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Teaching Research Fellow: Andrea Grant (2014-) - Exploring 'Destiny'

Andrea Grant is a College-funded 'Teaching Research Fellow', teaching Social Anthropology and a Fellow of the Centre of African Studies. She writes below about religion and popular culture in Rwanda.

I don’t know where to call home
I don’t even know who my father is
My mother died many years ago
She didn’t talk about my story
And I can see how much I’m lonely
Turn me ahead cause it’s love that I need
I want to respect every person I see
The love is coming home
I live to see the future

This is the first verse of the song ‘My Destiny’ by the Rwandan singer Mani Martin. The verse speaks to the dislocation, sorrow and hope of the post-genocide period, and suggests that although the country has gone through tremendous difficulties in the past, it is oriented towards the future. As Martin goes on to sing in the chorus, he wants to ‘touch’ his destiny no matter the obstacles.

The song, sung in English by one of the country’s most promising new artists, offers a fascinating glimpse into the ways young Rwandans think of themselves and their place in the world. Martin decides to sing his song in English to reach a potentially lucrative global music market, yet ‘My Destiny’ speaks very intimately to the local,to the profound challenges and sense of loss that accompanies being an orphan of genocide and war.

When many of us think of Rwanda, what immediately comes to mind is the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. As has been captured in numerous films and documentaries – the most famous being the film Hotel Rwanda – the genocide saw the slaughter of roughly 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in 100 days.

My work, however, is not about the genocide. Rather, it explores religion and popular culture in Rwanda today. Based on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the country between 2011 and 2013, I examine how Pentecostalism and popular music provide new ways for young Rwandans to conceive of their pasts, presents and futures, and create new identities for themselves in a complex political environment. For although Rwanda has valiantly reconstructed itself after 1994, making great strides in education, healthcare, poverty reduction and women’s empowerment, this development has come at a cost. Critics accuse the current regime of authoritarianism and human rights abuses.

It is for these very reasons, in fact, that turning to popular music and religion can provide us with new ways of viewing life in Rwanda today. Not only is the music scene in the country expanding, but so too are Pentecostal churches. During the genocide, the Catholic Church, which had dominated the country’s religious landscape since the early twentieth century, was complicit in the violence. Some have argued that more people were killed in churches than anywhere else: to many Rwandans, the Catholic Church
was profoundly tainted.

When the new Pentecostal churches arrived in the country after the genocide – brought by returnee Tutsi pastors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Burundi – they quickly gained members who were ‘thirsty’, as many pastors told me, for a new way of being Christian and practising Christianity. Many of these new churches were led by young pastors, predominantly young men in their twenties and thirties, and young people now make up a sizeable portion of Pentecostal congregations (and, indeed, the Rwandan population at large, where youth accounts for 40 per cent).

Thus I am interested in how these ‘new’ resources allow young people to create new senses of self and community in a highly controlled political environment. How can Christian testimonies and songs like Mani Martin’s help us gain a better understanding of post-genocide life? What can they tell us about how people rebuild their lives after such an atrocity? How might we analyse songs like ‘My Destiny’ without reducing it to simply being about the past?

Taking my cue from Mani Martin’s song, in my research I explore how both the past and the future, the global and the local, the political and the moral are imagined within popular culture and Christian practice in Rwanda today.

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