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SIDIC Periodical XXXVI - 2003/1-3
Seeking A Culture Of Dialogue (Pages 15-20)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Seeking a Culture of Dialogue in Africa: Memory and Experience of Violence
Karamaga, André


Talk given during the Jewish-Christian Consultation in French-speaking Africa, which was organized in Yaunde, November 8-13, 2001, by the COE Office for Interfaith Relations and the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations (IJCIC).

1. Introduction

First of all, I want to thank the organizers of this consultation who, by means of the theme, “Memory and Experience of Violence”, have motivated me to reflect on the situations which I have been living now for almost more than forty years. As some of you already know, I come from Ruanda, that small country at the center of Africa, of which the horrors and the pictures of death deeply shocked the world, in particular during the 1994 genocide, which was the result of more than forty years of repeated violence.
As an eye witness, I had the misfortune or the good fortune of belonging to a generation which saw the birth and the development of the ideology of hatred which culminated in the physical elimination of more than a million people in a record period of three months. Those who believe that the Africans are incapable of organizing something effectively and down to the minutest detail are wrong. If the genius, the creativity and the persistance shown by my compatriots at the service of death could be oriented towards the service of life, our country, our continent, and even our world would very rapidly change in how it looks.
My intention here is not to analyze the causes and the consequences of the Ruandan genocide.(1) However, it is inevitable that from time to time I will have to allude to these, all the more so since I have chosen to do a more global reflection based on my personal experiences.

2. Tension between remembering and forgetting

a) The shaking of certainties and convictions

As Ruandans, we are often asked to explain how what happened could happen. That question embarrasses us terribly, because we were surprised like everybody else, even if we witnessed the rapid growth of the tensions and of the process of intoxication. We could never have imagined that human barbarity could reach the proportions it did in our country.
At the time of the 1994 genocide, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, where I was working for the All Africa Conference of Churches; I was in charge of the department for theology and interfaith dialogue. It was this department for which I was responsible which suggested that we pass from the paradigm of liberation to that of reconstruction in African theology; that is to say, it initiated what today is called “the theology of reconstruction”. I firmly believed, and I still believe that the reconstruction of Africa is possible based on all the human potential and material which God has given us. The surprise and the confusion came when the intelligence and the genius on which we were counting were put at the service of evil and death to the point of leading to the tragedy of genocide in my own country.

During my studies and my work in Ruanda, in Europe and in Kenya, I had sung so much the praises of African culture and values that are centered on the Ubuntu, that is to say on the sacredness of life. The entire intellectual construction that had brought forth the certainties and convictions which governed my life and my commitments, was profoundly shaken, and this shaking placed me in a state of questioning, a state which I have not yet left entirely. This was the state of mind in which I returned to Ruanda in 1995 with the task of reconstructing the Church and our society, which were in such a profound state of disintegration.
During the Synod which elected me as president of the Presbyterian Church in Ruanda in February 1995, my fear was aggravated by the remark made by one of my pastor colleagues: he emphasized that my election as head of a torn Church in a demolished country gave me an excellent opportunity to put into practice the theology of reconstruction, about which I could talk so well in theory.

b) Dry bones

Faced with this challenge of such boundless immensity, a biblical passage was dominant in my mind, and it was the deep source of my inspiration and commitment.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:1-6)

The challenge presented by the ripping apart of Ruandan society does not lie only in the magnitude of the crimes against humanity committed by Ruandans against other Ruandans. It is amplified by the fact that the survivors of the slaughter, the executioners and the victims, have to learn again to live together and to share everything. Faced with this imperative reality, the famous reconstruction immediately collided on the one hand, with the people who wanted with all their heart to forget in order to be able to continue to live, and on the other hand, with those who were convinced that forgetting would be another crime which would never be forgiven them.

For the people who had seen members of their own family kill neighbors with whom they had been living for a long time were suffering terribly from the weight of an implicit guilt and because of the images of scenes at which they had been present. They had been witnesses of killings and they knew where the people had been buried hastily. Asking them to talk about this, meant telling them to accept to carry the weight of shame and of the consequences of the crimes committed. That traumatizing feeling could also be magnified by the attitude, even the desire of some unscupulous people who were willing to benefit from this opportunity in order to humiliate and to acquire goods.
On the other side, there were and still are people who had escaped the genocide, or members of the families that were exterminated who had just come home from exile and who wanted to know the circumstances of the deaths of their family members and where they had been hastily buried in view of giving them a dignified burial. To say things in a nutshell, on the one hand, there were people who wanted to forget everything right away, and on the other hand, others wanted to know everything and to preserve the memory at all costs.

