Inspirer of Genocide…And sloppy reader?

Posted: January 3, 2011 in Evidence Material
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By H Saussy

A fine red dust floats in the air in Rwanda, the result of the slow attrition of volcanic rock. It permeates your clothes and shows up on your bath-towel. It’s a strangely inorganic trace to find associated with a country whose most potent image in the mind is still, twelve years after the event, the schoolyards and churches carpeted with decomposing victims of an amazingly intense and brutal extermination campaign.

Histories of Rwanda’s interethnic violence often begin by pointing out that the Hutu and Tutsi “races” are mythical constructions: that in a traditional past (often described in suspiciously glowing terms), the two groups typically lived on the selfsame hill, intermarried, owed fealty to the same (Tutsi) king, and pursued overlapping, socially stratified livelihoods: cattle raising and the arts of political intrigue for the elite, tilling of the soil for the peasants. This changed as Rwanda moved toward independence from Belgium in the late 1950s. Political movements vied for attention and a share of the pie, recruiting their membership along racial lines. The most successful of these movements, and the one favored by the departing colonists, was Grégoire Kayibanda’s PARMEHUTU. The 1957 “Hutu Manifesto” signed by Kayibanda and eight other Hutu intellectuals advised the transitional government to take measures in favor of a racially-defined 80% of the population and to break the “Tutsi monopoly” on political office, cultural authority, economic opportunity, landholding and the like.

Politics as usual, you might say: parties and candidates pick out grievances, ambitions, credos, and group identities the way rock climbers discern cracks and ledges. Scape-goating brings out deep old reflexes of satisfaction. Here in the USA we know a lot about polarization and the leverage that can be conjured out of tiny symbolic differences when the conditions are right. But it wasn’t just about vote-getting. The death of the Rwandan king in 1959 was followed by the first wave of organized massacres of Tutsis. In telling how Rwandan democracy became identified with a racial politics of division and majority resentment, historians of the genocide often reproduce the following quotation attributed to the same Kayibanda (president 1961-1973) in 1959:

“The Hutu and the Tutsi communities are two nations in a single state. Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

I’m using the version given in Jenoside, the exhibition booklet available at the Kigali Memorial Centre dedicated to the victims of the 1994 genocide, but you can find parallel passages here and here.

It sounds like a despicable argument for segregation, a pretext for stripping the “other nation” of their right to be heard, a justification for ethnic cleansing—and as such, a sadly familiar example. Fill-in-the-blank racism: “The ___ and the ___ are two nations in a single state…”

My first reaction to these sentences was to recognize the complicity of intellectuals like myself in the worst crimes of the century. Kayibanda’s portrait shows a man with a sensitive, alert face, wearing a nice suit (thin lapels, thin tie: a man of the Kennedy era) and examining a book. An education doesn’t guarantee a conscience any more than a tasteful suit does. And despite its repulsive content, I had to admit that the passage was well-constructed. (That makes it worse: it would be terrific if evil were always ineloquent and wore too-wide ties. Like in the movies.) It stayed in my mind through the long trip home via Nairobi and Brussels. Where did Kayibanda get his rhetoric? Was he riffing on a paragraph from DuBois? It sounded faintly like the famous “double consciousness” passage, but I knew that chapter pretty well, and couldn’t pin it down. Still, the idea that language formerly directed against white racists could have been redeployed to stiffen the resolve of a new racist movement grew into a background theme of the futility of intellectual endeavor, a loop on perpetual repeat as I squirmed and fiddled with the seatback and the tray table.

My discomfort was all the greater because I knew from my reading that the “organic intellectuals” of the genocide, the people who, like me, work with their brains and their voices to transmit ideas, were as deeply involved in the killing as anyone who hefted a machete or an AK-47. The disk jockeys and talk-show hosts of Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines were on the airwaves throughout, laying down some smooth tracks for the brothers and sisters who were doing “work,” lots of work, twenty or thirty deaths an hour per machete, urging them on and telling them what a day it was going to be when the last “cockroach” had been squashed. And these were nice city people, educated, quick with words, people who took a bath every day and read the newspaper, people who may have thought Sartre and Fanon were talking to and for them. “Two nations” indeed.

In the jitney going up I-95 it came to me. Kayibanda was ripping off Benjamin Disraeli at the time of the Chartist agitation, a passage that would be included in any history of nineteenth-century Britain:

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845), chap. 5.

