Academic journal article African Studies Review

Do We Understand Life after Genocide? Center and Periphery in the Construction of Knowledge in Postgenocide Rwanda

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Do We Understand Life after Genocide? Center and Periphery in the Construction of Knowledge in Postgenocide Rwanda

Article excerpt


Do we really understand life after genocide? A reflection on the construction of knowledge in and on Rwanda reveals that it is rife with contradictory assertions and images, and that there is a discrepancy between image and reality. This article attempts to map the center(s) of knowledge construction in postgenocide Rwanda, the place not only where policy is made, but also where knowledge is actively construed, managed, and controlled. It argues that an overall cultivation of the aesthetics of progress and a culturally specific communication code have contributed to an active interference in the scientific construction of knowledge. It stresses the need for scholars and observers to reveal the social and historical context for the knowledge being generated. It also urges them to physically and mentally move away from the center of society: to adopt a bottom-up perspective that captures the voices of ordinary people.


The postgenocide Rwandan regime is often hailed for its remarkable socioeconomic recovery after the total destruction it experienced in 1994. At the same time, however, the regime is often portrayed as increasingly authoritarian, with political dignitaries, ordinary people, and members of the international community all submissive to the rules, regulations, and discourses laid out for them as in a "rehearsed participation in public affairs" (African Peer Review Mechanism 2005:58). One can find the most divergent claims and conclusions on all themes constituting the postconflict agenda, notably on issues of justice, security, and development, with governance in general as the underlying factor (Uvin 2007:41). The lack of consensus on the postconflict achievements and essential components of Rwandan society signals the apparent difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating image from reality, the imaginary from the real.

As a researcher, I undertook more than twenty months of fieldwork in rural Rwanda between 2004 and 2008. This article is a reflection on the practice of doing research in and on Rwanda. It is equally a reflection on the way knowledge is being generated in and on Rwanda, an issue previously analyzed by Pottier (2002). A combination of obstacles encountered during fieldwork necessitates this reflection. First and foremost, there is the difficulty of gaining access to the "field" - a term that refers not only to the geographical area of Rwandan rural life, where the majority of the population lives, but also to the thematic domain of research topics, such as ethnicity, governance, justice, poverty, inequality, and democracy. Due to a range of reasons that will be explored in this article, these topics are largely under- or unexplored variables in postgenocide Rwanda. Second, this article grew out of frustration over the sheer impossibility of communicating my findings to the foreign residents of Kigali on the nature of rural life and the undercurrents of social processes at work. Rwanda's capital, Kigali, functions as an outpost of progress where Rwanda is presented and experienced as the beacon of hope, development, and change on the African continent. Rwanda has indeed experienced a gigantic leap forward since the total destruction experienced in 1994. Nevertheless, more discouraging Uends often remain hidden and can be discerned only by looking beyond surface appearances, as difficult as such an exercise may be.

In Rwanda, as in many African societies and political situations, it is important to take into account the dialectic of transparency and conspiracy (West & Sanders 2003), the interplay of truth and lies (de Lame 2004; Turner 2005, 2008; Ingelaere 2009), and the presence of the invisible in the visible (Mbembe 2001; De Boeck & Plissart 2005). In particular, there is a problem in Rwanda of taking the "mise-en-scène," or stage-setting, for granted, instead of searching for and capturing the meaning and overall direction of life. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.