To be honest, there was no open discussion on the matter, and in addition, because of the tensions, the traumata and the uncertainties which characterized the period immediately after the genocide, such a discussion was not possible.
Initiatives for disinterring the bodies and organizing ceremonies of inhumation and mourning in dignity were numerous throughout the country. The Churches themselves seemed to be divided on the subject: following the example of the Presbyterian Church of Ruanda, for which I had just been elected to take on responsibility, some were convinced that any possible reconstruction of Ruandan social fabric which was so torn, absolutely had to begin with this act of honoring the victims by giving them a worthy burial. The others preferred to begin directly by speaking of forgiveness and reconciliation, often making those who had escaped feel guilty by telling them that they were certain to be punished if they didn’t succeed in forgiving unconditionally, following the example of Christ.
I will never forget the extreme tension with which we had to work in Remera when organizing the burial of six of our sixteen pastors who had been killed during the genocide; a large part of our base expressed their resistance to the principle even of disinterring the bodies so as to bury them again with dignity. In fact, a delegation of Christians came to see me in my office, holding the Bible and coming to ask me what the biblical basis was which allowed us to follow blindly the government’s initiative which might lead us to the anti-Protestant heresy of praying for the dead. It was a great joy for me to welcome this delegation which dared to say clearly what many others were saying in a whisper. But in a sense, I had no theological arguments, as I had been living for almost a year managing the daily urgencies without necessarily basing my commitments on theological and doctrinal conclusions. Even before the discussions had gotten going, one of my colleagues who had escaped and who was with us suggested that we read the following passage:

“David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.” (2 Samuel 21:12-14).

Reading this passage, which we later used everywhere else, settled the matter and the process continued without further antagonism. Today, almost a hundred sites of the genocide have been identified in various parts of the country, although much remains to be done to build and organize them correctly. In addition, the imperative to forget in order to be able to forgive has lost the power that certain superficial preachers wanted to give it.
Nevertheless, a major challenge remains : how to preserve the memory while developing psychological and spiritual resources which can serve as a basis for forgiveness and possible reconciliation ?

3. Memory and violence in African theology

a) Memory as the foundation of Christianity

Christianity is a religion based on memory. Whether at the level of various references or of liturgical celebrations, remembering the outstanding facts of Christian faith has inspired the understanding and the life of the successive generations of adherents to Christianity. The process of familiarization with the symbols or rites leads to an astounding appropriation. The most eloquent example of this is that of the cross. We all know what this symbol of an atrocious and shameful death represented. But today, the cross is worn with pride by high dignitaries of the Christian Churches. The recalling of the life, death and resurrection of Christ is not only part of our language, but also of the sacraments and of the whole life of the Christian Church.
In other words, the integration of the experience of violence in the individual or collective memory of the Christian is a process which obeys Christ’s principles of love; through his life and through his death, he showed us how to respond to violence. “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

This boundless love coming forth from the guts of a human being whom we acknowledge as our brother and our Lord, is our point of reference and our inspiration in the way we manage memory that has to do with violence. This is the basis from which we advocate the respect and preservation of memory with the goal of drawing lessons from it for the future and of envisaging through it perspectives for the reconstruction of a peace that is based on mutual acknowledgment and respect. Let it be well understood that we do not believe in a cheap peace or reconciliation based on impunity or the absence of reparation.

The preservation of memory leads everyone to the acknowledgment of the seriousness of the crimes committed and should lead them to finding together mechanisms for acknowledging the truth. The acknowledgment of the seriousness of the crimes should lead to commitments of prevention so that the same thing might never happen again. In its effort for self-affirmation and healing of the memory, African theology goes farther in time and takes the extraordinary privileged relationship between Africans and Jews seriously. In that perspective, what is important is not the period of frustration and slavery in Egypt. It would be a betrayal of memory to let oneself be blocked by that unfortunate experience, forgetting the extent to which Africa showed its extraordinary openness by welcoming Joseph and his family and entrusting him with big responsibilities. In addition, the fact that the Jewish people spent four hundred years on the African continent sufficiently explains the cultural and spiritual similarities between the two peoples: for example, the ideas of Shalom and Ubuntu. We also know that long before that experience of coexistence and sharing, there was a blood relationship which is conveyed in Moses’ marriage with a Cushite, that is, with a Black African, who emphasized the importance of circumcision. At the birth of Christianity, Africa was not absent, as those try to affirm who give the impression that this continent only exists since the time when they claim to have discovered it, and that African Christianity is no older than the last few centuries. Among the visitors to Jerusalem who were surprised by the Pentecost event there were Africans, and the Church never stopped developing on this continent, so that in the fourth century, the African Christians made up 20% of Christianity at the time. In addition, collective memory recalls the role of eminent African theologians, Tertullian and Augustine, who left their mark on the first centuries of the Church.