Aha! So Kayibanda had plagiarized the very words in which he set his country on the path to a far greater evil, and to boot, misconstrued or perverted the original intent of the passage, for as everybody knows, the existence of “two nations” in one was a flaw that political reform and charitable concern were supposed to remedy, in order that the rich and the poor of England might recognize their common lot. There was something exceptionally vicious in the way that Kayibanda appropriated the generous eloquence of the original for the quite different end of enforcing the separation between the “two nations.” For whatever else Disraeli may have had in mind (distracting people from real class conflict, the Marxists would say), and however much Kayibanda capitalized on identifying the Tutsi with the rich and the Hutu with the poor, Sybil was not a manual for mass slaughter.

With that realization, the academic conscience was somewhat assuaged, because philological competence and standards of originality had, however belatedly, caught their man. I started to think that tougher punishment for plagiarism might be a darn good thing. It would have put the preparation for the war in Iraq in the right light (the famous “yellow cake” memo was known to be a forgery, and the “research” predicting that Saddam Hussein was months away from a nuclear weapon of his own was known to have been clumsily lifted by the British secret services from a poorly argued academic paper; but nobody cared). True, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have had to resubmit his dissertation, but that would have been good for him and for his dissertation committee (whom I imagine to have been either in awe of their student or in the grip of a benevolent, condescending racism). But on the whole, it was reassuring to think that philological detective work might nip in the bud some of the evil that can’t get started without words to grease the skids. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus! I could have told you back in 1959… Lives saved by pre-emptive textual scholarship! My skillset is good for something after all.

Back at home, with books and a connection to search engines, I had to admit there was more work to do. I couldn’t locate a French original for the speech (precisely dated to November 27, 1959). The French versions I came up with had obviously been translated (and limply at that) from the English. Citations gave no precise reference, and many instances of the quotation occurred in work by people with ties to the Kigali Memorial Centre or the present government. (I’m not denouncing a conspiracy, just trying to figure out how one seemingly incongruous quotation starts and gets around. It’s not impossible that the Disraeli quote came to Rwanda through another source: Belgium has had its version of a “two nations” problem for long enough that the issue may have come into their former colony all formatted and ready for business. A question for intellectual epidemiology.) Some more library work will be needed, and it’s not impossible that the quotation is too good to be true, foisted on the late President or given as a loose equivalent of something he actually did say. Case not closed for the moment.

As you might imagine, a first visit to Rwanda leaves the traveler with strong and confusing impressions that will take a while to sort out. I’ll be doing that in this space over the coming weeks. For now, a word of thanks to my kind hosts, Partners in Health, whose wild and eminently practicable idea has been to provide the world standard of medical care, free of charge, to people who deserve it and have nothing against them but a lack of money and other social entitlements. And a shout of welcome to my friend Content’s as yet unnamed son, a week and two days old today, whose feeding schedule is no doubt known to all around his neighborhood in Kaborondo.


[Follow-up: I spent some time with the forty or fifty books on Rwanda’s recent history in my university’s library, trying to source that Kayibanda quotation. Writers in both English and French (e.g., Jean-Claude Willame, Aux sources de l’hécatombe rwandaise, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995) refer back to René Lemarchand, Rwanda and Burundi (London: Praeger, 1970), making Lemarchand, for all practical purposes, the “source of the Nile” for this item. And here’s what Lemarchand had to say:

The events of November 1959… led to a further polarization of attitudes and expectations… A major consequence of the rioting was to make the prospects of a ‘peaceful coexistence’ between Hutu and Tutsi all the more remote. Typical of the attitude bred by the events of November was the tenor of the statement issued by Kayibanda on November 27—in which he made a strong case for ‘segregating’ Hutu and Tutsi into two separate zones as a first step toward a ‘confederal organization.’ Citing Disraeli, Kayibanda compared the communities of Rwanda to ‘two nations in a single state…. Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.’FN
Subsequent events showed this estimate of the situation to be starkly realistic. (pp. 168-169)

(Just how starkly realistic, nobody in 1970 could yet have known.)

Lemarchand’s source for the quotation is given in a footnote: “Supplement to Jya Mbere, November 27, 1959, no. 3, mimeo.” Jya Mbere must have been a party newspaper, judging from the context. The Library of Congress doesn’t have it, so my pursuit halts once more– but only provisionally.

I’ll release Kayibanda from the plagiarism charge, but the charge of sloppy reading still holds. His Disraeli was clearly taking orders from South Africa.]

This item © Printculture |




Comments are closed.