The flame that is Rwanda
November of last year WE-Change was invited by UWI LEADS to participate in a series of events hosted in partnership with UN Women as part of a South-South dialogue series between Jamaica & Rwanda. WE learnt quite a bit and WE were also given an opportunity to make a presentation on the work that WE have been doing and how discrimination affects lesbians, bisexual and transgender women. It was an experience that left an indelible mark on the team at WE-Change.
The Honourable Juliana Kantengwa (Member of the Rwandan Parliament) who spoke about the diverse experiences and journeys of the Rwandan people, ignited a flame in us. WE were inspired to do more. And this inspiration also meant studying the people of Rwanda – their history, culture, life and experiences, with particular interest in the genocide, women in leadership, and sustainable development best practices.
- that survives a 100-day bloodbath that wiped out over 800,000 people because of their appearance,
- that orphaned over 75,000 survivors of the genocide,
- where between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped, infecting many with HIV,
- that has over 60% of their parliament being women,
- that has high levels of women’s participation in entrepreneurship
- that bans plastic bags (!!!) is a country that can teach us a book of life lessons about a sea of issues.
Lessons that we must take the time to learn, and learn well.
There is a lot to learn from the Rwanda Genocide and the kind of society that emerged several years later. The most important lesson for me is that, left unchecked, discrimination can wipe out entire populations…
I am happy Mary Seacole Hall under the leadership of Nadeen Spence decided to partner with WE-Change to remember Rwanda. It was an intimate evening filled with powerful words to raise our consciousness about how we perpetuate discrimination, and music to soothe our souls as we immersed ourselves into what was perhaps the bloodiest period of Rwandan history.
The evening opened with our goddess of ceremonies – Taitu Heron, who provided the audience with the contextual frame within which Mary Seacole Hall & WE-Change were #RememberingRwanda.
Nadeen Spence offered remarks in her capacity as Student Services and Development Manager at Mary Seacole Hall. In her remarks she spoke about her own study of the Rwanda Genocide and the impact that learning experience had on her.
We also heard from Ackeena Drummond, outgoing Chairwoman for Mary Seacole Hall, who reminded us of the ‘stereotypical foolishness’ that is often the root of many forms of discrimination.
Judith Wedderburn of 51% Coalition, in her remarks, asked us not to forget the role imperialism played in the genocide, and how Belgium as colonisers of Rwanda amplified, and in some cases instigated the discrimination between the two warring ‘tribes’ – the Hutus and the Tutsis.
Our very own Rochelle McFee who is also a development specialist, offered the keynote address. She explored hate, prejudice and discrimination within the context of the genocide, and applied that context to contemporary Jamaican society. A society in which discrimination in many of its forms is evident, perpetrated, lived, and experienced in everyday life. She also spoke about how states, through their institutions can oftentimes perpetrate and sanction discrimination. In this regard she highlighted several examples of how lesbians, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women experience discrimination in Jamaica because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In addition to the everyday discrimination experienced by LBT women, Rochelle provided us with numerous examples of how several pieces of legislation in Jamaica implicitly and/or explicitly discriminate against LBT women. She reminded us of the Pyramid of hate that Tessa Hicks articulated, and urged us to stop the genocide before the genocide – let us check our utterances, attitudes and actions towards our fellow Jamaicans who we consider as ‘different’ and ‘other’. She closed with a call to action for the audience: ‘As we remember Rwanda and reflect on the atrocities in our own time and context, let us recommit to speaking against prejudice and hate while engendering a society where differences are celebrated rather than punished.’
Rochelle’s keynote address was followed by the lighting of the candles and a moment of silence for the victims of the Rwanda Genocide, which was led by Njari Carr of Akoben Women. Members of the audience were asked to stand in two parallel lines facing each other as Njari lit the first candle then shared her flame with others.
Towards the end of our moment of silence, Taitu Heron, in the language of Yoruba, honoured the victims of the genocide in song. As she ended her tribute, the songs of pain and survival that played at low decibels throughout the ceremony began to crescendo – it was a powerful, unforgettable moment.
With candles still lit, J-mi of 360 Artists then delivered a very soulful performance with his renditions of A Change is gonna come, Bridge over troubled water and Many rivers to cross.
Njari closed the ceremony by inviting everyone to lay their candles gently on the ground in a small heap, and we allowed the wind to extinguish their flame.
In the words of Njari: Thank you WE-Change [and Mary Seacole Hall] for #RememebringRwanda