Mathilde Mukantabana, interviewed by Tony Platt*
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda on April 7th, a survivor, activist, and now diplomat discusses its personal and political legacies. The following interview took place at Mathilde Mukantabana’s home in Sacramento on May 30, 2013.
It has been edited and abbreviated for clarity.
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TP: Tell me about your background.
MM: I was born in Butare, Rwanda, and lived there until I was a teenager. All my family and extended family lived there. We were known as part of the Bajiji clan. My father was principal of a primary school and our family also owned a large coffee plantation.
TP: How long did your family live in this region?
MM: Forever. I can trace my ancestors to at least the 16th century. All the people I knew and all the people I didn’t know are buried there. The land itself, like the country, has powerful associations for me, even though now it looks nothing like the way that I remembered it as a child. I can still see my footsteps in that particular place. Of course it’s painful to visit there now, given the genocide, but I still find it comforting. I can imagine my mother there in the house, calling out to us. I hear her voice, I feel the connection. For me this land is not about what it produced, but about the people, where I was born and raised.
TP: Did you grow up with any religious beliefs?
MM: I grew up Catholic. My mother was a practicing Catholic. My father’s parents had resisted Christianity, but he had to convert as a condition of marrying my mother. “We don’t intend,” said my maternal grandparents, “to give our daughter to a pagan.” As a child my Catholic beliefs were strong, in part because I was close to my maternal grandfather. He was a very kind and much loved person who taught in the Church. Our family gave land to the priests. Until I left Rwanda I was a strong believer in the precepts of Catholicism and some of the beliefs I acquired through religion later enabled me to survive. I think it helps to believe in the idea that someone out there is looking out for you and is protecting you. Later, my views about religion changed when I learned about the relationship between colonialism and the Church. I’m no longer a believer in a traditional sense, but I am still influenced and inspired by the teachings of Christianity I acquired in my formative years. I also believe in an omnipotent God that transcends the confines of established religions. And I also believe that people are connected across generations and time.
TP: How and why did you leave Rwanda?
MM: I was fifteen years old in 1973 when I and other Tutsi students were kicked out of schools for political reasons. It wasn’t because I was an activist. I was in the Xaveri group, an association similar to the Girl Scouts, and I volunteered in the community, nothing political. I and others were exiled because of who we were, not for what we did. I was in a boarding school at the time, in the western part of the country called Kibuye next to lake Kivu. I remember it clearly: it was raining, it was at night. Government officials came to the school and told a group of us, “Get out. Get out. Get out. Now.” Hutu students arrived in big trucks, rounded us up, and told us to leave the school immediately. They had a list of all the Tutsi students who attended the school. It was at night and we left in our pajamas. We were not allowed to take anything. We walked through the steep hills of one of the highest mountain ranges in the eastern part of Africa called Crete Congo Nil. Our parents didn’t know for quite a while what had happened to us. I went to Burundi, where many Rwandan refugees had fled, and lived there for seven years, completing my high school education and then going to the university.
TP: You came to Sacramento in California in 1980. Why did you come here from Burundi?
MM: I came here to be with Kimenyi Alexandre, my future husband, who sponsored my graduate studies. I knew Kimenyi from my childhood in Rwanda; our families knew each other. He left Rwanda in 1972 to come to university in the United States on a Fulbright. By the time I arrived in California, he was a linguistics professor at Sacramento State.
TP: How did your life change in Sacramento?
MM: We got married and had three children. Because I was raising a family, including a disabled daughter, it was difficult to go to school full time, but in 1986 I got my master’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history.
TP: Why did you decide to do a second master’s degree?
MM: When I entered a social work program in 1990, Rwanda was at war at the time and I was thinking about what would be needed during reconstruction. I was also working with Rwandan refugees in the diaspora. I thought a social work degree would be useful. I wanted to learn organizing skills, as I did from your class [Tony Platt was a professor of social work at Sacramento State University at the time]. I wasn’t interested in the mental health focus that dominated the social work curriculum. I wanted to learn how to create effective organizations and change social systems.
TP: So, it’s 1994, now you have a family and a master’s degree in social work, and then the genocide occurs. Between April and July, some 800,000 people lost their lives. What happened to your family in Rwanda?
MM: I lost my father, I lost my mother, I lost two brothers, I lost three sisters. Also, six aunts, four uncles, all my nieces and nephews. From my father’s side alone, seventy relatives were killed. My husband’s family was also murdered. All the family members who were in Rwanda were killed. Very few survived, by a miracle. Every Tutsi was targeted.
TP: The same year as the genocide you started a new job?
MM: Yes, I became a history professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. In terms of financial stability, I needed a job and I was lucky to get this one.
TP: Yes, I remember you at that time. You were very active politically after the genocide, bringing people together and organizing them. But you seemed closed down emotionally.
MM: It was my protection. If I allowed myself to feel anything emotionally, I was not going to be able to do anything. I knew that if I talked about my parents, I wouldn’t be able to keep talking. Kimenyi couldn’t do what I did. The genocide broke him. He couldn’t speak about it without breaking down. For a long time I never expressed my feelings in public. I only broke down in private and with close friends. I even tried not to cry in front of my children. I wanted to be strong for other people, for my kids. Other people would come to us to cry and be comforted in their devastation. I internalized all the pain. Now I can talk about my family in public, but it’s still not easy.
