In Search of Silence and the Missing Female to Female Nine Pin

It’s been a few months since I last posted for the series ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’. We are now over halfway through with 21 posts (A list of these are at the bottom of this post – I aim to finish the series by the middle of 2018!). Thanks for your patience with sticking with it!

This post, with a slightly obscure title, is all about the challenges of my project work, setting up the Genocide Museum’s first audio guide system.  

***

One day my boss Freddy took me to a storage room at the back of the Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, where we stared down at a big cardboard box, jumbled with audio guides, each with a number panel and LED display, entwined in a black spaghetti of wires, wrist-straps and earphones.
‘This is all donated. We don’t even know if they work,’ he said. ‘Could you set this up for us?’
Although I had been an official guide at the British Museum for four years, I had no experience of setting up audio guides. How hard could it be I thought? And of course I was up for the challenge, why else had I come to Africa, so I said yes.

“Eventually we will have the audio guide tour in many languages. Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French, German, Dutch and so forth. But, first we will have it in English and that voice will be yours,” he said.

***

I was flattered but it was a massive responsibility for me because the Kigali Genocide Museum is no ordinary place; it’s considered by many to be one of the best museums in Africa.

And it’s different to other museums -you cannot come out of the Genocide Museum in Rwanda saying I loved it. You can say you were deeply moved, that it opened your eyes, but loved it? No. I saw people every day stepping out in to the light, moved to tears, in silent introspection, deeply affected by what they had just seen in its galleries. Its storyboards and videos, machetes, clubs and skulls evoke disparate emotions, horror, shock, shame, anger and perhaps at the end a sense of hope. You may leave it being profoundly affected by what you have learnt, a feeling that may never leave you. It bridges not just Rwanda, but genocides in Cambodia, then-Yugoslavia, Turkey and the Holocaust. It lifts a lens in to the darkest parts of our own souls.

***

There were three main exhibitions but hardest one to visit was the children’s gallery, filled with three feet high photos of Rwandan children, smiling with twinkling eyes that looked forward to bright futures. There were lists of their favourite foods (invariably chips and Fanta), their characters (‘lively’, ‘joking’, ‘energetic’ etc.), their best friend and finally how they were killed (‘machete’, ‘shot’, ‘arrow through eye’, ‘grenade thrown in shower’ etc.) The words used were objective and dispassionate but their effect was utterly devastating.

We set up a system of collecting visitors comments every day and pegged them on to a string line that fluttered in the breeze from an open door. One of them read:

“Keep on going, keep reaching out, don’t ever, ever give up. My feelings don’t count. Make people look, remember, understand. I’m standing here listening to the rattling photographs fading behind me. Don’t let the faces fade. They have been killed once already.”

Mary Murphy, Berlin.

The museum’s lessons and mandate are immense and setting up the audio guides was therefore no small matter – I really didn’t want to let anyone down

***

The recipe for setting up a museum audio guide system contains the following ingredients.

  • An approved script (Tick. This was already written – a tricky narrative given the sensitive nature of the content, the Rwandan Genocide.)
  • A person who can read the script. (Tick. Yours truly.)
  • A means of recording the voice in to a series of short audio files. (Tick. Laptop.)
  • About 50 to 100 working handsets with headsets (Tick. These had been donated to the museum by a company called Orpheous.)
  • A way of transferring the files on to the handsets via a laptop, a console and a cable.
  • Design, printing and laminating several tour maps of the tour route.
  • A series of weather-proof, clearly numbered signs, positioned at each stop.
  • Posters to tell people about it and how much it costs to hire.
  • A cupful of patience.
  • A pinch of humour and good cheer.
  • A teaspoon of tenacity.
  • A tablespoon of resourcefulness.
  • A jugful of warm and sweet teamwork to bind all the ingredients together. (Without this your ingredients will have no effect and the recipe will fail).

Make sure the handsets are well charged up every day, train your staff – et voila. You’re good to go; you have a new income stream for your museum. It all seemed simple from the outset. Deceptively simple.

***

I tipped the contents of the box on the floor. There was an instruction manual (with black and white diagrams), about a hundred handsets each with headphones and a black box, a central console that housed, charged and programmed them.

There was a missing CD and, crucially, a missing cable to connect the console to a computer to transfer the audio files from the console to the handsets. My knowledge of cables and leads is pretty rudimentary (USB, mini-USB, lightning, AV and  HDMI, but then I lose it when it comes to the more exotic DVI, VGA, firewire and such like.) The cable I needed was called a ‘female to female 9 pin’. This small piece of wire would be the difference between success and failure for the audio guides project.

I emailed the manufacturer who replied the same day to say they would be happy to post me one from France, but after 2 weeks the cable still hadn’t arrived. They gave me a tracking number – it was in a local post office. I called them and they said that our PO Box address had expired and they couldn’t hand over my parcel till it had been renewed.

In addition, there was a missing CD which contained the programming software. It was only 7 megabytes and was downloadable from the internet, but as there was no broadband in Rwanda in those days it took me a full day. By the time I opened the file a message came up on my screen saying the file was in Windows 98. This was incompatible with my laptop which ran Windows 2007. From the start my project was beset with challenges.

