Mice, Cows, and Real Rwandans: The Oral Literature of Exile and the Refusal of “Refugeeness” in Rwanda’s Camps — Lowell Brower

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As an alternative to NGO- or government-initiated arts, Lowell Brower discusses traditional oral performance genres mobilized by Kinyarwanda-speakers from DR Congo who have been resettled in several long-standing refugee camps in Rwanda. Rwanda’s post-conflict moment has been marked by appeals to traditional justice mechanisms through widespread government-sponsored gaçaça trials meant to bring reparations for the 1994 genocide to the village level, yet such programs are dictated by the government and are undermined of any potential for conversation and dissent. Through oral traditions, storytellers find ways to unite their communities, obliquely renarrate their histories, and assert their agency in an environment otherwise bent towards defining them as passive refugees and victims. Close linguistic attention to the moments and manner in which these stories are told reveals substantive demands that the government of Rwanda seems unwilling to heed and the NGO infrastructure of the camps seems unable to hear. Oral traditions are not simply sources of automatic authenticity in which to couch development messages, but rather the very means by which demands for development can be articulated and promulgated. Like any other foreign intervention, arts projects initiated amidst humanitarian crises would do best to begin by listening to local voices.

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