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Genocide Commemoration in the Rwandan Diaspora

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CommGenRwa (Genocide Commemoration in the Rwandan Diaspora)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The project ‘Genocide Commemoration in the Rwandan Diaspora’ (CommGenRwa) explores commemorative responses to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, seeking to build an understanding of the forms of commemoration taking place among Rwandan genocide survivors living in the diaspora. The project focuses on three case study areas – Belgium, France and the UK – in order to investigate the impact of place and displacement on commemorative practices within diasporic communities. It is driven by three key research objectives: 1) to provide a nuanced understanding of commemorative practices in the Rwandan diaspora; 2) to analyse the impact of the specific location on the ways in which memory of the genocide is articulated; 3) to identify gaps in the existing theoretical paradigms and to present alternative models that take into account the influence of location in diasporic commemorative practices. The project makes a significant contribution to the fields of Cultural Memory Studies, Trauma Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It provides invaluable insight into the ways in which diasporic communities remember and commemorate traumatic events from a position of exile, affording new knowledge of memory practices among migrant communities and how memory narratives are articulated and interact transnationally.
The COVID-19 situation has had a significant impact on the progression of the project overall, particularly in terms of conducting fieldwork. The primary outputs of the project were to include the organisation of an interdisciplinary symposium, the development of a research monograph and the curation of an exhibition at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels. The project symposium, ‘Remembering the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda 25 Years On’, was held at Ghent University on 16 May 2020 and included the participation of Rwandan community leaders and artists as well as academics from a range of disciplines. Due to the disruption to the planned research and dissemination activities in March-August 2020, the writing of the monograph has been delayed, and the exhibition has been postponed. One of the key objectives of the MSCA-IF is to enhance the potential and future career prospects of the researcher. This has been achieved through the securing of my next academic job at Newcastle University, UK: a Newcastle University Academic Track (NUAcT) Fellowship in the School of Modern Languages, which I took up on 1 September 2020.
The project adopts two key methods of data collection, including attendance at a wide range of commemorative events and conducting individual interviews with Rwandan community members and running follow-up focus groups in the three case study areas. The first year of the project was spent identifying and building relationships with key survivor organisations in my three case study areas. During the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 I attended numerous commemorative events, conferences, study days and cultural activities organised by the Rwandan community (33 in total). However, due to COVID-19, fieldwork – particularly the interview-based research – planned for the commemoration period in 2020 was impossible and, as a result, during the final six months of the project, I turned my focus to examine the intergenerational transmission of memory and the educational materials that have been produced to teach the history of the genocide in Belgian, French and British schools. The project will continue to be developed at Newcastle University, and it is anticipated that the fieldwork for the project (especially interviews and attendance at commemorative events) will be completed in 2021.
Dissemination activities included presentations at 6 international academic conferences, a keynote lecture at the SFPS International Conference in 2019, invited talks at UC-Louvain and University of Warwick, and participation in two outreach activities, including a Schools Workshop at City Hall, London, in May 2019 and the Festival de la Francophone in Oxford in March 2020. 3 further events due to take place in 2020 have been postponed to 2021. I was awarded the SAGE Memory Studies Journal and MSA Outstanding First Book Award 2019 for my research monograph From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women’s Writing (Pulm, 2018) and, as the recipient of this award, I organised the MSA Book Award Panel at the Memory Studies Association Conference in Madrid, June 2019.
Written outputs include an article and two book reviews that have been submitted for publication, and a further three articles currently in preparation. I also contributed a piece to the Newsletter of the Belgian Cooperation in and with Rwanda, Embassy of Belgium in Kigali, ‘Commemorating Genocide in the Rwandan Diaspora’, which was published in April 2019. Two further relevant publications came out during the course of the fellowship, including a book chapter and a book co-edited with Kate McLoughlin and Niall Munro, On Commemoration: Global Reflections upon Remembering War (Peter Lang, 2020).
This research project aims to fill an important gap within Memory Studies in understanding the impact of locatedness on commemorative practice and the specific role that commemoration plays for diasporic communities. It aims to develop new critical paradigms for interrogating the impact of place and displacement on cultural production within the Rwandan diaspora. In so doing, it sheds light on new frames of collective remembrance emerging among migrant communities in response to traumatic events from particular contexts and locations. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 situation on the development of the project, the development of these paradigms is reliant on the data gathered in interviews and focus-groups with Rwandan community members, which have been delayed to 2021. Nevertheless, the project overall has been – and will continue to be – crucial in strengthening our understanding of how societies respond to traumatic historical pasts and how we can meaningfully work together to better live with the ongoing legacy and impact of such pasts. Moreover, it is anticipated that my work on genocide education in Belgian and UK schools will be instrumental in developing new teaching materials and contributing to initiatives aimed at decolonising the curriculum.
Throughout the project I have been in constant dialogue with the communities affected by and interested in this research, and the fellowship has enabled me to develop strong, sustainable partnerships with Rwandan survivor organisations. It is vital that knowledge in this field is a result of co-production and mutually beneficial collaboration. As well as establishing lasting partnerships with Rwandan community organisations, including Ibuka-Belgique, Diaspora Rwanda Belgique, Ibuka-France, and the Ishami Foundation, my involvement in building collaborative research networks, including the ‘Central Africa and Belgium: Empire and Postcolonial Resonance’ research network and the ‘Fieldwork and Modern Languages’ working group, demonstrating the lasting impact of this research, both within the academic and community sectors.