***

I determined to do those things that were in my control, often a very good place to start. At least I could start recording the script, right? I took the script and my laptop in to a quiet backroom (Martin’s office, which was carpeted and had therefore quite good acoustics, or rather no echoes), plugged in a mic, cleared my throat and recorded the first part of the tour.

Only when we search for silence do we become aware of how elusive it is. They say silence is golden, but that is usually 18 carat gold, impure, mixed with other sounds. Pure silence, the silence of the 24 carat gold variety, is a rare and flitting creature indeed, so delicate, it dissolves in distant birdsong, it fades away from gentle breezes in high-up branches and is dispersed by whispers or even a slight exhale. (If you’re reading this in silence, what do you actually hear?)

On playing back the 5 minute recording, I could hear background noises: an ambient fizz; a distant chatter; the chirp of birds in the gardens; the splashing waterfall from the Garden of Remembrance; some footsteps; the distant sound of tires on gravel; the judder of water pipes. These were sounds I would never normally even notice but on the playback they were distracting. These were truly the sounds of silence.

After lunch, I decided to record the audio file in the bedroom of my bungalow, where by the backstreets of Remera, I hoped pure silence might manifest itself. Peter my security guard was in the front garden lifting weights, various sizes of bar-bells and dumb-bells, that he had made by filling powder-milk tins with concrete. ‘Jah man,’ he said as I passed. It always made me smile to see a tough boxer, with his face grimacing next to the gentle smiles of babies’ faces on milk tins.

I sat under the mosquito net and started a few seconds of recording the script, hoping the fine mesh might stop intrusive sounds. It was no use, the concrete floor seemed to echo, making the recording sound as if I was in some large cavernous hall. I placed some clothes and blankets on the floor in the hope of muffling it and tried to record it again. Again it was no use, there was too much background noise: Peter, footsteps, and strange footsteps perhaps from lizards in the loft or birds on the tin roof; distant yelps from children playing football.

***

I came up with a plan; drastic needs call for drastic measures. I placed a blanket over my head (it was nylon and itchy when it got warm, but I would only be under there for a few minutes till I had recorded the first stop). In that darkness I put on my head torch and switched it on. And under that blanket, with light eminating from a lamp in the middle of my forehead, I held the script in my left hand and the mic in my right and recorded the first stop all in one go, finishing just as the warm air was getting too stuffy, my face too sweaty and the elastic torch band round my forehead too pinching. Surely this ingenuity would pay off?

The result was an utter failure. The recording was muffled, I sounded at best like someone who just had a tooth extracted and the anaesthetic was just wearing off large puffy lips. At worst like someone talking with a sock in their mouth. It was frustrating; I was back to square one.

***

The next day Yves the deputy manager of the centre phoned a friend of his, a radio announcer in Kigali, who agreed to loan us the use of  a recording room. And another friend called Nat, said he had found his soldering iron and could perhaps build the elusive ‘female to female nine pin’.

The jugfuls of warm and sweet teamwork had started to arrive.

(To be continued.)

***

Previous posts from the series ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa‘ can be found below:

 ***

Table of Contents:

1.The flight to Rwanda, the contraband and spotless Kigali      

2. A letter from the heart of Africa – settling in fine

3. Getting to work, Rwanda style

3.  Peter and the Soup Confusion

4. A special place of remembrance, hope and beauty

5. Help! I’m a businessman going to work in an NGO in Africa

6. The importance of memory

7. We Need To Talk About Why People Kill Each Other

8. Stolen socks and missing underpants 

9. Banana-leaf balls, making friends and a bitter falling out

10. The Shimmering Lake in the Shadow of the Volcano

11. The Chatter of the Raindrops

12. My friends, the survivors

13. Politicians and popstars

14. The Spotless City

15. Leisure pursuits: tennis, jogging and painful stomach-flattening (please do not try this at home)

16. The Day When Time Slowed Down

17. A Festering Malice: The Grenade Attack

18. The Resilience of Hope

19. A weekend in the rural beauty of Rwanda

20. Feeling down

21. The Nemesis of my sole

***

11 Comments Add yours

  1. You are a strong, strong man to have worked in such a place and I continue to be greatly moved by your accounts of the time you spent there. Even your storytelling of the mundane moments you experienced there are filled with compassion, love and respect. Even when steeped in humour or sadness. I love your writing and the way you see your world.

    I remember, back in 1990, going to the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) when we were travelling in Israel. I was one of the people you describe in your post… so moved that I had to get outside, and fast, unable to complete my visit there. I went outside, leaving Bill inside to finish his tour of the place. I just couldn’t do it. And the scene that broke my mettle? It was a floor to ceiling black and white photo, a little like what you describe here, of emasculated people in the concentration camp. The horror of that photo lives with me to this day. I think the one you describe is even more horrific because it combines joy, childhood and theunspeakable violence of the children’s abrupt ends.

    Images and words, written and spoken, are powerful tools. I’m sure your voice-over was outstanding, given the sensibilities you undoubtedly brought to this project. And your strength. Your strength of commitment, your strength of character, and your emotional strength.

    Thank you for your stories.

    Like

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