The above is a photograph of the plaque at the entrance to the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, formerly a church, in Bugesera, Rwanda. Nearly 5,000 people from surrounding towns tried to take refuge here during the massacres of April 1994. The adults and older children were murdered with clubs and machetes. The younger children were struck against the wall. All the skulls are stacked neatly on shelves at the back of the sanctuary; the weapons used here are lined up at the front. The clothes of the victims – men, women, children – hang from the rafters of the church now, making for quite possibly the eeriest place I’ve ever been.
Street signs from the former inner-city neighborhood in Cape Town, the infamous District Six. Most of the residents were non-whites (including Indians, Asians, indigenous Xhosa people, and those of blended racial ancestry, then called “coloreds” and living in their own special social category). In the 1970s, all 60,000+ of its inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the Apartheid regime and the neighborhood re-zoned “whites only.”
Exhibit about Apartheid arrests in the Nelson Mandela museum.
Sign posted inside the room where the mass grave of Red Terror martyrs is housed. We remember this one, right?
If you’re worried that I’m going to escalate the ghoulishness of the pictures, don’t. I think I’ve made my point without indulging the genuinely horrifying penchant for gore that seems to characterize the tastes of my generation. Or have I? Here’s the thing: I’m doing far more “touristy” things on this vacation than I did in over two years in Kenya. This mental break, giving myself permission to squeal and snap pictures like the obnoxious tourist that I have very much become, is nice. But not all of travel is fun and games. In my view, it’s pointless to visit a place unless you get under its skin a little bit, understand as best you can what the experience is like from the inside looking out rather than the other way around. This can take the form of sampling local foods or attending cultural museums, among many, many other options. This can also come in the form of studying up on a place’s history – both in peace and conflict. Understand the dynamics of the people who live and have lived there. Example: all the pictures above.
Even more than merely satisfying the compulsory curiosities about the place you’re visiting, it’s vital to visit these sites, digest them, acknowledge them, appreciate them. It’s a history-class cliche that those who fail to understand and learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but the saying is so commonplace for a reason. When you study broad topics like “genocide,” for instance, or “tribal violence,” or “systematic oppression to political ends,” it’s obvious that while each situation has innumerable unique characteristics, imminently predictable patterns in the build-up begin to emerge. For example, master law blogger Popehat mentions that an upsurge in anti-Semitism can serve as the “canary in a coal mine” for the onset of impending tyranny. It’s important to see the past for what it is and honor our martyrs. It’s equally important to hold its lessons ever close.
If this entry sounds slightly more halting than usual, the fact that it’s snowing in Jo’burg right now (omgwtf) and therefore freezing my fingers is only partly to blame. It’s a tricky thing to write about. There is a fine balance to strike between the pureply pleasant (Wine! Sharks! YAY!) and the Things That Must Be Faced (Segregation! Refugees camps! Violence against women! BOO!). Too much of the former and you haven’t achieved the aforementioned “honor and learn” goals. Too much of the latter is really fucking exhausting. It can be especially difficult in places like South Africa and Rwanda, where they have no shortage of enjoyable diversions BUT their darker history is very new, very relevant, and forever lingering on the back of your tongue like the bitterness of burnt coffee.
This, I have (tongue-in-cheekily) decided is why massive memorial museums always seem to have the most splendid cafes at the end: yes, society is a horrid place sometimes. Through greed, malice, or soulless apathy, mankind is capable of some mind-bogglingly awful things. To stare it in the face up close will rip the guts out of the strongest person. But here it is pleasingly warm, and there’s local jazz on the speakers, and happy couples having awkward second dates, and dishy waiters anxious to bring you a foamy mochaccino. The world has some goodness left in it, even if you’re being asked to pay $6 for a cranberry scone.
At the end of the day, it’s necessary, if a bit maudlin, to remember that the history of virtually every nation is written in blood. We don’t always like to acknowledge it, but it’s always there. In the US, for example, how often do we mention the fact that we perpetuated one of the most successful genocides in human history, actively slaughtering or causing the disease-death of tens of millions of indigenous people to make way for our passenger trains and gaudy sky scrapers? These are not “African problems” or “Balkans problems.” There is no group in history that has gone totally untouched, totally free from experiencing or witnessing the extremes of what humans are capable of doing to each other.
Then again, maybe “history” is not the word I should be using; it implies a certain distance, as though we, as a species, have moved on from the perpetration of such atrocities and malevolent indifference. One would anticipate that we learn from our mistakes. Even a beagle will figure out that if it stands too close to a door and gets its tail slammed into it a few times, it should no longer stand there. But I’ve seen so many museum and memorials bearing taglines that are some variation of “Never again” that I find it to be almost a piece of bitter ironic humor: was there ever one that said “this once was terrible, but next time we’ll get it right?” Of course not. We always chant “NEVER AGAIN! NEVER AGAIN!” then turn aside when it does.
In the District Six museum, there is a collection of plain white muslin sheets hanging from a beam as part of their “Nameclothes” exhibit. It started in the 1980s as a way for families who had lived in District Six itself to make themselves heard and list their addresses before they were forcibly removed, but has evolved into something of a visitors’ Wailing Wall. People write messages of hope for their own nations’ struggles and share the pain of dreams delayed. In a dozen languages strangers pour out their hearts, and other strangers annotate with their support. For the most part, it’s very moving. Mostly. But in the low-center region of one of the sheets, someone had written “Is Apartheid really gone? Free Gaza – Pray for Peace in Palestine and Israel!” In bold strokes of black ink, someone had come after and violently attempted to scratch out “Gaza” and “Palestine,” first with scribbled lines, then with the word “NO.” Finally, they’d peppered the inscription with multiple repetitions of one word, much-underlined, in capital letters and trailed by an angry series of exclamation points, as if screaming with all the breath in their lungs:
Perhaps we’re moving away from mindless racism and shameful injustice. Perhaps we’re ready to accept nuance, banish stereotypes, and look for the humanity in others rather than seeking out what divides us. Then again … perhaps not.
Perhaps this is the part that makes these museums so draining and exhausting – not merely our past, but the eternal question that perpetually hovers in the back of our minds: just how much have we learned and grown?
Will it ever be enough?