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The Upright Women: 30 Years After the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda

General Programming

dateApril 25, 2024 timeThursday, 6:30pm EDT location Buell Hall, East Gallery (Maison Française), Columbia University

This event has been canceled. Should it be rescheduled, we will post the new date.

  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Alliance Program
  • Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
  • Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender
  • Institute of African Studies
  • Columbia Maison Française
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required.

A memorial performance followed by the screening of Words of Silence.

We invite you to a special evening dedicated to the memory of the 1994 Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. The evening will unfold in two parts meant to help appease the ghosts and silences of 1994 through the images and voices of Upright Women. First, a reading of All Your Children, Scattered, the impressive text by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse about three generations of survivors, accompanied by a slide show of "The Upright Women", a visual installation designed by artist Bruce Clarke. Secondly, a screening of Words of Silence, a documentary film by Gaël Faye and Michael Sztank opens the discussion about “the unspeakable”, the power of words, and the weight of silence.

Since the twentieth century, and unlike previous wars, civilians have often become the main victims in armed conflicts. In Rwanda, as well as being civilian victims, women also suffered particularly through gender-based violence: rape, intentional HIV contamination, and genital mutilation, among other forms of sexual assault. Rape affected between 300,000 and 500,000 women and more than 66% of Tutsi raped victims subsequently tested positive for HIV. The use of massive violence against Tutsi women aimed at annihilating the community as a whole by attacking the source of life: women’s bodies.

If women victims were particularly affected by the genocidal policy, they also proved to be essential actors in the reconstruction and transmission of post-genocide memory. At the end of the genocide, women represented 70% of the surviving population. This was the beginning of a long process of resilience, reconciliation, and national reconstruction in which women, thanks to their will and determination, played a leading role. Alone at the head of their family, women mobilized in associations to help each other, adopting orphans or helping with the reinsertion of refugees. At the heart of Rwandan society, “Upright” women resist all forms of dehumanization, they (re)weave lost bonds with dignity, and they have been the leading figures in the country's recovery, in particular by creating AVEGA, the Association of Widows of the April Genocide, as well as intermediaries in the transmission of memory to future generations.

Part I. The Upright Women: A Reading and A Visual Installation

All Your Children, Scattered / Tous tes enfants dispersés (2019)

The 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people devastated Rwanda in just 100 days. Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s searing debut novel explores how its aftermath affected three generations of one family. Immaculata survives the massacres in Butare by hiding in the basement of her Hutu neighbor’s bookshop. Her son, Bosco, joins the exiled rebel army, while her daughter, Blanche, escapes to France, meets her husband and settles in Bordeaux with their child, Stokely.

The novel is narrated from the perspectives of Immaculata, Blanche, and Stokely and is a poignant meditation on the violence that ruptured so many lives, women’s experiences, and their struggle to come to terms with trauma and survivor’s guilt.

The book was a finalist for the 2023 French-American Foundation Translation Prize for its translation in English by Alison Anderson, the winner of the Prix Des Racines et des Mots, the Prix des cinq continents de la francophonie, and the Prix Éthiophile.

Excerpts of the novel will be read by women belonging to 3 different generations standing in for “Upright” women:

Stokely - Camille Kaissa Naït Abdesselam, Franco-Algerian Student in Arts and Sciences at Columbia (class of 2024)

Blanche - Consolee Nishimwe, Survivor, Author, and Global Human Rights Activist

Immaculata - Sylvie Kandé, Poet, Literary critic, and Associate Professor at SUNY Old Westbury

The Upright Women / Abagore Bahagaze Bemye / Les Femmes debout

The artistic and commemorative project "The Upright Women" is part of a long reflection by the artist Bruce Clarke. This project comes from a request from the CNLG (National Commission for the Fight against Genocide) and L’Espace, creative lab in Kigali directed by Dida Nibagwire, to produce work-related art forms of memory to be presented during the commemorative ceremonies of the genocide of the Tutsi. For the 30th commemorations of the Genocide that started on April 7, 2024 and until July, The Upright Women will be exhibited in Kigali and Murambi, accompanied by readings, dance, theatrical and musical performances.

Part II. Words of Silence (Rwanda, le silence des mots)

Gaël Faye, Michael Sztank, 2021, 60 min. In Kinyarwanda with English Subtitles

This documentary chronicles the vicissitudes of three Rwandan women-Prisca, Marie-Jeanne and Concessa-who escaped the 1994 Tutsi genocide. After escaping massacre at the hands of the Hutus, the women thought they had found refuge in one of the refugee camps run by the French armed forces of Opération Turquoise. In 2009, Concessa, Marie-Jeanne and Prisca accused some French soldiers of raping them: their complaints, examined by the Crimes Against Humanity Division of the Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) in Paris, however, were never upheld. Today, each of them continues with their lives and copes with their past. They speak on behalf of all the women who were victims of men's brutality during that genocide. They stand as a symbol in the fight against forgetting.

Words of Silence won The Grand Public Prize at the Justice Documentary Festival Paris in 2023.

We are deeply grateful to Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse and her US editors, Europa, for the rights to use her text All Your Children, Scattered, translated by Alison Anderson and published in 2022.

And we are indebted to Bruce Clarke for the rights to show his works of art and photographs, and especially for his long-lasting commitment towards the memory of the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.