Alice Karekezi Interview [English]: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Justice in Rwanda: The Rights of Women; Conversation with Alice Karekezi, human rights activist; 10/5/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Il y a aussi un interview d'Alice Karekezi en français interviewée par Nanou Matteson

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Welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Tell us a little about your family's story. When did your parents emigrate from Rwanda to Zaire?

My parents emigrated in 1961 from Rwanda, each of them with their own families. And they went, all of them, to Goma. Goma is a small town between Rwanda and Zaire.

And so you grew up and had your secondary education in Zaire?

Yes. My parents met there, and I was born, grew up and educated in Zaire.

What does your parents' journey to Zaire tell us about the history of your country?

My parents journey in Zaire wasn't a journey as much as a search; they went as refugees after the 1961 elections in Rwanda. These elections, which were supervised by the United Nations, led to a massacre. And they ran away from Rwanda. They were refugees.

They were unable to go back, and you spent most of your youth in Zaire?

They stayed. They only went back after the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda.

So what did you consider your national identity to be? As you were growing up, how did you form your notion about what country was your homeland?

It was very ambivalent because I was Rwandese, and I was recognized in the street as Rwandese. In 1972 Rwandan refugees who wished to do it were given citizenship of Zaire. And we became Zairians in a collective manner. But I've always been also Rwandese. So I've been always identified as Rwandese and I learned it, as I say sometimes, in the street.

And by that you mean through discrimination, or people identifying you by your place of origin?

Yes. I was five years [old] and I was in kindergarten. And whenever I was coming from class, I met some of the children of my age. And they were waiting for me to call me "Rwandeses," you know, to pull my cheek, to touch my skin. And to say, "Rwandese" and to sing some annoying songs, I wasn't understanding. But one day, one of my colleagues from class came and said in a very disagreeable way, said "Rwandese" as an insult. I didn't know about that. And I was sure that it was an insult. I went back home and told my mother that I was insulted, "Rwandese." And what happened was strange for a young girl, for a five year old. My mother, from whom I was expecting some compassion, some sympathy, told me that I wasn't insulted. You know, I'd come with tears in my eyes and I was hoping to have some smooth words and be consoled in brief. But she said, "No," very severely, "They didn't insult you. They told you what you are." This created a type of problem for me because my father was busy teaching me to read.

He was a teacher?

Before leaving Rwanda. At that time he wasn't. And I discover very late that he has been, in his other life, a school teacher. He was showing me this citizen card, ID, identity card of Zaire. He was, as a refugee, so happy to acquire a new citizenship. So he was telling me that we were Congolese and my mother told me that they didn't insult me, they told me what I was. The other troubling thing was she started to evoke [images of] when they have been expelled from Rwanda as the home was burned and looted. So that's how I learned that I was Rwandese. And I decided to be also Rwandese.

Looking back, how did your parents shape your character?

I really can't say what is the acquired part of the character and what is the genetic component.

No one can answer that.

I'm not competent for that, but what I can remember is that my parents really looked after me. And my father was really busy to teach me reading and writing before I learned it at school. And also he wanted me to know as much as possible, he fed me a lot with books. And these books were telling, were most of the time describing the noble parts of humankind.

What language were these books in?

In French. We were educated in French.

And there is a name attached to these books, you mentioned earlier.

Oh, yes. The Bibliotheque Rose. They were very nice books with persons of character. My father attached importance to serving others.

To solve problems for others?

Yes. And my mother considered that to be selfish is one of the worst things. And what I remember they have done, both of them, is to incite me to be as ambitious as possible. I've never been really taught to cut my ambition to, for example, to substitute it to get married. Some of my friends at the same moment were taught to become very good women.

In a traditional sense, to think of marriage and children.

Yes, in a very broad traditional sense. I mean not only in Africa but what we expect from a girl, a woman. Maybe my mother's regretting now because I've learned the lesson. And my mother has announced the need of being independent always. She said, "The day you live with a man, make sure that you have chosen it, not because you cannot do otherwise."

So she was a real inspiration for you in defining a woman's sense of identity that involved independence,and thinking for herself.

Yes, but she wasn't avoiding other ways because, at the same time, for her, being independent was also to make sure you can cook what you eat, to make sure you can have your house ready and very clean, etc. So it wasn't only the selfishness or the independence in economic point of view, but very broad things.

The other stories that were in your mind were stories of French culture, and you ultimately went to France and completed your education. What was it like, having studied French for so long, to finally come to France and see the places that you'd read about?

I always say that when I arrived in France I had a problem, because I didn't know if I knew this country before or not. I had been educated in French as I said previously, and not only the language but the language as a vehicle of a culture, and of history. I was very much interested in literature. And I read a lot about that even when I happened to discover African writers of the Negritude movement who were writing in French. So I have so many souvenirs without having been in a place.

We should explain, Negritude refers to the writings of the great African intellectuals, some of whom ultimately led their country, but who had been educated in France.

Yes, this was one of the movements which can be seen as the pan-African movement that transformed Africa after World War II. You know that the participation of African soldiers during World War II alongside the Alliance contributed to their desire for independence. And this desire went along with rediscovering the African identity, and they've written a lot in this movement, most of them in French. And I have been affected by this movement also.

In France you undertook legal studies, but you chose to become a criminologist. Is that correct?

I've chosen criminal law and criminology because, as I was thinking, it's one of the fields of law where you can work for others. We say in French le droit des autres. And also I was attracted by this way of putting the human aspect in perspective, which I wasn't finding in other fields of law. And in France I had an opportunity, not only to pursue my studies, but to practice law.

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