April 9, 2014
Laura Apol is an associate professor in the MSU College of Education who first witnessed the devastation of the genocide in Rwanda while facilitating writing workshops for survivors back in 2006. This month she is in Rwanda to recognize the 20-year memorial of the tragic events and share her own book of poems about hope and healing, titled “Requiem, Rwanda.”
I was living in Oklahoma in April 1995 when the Murrah Building was bombed. I was teaching creative writing, giving poetry readings and leading writing workshops. In the aftermath of the bombing many people wrote poems that they attached to the fence around the site. They wrote poems in the memorial book kept at the site. They handed their poems to friends. They gave their poems to me.
I was fairly certain many of these people had never before written a poem. Most of them probably had never read a poem that wasn’t required in a class. But here, in the face of an event for which they had no adequate response, they felt the urge to write, to put into words something they could not otherwise express.
That was my first understanding of the healing power writing can have. It is not just that reading about an event can be therapeutic; the act of putting an experience and emotion into words can be healing as well. It was true for many types of trauma; in the workshops I led and the courses I taught I saw, time and again, that when given an opportunity, people wrote what was most necessary: they worked out their questions, struggles, anger and loss through words.
A decade later, I was approached by a colleague after a poetry reading. He knew of my interest in the therapeutic uses of writing, and wondered if I might be interested in working in Rwanda. I knew very little about Rwanda, short of media representations of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi and the newly-released Hollywood telling of that event: Hotel Rwanda. I agreed to go to Rwanda, where I met Rose and Glori, a mother-daughter team who were responsible for the care of 2000 orphans of genocide. “We can take care of the physical, medical, educational and spiritual needs of the orphans,” Glori, the daughter, told us. “But no one is taking care of their psychological needs.”
Together we planned a project using writing to facilitate healing among high-school-aged survivors, and added a US psychiatrist and a pediatrician to our team to create a therapeutic writing workshop model. We ran the first workshop with university students, allowing them to experience the writing-for-healing model while at the same time training them to facilitate workshops of their own. The young people wrote their own narratives, which they worked on in the months and years that followed, and each of them adapted the writing model for use with other survivor groups with whom they worked.
The experience was remarkable, and confirmed my belief in the healing power of writing. But my time in Rwanda, and my hearing of the stories of others, led me into writing of my own. I am a poet; I engage the world around me through poems. Working in Rwanda, learning the complicated history and forming relationships with survivors, was overwhelming to me. I needed to write my way into understanding. I needed to find ways to share what I was learning, and for me, poetry was that way.
And so I began writing poems of my own. First, they were only private, for myself and a few others. Slowly, though, I began to view them as something more: I saw my work as poetry of witness, a form of social action. I wanted my poems to convey the human side of genocide and recovery, of Western culpability and disregard, and to provide a deeper sense of Rwanda, post-genocide. Ultimately I want the poems to prompt readers and listeners to action.
In the writing, I was highly aware of my own privilege as a white woman, a Westerner, and that the telling of stories through poems was highly complicated but also necessary. I returned to Rwanda to work on the poems, and when the manuscript was complete I brought it back to my Rwandan colleagues to share what I was doing, and to show them how the work we had begun together was moving out into the world.
The irony was not lost on me: I had gone to Rwanda to use writing to facilitate healing among survivors. I ended up using writing to sort through my own complicated feelings and responses.
And now, at the twenty-year commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, I am here, again, in Rwanda. Phoenix-like, the country has come back from one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century to become a success story that is, for the most part, admired and even emulated around the world.
So much in Rwanda is about healing and moving on. But even in that process, the people remember. They are remembering now, at the twenty-year commemoration. And the stories here are as powerful now as they were in the past. We all are still writing.