It is also important to remember the need at the beginning of the 90’s for African theology to pass from the paradigm of liberation to that of reconstruction. For the paradigm of liberation was used in the theology which developed parallel to the liberation movements in the countries which were under colonial occupation, especially in Latin America and Africa. At first glance, this theological process was reacting to all kinds of prejudices which were going around and which still go around concerning the colonized peoples and their cultural values. With the attainment of political independence by most of our countries, the paradigm of liberation and the reactive process began to lose their relevance and dynamism. Thus, it became necessary to pass on to the paradigm of reconstruction, which is mainly centered on the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, whereas the theology of liberation got its inspiration in reading the book of Exodus.

b) Faith in God is faith in peace

Every generation has its opportunities and its challenges. Some would agree with me that one of our major challenges is that of perspectives for a lasting peace based on justice and equity. Our continent needs such perspectives, and so does our world. Are we authorized to take our faith in God as a basis on which the construction of lasting peace can become possible without falling into the temptation of erasing or betraying memory? Pessimists have difficulty in accepting this option, because religious coexistence is one of the time bombs which risks generating conflicts and wars which are really serious.

Are we not all afraid of the consequences of what is happening today in Afghanistan where the fundamentalists are concerned about who might become radicalized? Nevertheless, based on the African idea of faith in God, it is inconceivable that human beings who respect God would fight one another in the name of that God. According to the African idea of the Supreme Being, fighting one another in the name of God is to transform that God into an idol which needs to be protected by its creatures. In addition, respect of that God passes by way of respect for the harmony in relationships between the elements that make up reality. I imagine it was in the same perspective that the prophet Isaiah lets us dream of a world of peace where:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:6-9.

From the Christian point of view, the ethical principles of love, justice and peace are values upon which the Gospel calls us to base our choices, our actions and our commitments. Nevertheless, the case of Ruanda brings us back here to ask ourselves concerning the kind of Christianity we are transmitting, since genocide was possible in this country where more than 80% of the population called itself Christian. In our critical reflection on the Christianity of Ruanda, we came to the point of regretting that Christianity had chased out the traditional religion, in which killing a woman, even in times of war, was inconceivable, since she is the bearer of fertility. Thus, we remain convinced that the Christian faith well understood, true faith in God, is generally a faith which can lead to commitment for the construction of a lasting peace.

4. Conclusion

I give thanks to God because at the end of seven years of journeying, the image which dominates my mental universe where my Church and my country are concerned is no longer that of dried bones. Bones have come together, nerves have been reconstituted, and the body already covers them. I can even say that a little breath animates this body which before was decomposed. I am deeply grateful to God for this miracle which I have seen with my own eyes.
However, I am aware of a long journey which still lies ahead in order to build together and to care for the memory, based on which we can all be convinced that the unspeakable which happened to us can never happen again in our country or elsewhere. What makes me most afraid, is the fact that the world seems to function without doing much to learn lessons from the collective memory. I often say to my African friends that what happened to us can, unfortunately, happen elsewhere if the minimal conditions come together: a dictatorship which fears being overthrown, generalized poverty among the population, and the identification of any one group as the scapegoat.

With my whole heart, I believe that we should all learn from our past in order to envisage a future in which new generations can live in peace and dignity.


* Rev. Dr. André Karamaga was president of the Presbyterian Church of Ruanda. At present, he is the regional secretary for Africa at the Ecumenical Council of Churches.
Translated from the French by K.E. Wolff.
1.Those who want to know more about it, can benefit from the lucid analysis which was just published by Dr. Gatwa Tharcisse, entitled RWANDA, Eglises victimes ou coupables ? Les Eglises et l’idéologie ethnique au Rwanda de 1990 B 1994. Published by CLE and HAHO.


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