that I say I was very impressed with Angela Merkel’s dismissal of Netanyahu’s much more sanitized history of how the genocide came to be. Because to remember only the sanitized version means that it could happen again, and if we change that, we might actually lose the reason why we wanted to remember it as it is.
One of the most beautiful parts of Scripture that I always go back to is when Jacob arrives in Egypt. He’s allowed to go and see Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asks, “How old are you?” He says, “The years of my sojourn have been 130 years. Few and full of evil.” [Genesis 47:7-9] In other versions, he says that they have “troubled me.” He is honest in his memory. He reflects on his losses, on the cheating of his brother, which probably has not allowed him to even see his mother, whom he was very close to, before she died, because he was away.
And that book keeps on telling us that Jacob is a cheat. It allows us and wants us to remember him as such. Can the memory of him influence us differently in terms of what we want to make the future be?
My fear is that any nation, or any people, or any community that sanitizes its past and keeps a sanitized past as its memory has very little hope in the long run for forging a different and better world.
Emmanuel Mugenzira comes in here because Emmanuel, in his official telling of this memory, is forced to describe people as essentially good, including those who killed his children. And that it was just a bad government. But were they? How is he to remember them, and how is he to remember the genocide? Is he to remember an amorphous entity called a bad government that killed his children, that tried to kill him? Sometimes I get so scared. When I saw Deanne that time, I really got worried for a while, and I asked: how will things finish? She does not believe the lie and the story. And as I said above, she doesn’t buy that a government can simply tell a forty-year-old man to behave in a certain way and to kill.
What does this mean for Rwanda in fifteen, twenty years’ time? I fear that you’ve got no hope, because what you need to do is simulate the real memories of people who are bad, like David, who was a good king, but a ruthless man, or Jacob, the patriarch, who is really a cheat.
You need to remember rightly. Actively remembering what is right informs how we live today in order to be different tomorrow.