TP: I remember that your two boys, Gitego and Ndahiro, at one time were rejecting everything associated with Rwanda and that you were concerned about this.
MM: Yes, one of them even wanted to change his Rwandan name. We were so wrapped up in our narcissistic suffering that we didn’t pay attention to the effects of genocide on our children. For two years our family was emotionally disconnected to other realties and were consumed by our loss.
TP: You and they changed eventually?
MM: Yes, Kimenyi and I talked to them about Rwanda as more than a place associated with machetes and death. We integrated Rwandan customs and rituals into our everyday life, talked to them about our resilience and our ability to rebuild the country. Gradually and slowly a positive attitude to Rwanda grew on them. Before Kimenyi died [in June 2010] — and he knew he was dying — he spoke with our boys about their responsibility to Rwanda. At his memorial in Rwanda, they both spoke about his legacies. It was a very moving experience for them. They were able to meet cousins they didn’t know existed and talk to people who looked like them. It made them feel more connected to Rwanda than they have ever felt in their lives.
TP: What about your personal connection with your homeland? How do you deal with remembrance of your family’s tragedy?
MM: The land in front of the school where my father taught is now a a burial ground for about 126 young people. In the chapel we built for my family are 75 close relatives. We still have our land, looked after by a caretaker who has a few cows and grows tomatoes, potatoes, beans, bananas, and oranges.
TP: Did you ever find your parents’ remains?
MM: We thought we knew where they were buried: on my family property where we built a small chapel on top of their mass grave. However, in 2009 a man revealed in a legal case that my parents had been thrown in a latrine and were not in the place we thought they were until then. He had killed many people during the genocide, and was sent to prison after being convicted under the Gacaca system of local, popular justice. After he was released, he was told to particpate in a reconcilitory project to demonstrate his ability to be reintegrated into society. He was expected to testify, “This is what happened, this how I killed them, this is where they are buried.”
TP: What happened?
MM: All our relatives and many friends gathered near our family’s property with the man who said he knew where my parents were buried. We had built a special tomb for them. We had shovels and started digging. There is nothing more disturbing for me than digging. I was scared that I might step on or cut into a bone that belonged to my father or somebody I knew. We dug the whole hill and no remains were found. The man had lied, God only knows why. He said that he didn’t know where my parents were buried. So, there was no ceremony, no reburial of the remains. We gave the new grave to somebody else.
TP: How did you deal with this experience?
MM: I was angry with the whole situation for a long time. I told my family not to call me for another digging. I told them that should anybody call us again saying that they had found our parents, I would say, “Let them be where they are. They’re at peace, part of the land, their land. Don’t call me again.” That’s how I felt at that particular moment.
TP: With the 20th anniversary of the genocide coming up on April 7th, what’s your assessment of how Rwanda has commemorated the murdered dead?
MM: The national and regional commemorations have allowed people to express their sorrow collectively and I think this has helped tremendously in the healing process. Genocide created alienation and loneliness. The natural mourning process was rendered impossible by the mere fact that people who could provide solace and comfort in times of grief were dead. Without intentional commemorative events, people would be left to their own plight without family or community as their anchor.
TP: What about the memorials that display human remains?
MM: These are places where people died in very large numbers, especially churches or schools. It’s impossible to identify the victims individually. They were left at the site of their murder as their final resting place. It’s also a way to remind the world that a genocide took place, to make sure it can’t be denied. But as you probably know, even with irrefutable evidence, some people still deny that there was a genocide.
TP: Can there be reconciliation between survivors and descendants of the dead, and between perpetrators and children of perpetrators?
MM: The genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda almost destroyed the fabric of our society. Even the people who killed Tutsi didn’t really benefit from their evil deeds. There is no group that suffered more than the survivors who saw their world collapse around them. However, the children of perpetrators are also innocent casualties of their fathers’ misdeeds. I think reconciliation is possible. There is a shared sense of purpose that is rallying people together. Rwandans have engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation to strenghten the bonds of what make them to be truly one people. They have collectively rejected factionalism and divisionism of all kinds and have embraced the ideology of Ndi Umunyarwanda: I am Rwanda.
* In the summer 2013, Mathilde Mukantabana was appointed Rwanda’s Ambassador to the USA and nonresident Ambassador to Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Prior to her appointment, from 1994 to 2013 she was professor of history at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, California, and co-founder and president of Friends of Rwanda Association. Ambassador Mukantabana created a program in Social Work at the National University of Rwanda in 1999 and taught in their summer program until recently. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Geography from the University of Burundi, and master’s degrees in History and Social Work from California State University, Sacramento. Her family home is in Sacramento, California. Tony Platt is a founding member of the editorial board of Social Justice and a Visiting Professor in Justice Studies at San Jose State University, California. He blogs on history and memory at http://GoodToGo.typepad.com.