« We were under the moral obligation to go through with it »

Interview with Nocky Djedanoum and Maïmouna Coulibaly, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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Organizing the « Ecrire par devoir de mémoire » project (« Writing in duty to memory ») was not at all easy, starting with overcoming the initial reticences.

How did the idea to organize Fest’Africa in Rwanda come about?
Nocky Djedanoum – First of all were the television images. I don’t think I have ever seen such images. Of course, there had been images of civil wars at home. But such horror, live, was a real shock for me. After that immediate reaction, I told myself we had to act. So I contacted other associations, such as the CollectifRwanda in Lille which, for its part, simply wanted to inform. This was a militant stage with no real action. The real action began when I contacted the writers. I talked about it with Maïmouma Coulibaly, then Théogène Karabayinga of RFI [Radio France International], who is Rwandan. He played a key role in launching the « Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire » project. At the same time, I was lucky enough to meet another Rwandan: Gratien Uwisabye, the current Fest’Africa representative in Kigali.
But from there to organizing a writers’ residence on the Rwandan genocide in Kigali… I know that there were reticences on the Paris scene as to organizing such a project.
N.D. – I always believed in the project. First of all, I went to Rwanda (in February 1998) with Théogène Karabayinga to meet the Rwandan political authorities, notably the Minister of Culture, who was suspicious at the time. And I returned to France without having received a positive official response. I must admit I was a little disappointed. My deception arose from the fact that the Rwandans were suspicious of me, whilst the Westerners who came to write about the genocide in Rwanda didn’t ask anybody’s permission beyond obtaining a visa. And for once that the Africans were coming to work, they wondered who we were being manipulated by. It is true that relations between France and Rwanda were tense at the time. Nonetheless, four months after my return from Kigali, I received a letter from the Rwandan minister of Culture who notably said that we were welcome in Rwanda. Right after that, I received financial backing from the Fondation de France. In July 1998, I went to Rwanda with Tierno Monenembo, Monique Ilboudo, Véronique Tadjo, Abourahman A. Waberi, Koulsy Lamko, Boubacar Boris Diop.
Maïmouna Coulibaly – In answering your question, Nocky has focused on the Rwandan politicians’ suspicion about the project. But I would like to come back to the reticences on the « Paris scene », to use your term. I have to say first of all that there were no definitive criteria for choosing the writers to participate in this project. The main criteria was being available to stay in Kigali for two months. Moreover, the project was quite crazy. But, as Nocky said, we always believed in it. And those who didn’t believe in it were unquestionably wrong because, at the end of the day, books were written, at times very beautiful books. In all events, not believing in it was one way of questioning the good will of the organizers and writers. Rwanda is a painful subject. And if only for the memory of the dead, we were under the moral obligation to go through with it.
Every day throughout the Fest’Africa in Kigali, we heard writers saying that, in their own lives and artistic undertakings, there is a before and after Rwanda. What about for the organizers of this writers’ residence and festival?
M.C. – I sincerely believe that culture can contribute something to our existence. It must not be dissociated from the economy and from politics. I consider all that to be interrelated. I went to Rwanda for the first time in July 1998. I was captivated by this country. I was above all proud to find a country which, four years after the genocide, had managed to regain its dignity. And, if only for that, it was our duty to help them, and above all to make sure that this tragedy never repeats itself, not only in Rwanda, but throughout Africa.
How do you judge the outcome of your action in Rwanda?
N.D. – It was a lot of work: publishing the books in collaboration with Le Figuier, for example, which wasn’t intended at the outset; setting up a theatre company which brings together actors from thirty or so African countries; organizing the seminars and bringing other writers to Kigali…
At the time of the conference held from 27 May to 5 June 2000, some Rwandans regretted the massive influx of new writers and researchers when they would have preferred to hear the authors of the novels on the genocide more.
N.D. – This criticism was even relayed in a Rwandan News Agency dispatch. But I don’t regret this broadening out. I think that we should branch out even more. In my collection of poems Nyamirambo! (Fest’Africa/Le Figuier 2000), I write that « Rwanda is a land of memory and of contemplation » For me, bringing people to Rwanda, showing them the sites of the genocide so that they see the bones, is a very important act. No, I have no regrets. On the contrary, I hope that people and, above all, Africans come to Rwanda more to see what is left of this human madness, so that they question the existence of the genocide no more. And then, there is the act of writing which, in a certain way, is an act against revisionism. Bringing writers and African researchers here so that they become aware of what happened, so that they share it with others, is, in my mind, an act of solidarity with the Rwandan people. We have initiated a process, even if it is up to the Rwandans themselves to take charge of distributing the books, performances, etc.
M.C. – I think this criticism is difficultly admissible. For one simple reason: we didn’t pick writers by chance to bring them to Rwanda. People have to know that the writers we included in the project at the last stage had already published books on Rwanda. I am referring, for example, to Babacar Sall and Jean Luc Raharimanana. Even though thousands of kilometres from Rwanda, these writers were sensitive to the suffering of their Rwandan brothers. And, by going there, these same writers realized the extent of the Rwandan tragedy. Personally, I think that Rwanda should be a land of pilgrimage for we Africans, just like Ouidah, Gorée. They are places which have a history, a memory.
The historian Elikia M’Bokolo said during his paper at the Kigali conferences that memory had to be removed from its pedestal in order to write History. Yet, Fest’Africa was based on the theme of memory. Do you think it is time to move onto History, or do we still have a duty to memory?
N.D. – I think that memory and History complement one another. We must first of all recognize that the Rwandan genocide well and truly existed: we have a duty to memory. In what conditions was all of that organized? Where do the responsibilities lie? Etc. There, we enter into History. And that History has to be written, of course. It’s over to the historians to do their job.
I learnt here in Rwanda that women played a very active role in massacring children and other women. It is rare, nonetheless, that women be as active as men in the massacres. How do you explain that?
M.C. – I don’t know whether we should dissociate men and women in the Rwandan context. I, for my part, would situate this barbarity on the level of human cruelty.
N.D. – When all the taboos have been broken, the barriers collapse. So anything becomes possible. But you have forgotten the children. The children who at times massacred their own friends.
Some Africans have compared the organizing of this edition of Fest’Africa in Rwanda to Alioune Diop’s work.
N.D. – It is true that in one of the texts on the Rwanda dossier, I was inspired by a text by Alioune Diop in which he says that men of Culture are the architects of beauty and that they must intervene everywhere. I thus made reference to his memory to draw a certain force.
M.C. – We didn’t think about it at first, but this convergence has been increasingly pointed out to us. People have told us that we have created a forum for African artists and intellectuals. I say so much the better. But it is a great responsibility.

///Article N° : 5458


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