Memories are like kites dancing on warm zephyrs on high – with just a tug, and if our strings of remembrance are strong enough, we can bring them down from the ether, in to our grasps.
Often, just tiny reminders can trigger them off; that perfume scent to recall an old flame; the smell of freshly mown grass invokes that sunny childhood summer of ice lollies, bubble gums and endless days spent on park swings; and the smell of the earth just as it starts to rain, of that time we ran home across the moonlit fields, till we got soaked, and our fingertips got wrinkled. Tiny catalysts like these are able to stoke up those long-gone experiences, dredging them back from the deep, still waters of our inner consciences.
But what if those memories were bad? And what if we didn’t recall them but they came rushing at us without invitation, with such intensity and realism, crashing in to our consciences and overpowering us, bringing back the dark days of a terrible past.
How might a firework sound? Like an explosion perhaps. A car exhaust backfiring might invoke gunshot. And perhaps with those, they might bring terrible flashbacks of an intensity so real that all your senses relive through it once again, bringing in tow fear, anxiety, hallucinations or night-mares rich in detail.
(This post continues the blog series Letters from the Heart of Africa, about my life in Rwanda. It can be read as a self-contained piece of narrative but background and a list of other posts in the series can be found here.)
I lived in Rwanda 14 years after the genocide, in 2008, when every adult would have some sort of recollection of those horrific 100 days. Even though healing and reconciliation were underway, processes that would take generations, still then, the eye of the storm had passedbut the wake had left swirls. The terms tutsi and hutu were rarely heard and the historical narrative of 1994 had not made its way in to the schools’ curriculum. It was too close to the bone, too sensitive.
It’s estimated that in a normal population, about 2% of people suffer from involuntary memory recall brought about by trauma, or in medical parlance, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This mental condition occurs when someone witnesses or experiences a traumatic event. In Rwanda this is estimated at over 90%.
Today, nearly a quarter of a century after it ended, hundreds of thousands of people are still living through the Rwandan genocide.
I hold fond memories of that hot Rwandan summer. The rains had ended and now it was the time for dust, lots of it, the red dust of Kigali, like spilled cinnamon powder. Omnipresent, on the earth which became dusty red, in the warm air, coating car bonnets and bumpers, shoes and laces, window sills and gates, sullying collars and cuffs. Even the full moon took on a glaze like Mars.
Just in front of the show-off bougainvillea bush outside our house (VSO moved me to new bungalow close to the big roundabout by the USA Embassy), thunderous lorries would create orange clouds of dust; a children’s banana-leaf football match would be interrupted by heaving tyres bellowing dust clouds, coating the roadside leaves a dull orange, belligerently squashing its fallen fruit in to a light-green mash. As the haze settled, the children would rub their eyes before indignantly realigning their brick goal posts in the settling haze. (One day, because of the intensity and dedication of the children’s play, I am sure Rwanda will win the world cup)
And work, that too was going well. I was an adviser at the Genocide Memorial and my colleagues and I helped each other out. The Genocide Memorial in Kigali is first and foremost a place of dignified burial and remembrance for victims of the genocide, and it has also one of Africa’s finest museums.
But the centre ismore than that, there were so many projects going on – videoing and archiving survivor testimonies and storing them in the cloud; a social enterprise called Surviva to enable orphans to sell printed t-shirts; films and talks, cultural events, a whole education programme to interface with the national curriculum, digital marketing, lobbying, and my own project – the delivery of the first audio guides system.
If you’ve read the post about starting to set up the audio guides , you’ll recall I had encountered some hurdles trying to record the script. I failed rather spectacularly, sitting on my bed under a blanket wearing a head-torch to read the script balanced on my knee. This made me sound like I was talking with my mouth full.
Yves, who was then the Deputy Manager, pulled a favour from a friend in a radio station and one evening we went down there to record the whole script. Whenever a door slammed, the noise got recorded, so we ended up re-recording parts. Every time I started recording I prayed for pure silence. These silent passages of time proved quite rare and the recording took ages. Every time, it seemed, I got past a perfectly-read paragraph, a door would slam and we would have to record it again.
Midnight approached. My mood became irritable and only Yves’ natural good-cheer and smiley countenance kept me going. In the end Murenzi had an idea – he said he could use editing software to delete out any background sound – the sound of the slamming door created a unique sound wave, like a little mountain on the audio reading, which he could splice out. Murenzi’s little trick saved us hours.
The next stage of the project was to transfer all the audio files on to the master machine and then on to each of the handsets using a cable. Unfortunately the cable was missing so I contacted the manufacturer in France, but the cable never arrived – my friend Nat managed to make one, soldering one together from oddments of other wires and cables.
