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Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa

This post was contributed by Sarah Emily Duff, who graduated with a PhD in History from Birkbeck, in March 2011. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She writes about food, history, and culture at Tangerine and Cinnamon.

On Friday 9 December, Birkbeck hosted the latest workshop in the Societies of Southern Africa: History, Culture, and Society seminar series. The series is organised by Wayne Dooling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Rebekah Lee from Goldsmiths, and Birkbeck’s Hilary Sapire, who chaired Friday’s session.

The seminars focus on new research, and are a space for rethinking familiar themes within the scholarship on southern Africa. I presented a paper at the first workshop held to launch the series at SOAS in December 2009. Titled ‘Identities and Imaginaries in South Africa’, the workshop considered the construction of national, regional, and raced identities in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, the series has dealt with cities, urbanisation, and the anti-apartheid struggle. Friday’s workshop, ‘Violence, Memory and Commemoration: Perspectives from Southern, East and Central Africa’, was the first to broaden its scope beyond southern Africa. Each of the four papers focused on the politics of commemoration in four African nations, and the similarities between the examples were often more striking than the differences.

The first speaker was Rachel Ibreck from the University of Limerick. Her paper, ‘The Time of Mourning: The Politics of Commemorating the Tutsi Genocide’, looked at the ways in which the official annual mourning period for the 1997 Rwandan genocide, 7 to 13 April, is used and contested by a variety of groups both within and without Rwanda. For the Rwandan state, it is an opportunity to assert his legitimacy as a stable, democratic, and orderly government. State ceremonies emphasise unity and reconciliation, even if they privilege one memory of the genocide over others. But at regional ceremonies, the week is used to instil order and discipline in the provinces. For many Hutus, particularly those who live abroad, this is a week where non-participation is an act of resistance: a refusal to buy in to official narratives of remembrance which elide the ruling party’s involvement in the genocide.

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