Twice a week and for half an hour, everything stops on the hillsides of Rwanda as people huddle around a radio and listen to a soap opera that aims to help heal the wounds left by the genocide.
The idea behind “Musekeweya”, or the New Dawn, is to do the opposite of what the notorious Radio Libre des Mille Collines did 20 years ago as it stoked ethnic hatred during the genocide carried out by Hutu extremists.
Radio Mille Collines played a major role in the planning and carrying out of the genocide, which, in the space of 100 days starting on April 7, 1994, saw an estimated 800,000 people, essentially minority Tutsis, hacked to death by Hutu extremists.
“Musekeweya” started up in 2004 and aims to eradicate violence by educating communities. It also keeps them entertained.
The soap opera recounts the day-to-day life of the residents of two fictional villages, Bumanzi and Muhumuro, who, after years of conflict stoked by the authorities, are trying to heal their wounds and mend fences.
For the past 10 years the series has explored what causes the destructive behaviour of the two villages’ inhabitants, basing itself on the work of Ervin Staub, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, who in “The Roots of Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism” explores the origins of violence.
Even if the words Hutu and Tutsi, taboo in present-day Rwanda, are never mentioned, the conflict that has affected the two fictional villages mirrors the genocide that took place in Rwanda two decades ago.
“A lot of people followed orders,” explains Aimable Twahirwa, who heads the project, set up by the Dutch organisation La Benevolencija, which has similar initiatives in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The NGO bases its work on that done by the radio of the same name, La Benevolencija Sarajevo, during the war in Bosnia, which was in turn inspired by the success of the BBC’s “New Home, New Life” radio soap opera that has reached millions of Afghans.
“Our role is to increase people’s sense of responsibility,” to turn them into “active witnesses who can dare to say no to actions that lead to violence,” Twahirwa said.
– Suspense, humour and love –
Ten years on the characters in the soap opera have reached “the stage of dialogue, of reconciliation, despite some problems that they have to overcome,” explains Charles Lwanga Rukundo, one of the scriptwriters for the programme.
“The genocide left scars,” he said, “but we are demonstrating that despite that it is possible to have a dialogue and to ask for forgiveness.”
“Musekeweya” has all the ingredients of a self-respecting soap opera: suspense, humour and a love element.
A study undertaken in 2013 by La Benvolencija showed that 84 percent of Rwandans with access to a radio tune into it every week.
And the element that was so effective for Radio des Mille Collines — the capacity to reach people in the most remote rural areas — is effective for “Musekeweya” too.
“Radio reaches everyone. It keeps Rwandans company, particularly in rural areas,” Twahirwa said.
“When it’s time for the programme I switch my radio on for the customers, and if I forget, they never fail to remind me,” said 34-year-old Jean-Paul Nabanda, who runs a small bar on a hillside on the outskirts of Musanze town in northern Rwanda.
In nearby Remera Ruhondo, Polish priest Zdzislaw Zywica, who has been in Rwanda for the past 30 years, can see the impact of the series on his congregation.
“Every week there are discussions and exchanges about the series,” he told AFP, attributing its success to the fact it is “inspired by everyday life in Rwanda”.
“We’ve even realised that the FDLR follow the programmes from the forests,” said Twahirwa, referring to the Rwandan Hutu rebels who include the perpetrators of the genocide in their ranks, and who are based in the forests of neighbouring DR Congo.
“Musekeweya”, “it’s like what happened in Rwanda when there was a conflict between two groups,” explained Jean Pierre, a young bicycle taxi operator.
“‘Musekeweya’ has come to teach us so that the tragedy of 1994 does not happen again.”