We produced full-colour laminated maps of the gardens and the main building, and each stop was marked with a metal sign, on it a number on a purple background.
On August 2nd 2008, our collective effort came to fruition; we all stood in the reception to see the Memorial’s audio guides unveiled, and they sat in orderly rows behind the front desk, next to the head-guide Honore in his characteristic smart blazer and tie. Visitors arrived, hired them and they started to create revenue immediately. They were just in English at launch, but I believe they are today available in 6 languages and are free to hire for Rwandans.
I left the office for lunch and heard a scream, a lone scream lasting some seconds, but not a scream of joy. It was a shrill, ear-piercing scream that sounded murderous. Yves and I looked up to where the sounds were coming from and blinking in the noon light we could see a minivan in the upper car park.
She lay across the back seat, her family held her struggling limbs, trying to wriggle an escape, her eyes bulged. Her family looked helpless, whispering comforting words to her softly, touching her face and arms.
My colleagues had soon this scene too often (it sometimes happens that a visitor to the museum suffers an episode of PTSD) and they knew the drill. They waited for a driver to get her to King Fazal Hospital about 10 minutes away in Kicukiro where she would get an injection. If she couldn’t afford it, the centre would pay. So they waited in the bus in the noon heat; her screams relegated us to helpless onlookers of desperate people. I became a wooden statue in the shade of a tree where birds played.
What occupied her world? What was there in her parallel reality? What did she see in her trance as her family held her face? Gangs of young toughs at roadblocks, dancing, bedecked in banana leaves, sharpening their machetes by running them along the road? Could she see clubs with nails, or spears? Did she hear their chanting and howls, dancing round hate-spewing radios? Did she see the thugs pulling innocent women and children out of cars, or did she still hear the screams from beind the thicket. Did cruel leering smiles, their eyes reddened from booze-fueled highs, still live on in her world. 14 years after the genocide, this was her reality.
When no driver came, we took her in to the documentation centre and we pulled out a mattress from a cupboard, from the piles of them in storage ready for these incidents. There, just metres from our desks she continued screaming at the top of her lungs, for hours, with just enough of a gap between them for her lungs to fill before being channelled with force through her voice box.
My colleagues consoled her with understanding and affection. It went on for an hour. It was tiring for them too, for Gasana, Olive and David. What must they have been going through? Each of them a survivor too, each of them with their own memories. After an hour her voice started to break up and acquire the gravelly tones of a male smoker, but more guttural.
Whenever PTSD manifests in a community, it’s never properly understood by the broader community. In the First World War, it was called shell-shock or soldier’s heart, but not understood properly. Sufferers were called weak-willed or worse, shot as deserters. Further back in the American Civil war, the condition was known as ‘nostalgia’ and detractors said it was due to men having a feeble will, and should be cured by public humiliation. Even in Rwanda in modern times, some people don’t acknowledge that PTSD is an illness, maintaining sufferers are attention grabbers. Such a view is an affront to the bravery of the sufferers. PTSD in Rwanda exists very visibly; no person however strong can feign screaming at the top of their lungs like that. By 5pm the time the centre had closed, her family lifted her up and held her shoulders. She hardly had the energy to keep her head up as they left.
A few days later I remembered a short conversation at the VSO’s training centre – I was speaking to a doctor called David who was Director of the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Unit at Birmingham Nuffield Hospital who, like me, had volunteered for an overseas placement. He had developed a form of therapy usually used for curing phobias in to a method for controlling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had published a ground-breaking paper in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology; he called the method the “Rewind Technique.” At that time I never thought our paths would cross again.
I told my boss Freddy Mutanguha about David and how I felt his skills would be really useful. Freddy was always up for new initiatives – so I contacted the Rwanda Country Manager for VSO, Charlotte Philips who contacted VSO in London; a few days later she phoned me back.
“Yes it’s David Muss you met at Harborne Hall. He’s currently in Verona awaiting the birth of his grandchild, but after that he’s ready to come over in about three weeks. The only thing is, he needs someone to organise the workshops to help teach counsellors the Rewind Technique. Could you sort that out?”
So that was it. With the audio guides delivered, I now had a new project on the cards. A few days later I got an email from Dr. David Muss saying how excited he was – he had accepted his placement to teach counsellors in Rwanda and he was on his way.
This post was part of a novel-length series of posts called Letters from the Heart of Africa. The previous posts are listed below:
Table of Contents:
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by
Further posts will be published through-out 2018.