Still Alive / Still Life

Review of Juliane Okot Bitek, 2016, 100 Days, The University of Alberta Press

When humans slaughter other humans on the grand scale, a big question arises. But if people ignore the slaughter, they’ll certainly ignore the question and the answer it conceals. What does humanity mean? Dictionaries are comforting. They tell us that humanity is the quality or state of being human, or it’s the totality of our species and, even nicer, having humanity, we are compassionate, sympathetically and generously disposed. We are Homo sapiens. But we wise primates, after a “cognitive” revolution some 70,000 years ago, have rushed helter-skelter through scientific, industrial, information and biotechnological stages, perfecting the art of killing each other on the way and now, perhaps, are about to ditch the sapienspart to engineer our species into Homo posthomo cyborgs. Then we can forget about compassion.

A recent study concludes that “Slaughter is a defining behavior of our species”. Carnivores kill for food but humans kill relatives, children, friends, rivals, strangers, people seen as “other” for whatever reason, kill for revenge, for pleasure, for entertainment, for beliefs. More than a hundred cases of genocide are listed from the start of the Age of “Exploration” (as colonial subjugation tends to be called) through to the present, yet the name of this abominable project was only coined in 1944, by the Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, combining genos (ancient Greek: race or tribe) and cide(Latin: killing). This late naming suggests a certain historical averseness to pondering what genocide really means, the suffering it causes, and how to stop it.

Very few people dare. Juliane Okot Bitek is one. And she does so in a way that goes far deeper than citing names and numbers, or calling for consolatory distractions like monuments, reconciliation and forgiveness. Writing about the Rwandan genocide from April to July 1994, she probes our very humanity. A resident in Canada since 1990, she draws on her Ugandan family’s experiences, war in Uganda, exile in Kenya where she was born, Gulu, her Ugandan home (now known for its large number of refugee camps), her Acholi language, the legacy of her father—the poet Okot p’Bitek—Anglican liturgy, the photographs of the Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu, the words of the Rwandan poet Yolande Mukagasana who lost her family in the genocide, Bosnia, spoken word and conventional poetry that “disrupts the conventions”. She summons up “voices that resist the dominant narrative and imagine other ways to think about those terrible days through to today” because, “The memory of the Rwanda Genocide cannot be contained within borders” (109).

The events Juliane Okot Bitek is writing about—but doesn’t enumerate because hers is another project—were triggered when the Rwandan presidential jet carrying President Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart was shot down on April 6, 1994, when they were returning from peace talks in Arusha with the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels (now entrenched in power, led by Paul Kagame). Some 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu-led government, Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias, while soldiers and police officers turned ordinary citizens into murderers of neighbors, friends, and even relatives, egging them on with incentives like their victims’ money, food and land. How do survivors survive this? Why did the United Nations show such a shameful “lack of will to take on the commitment necessary to prevent the genocide”? Why is silence still almost totally the rule with two genocides that are presently happening: West Papua and the Rohingya? Or with the ethnic cleansing campaign against Hema pastoralists in Congo? Or with the West’s monstrous treatment of refugees from the wars and poverty the West itself has caused?

100 Days inevitably brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s apparent injunction in Prisms (1955). “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (often misquoted as “No poetry after Auschwitz”). But this should be taken in the context of what comes just before: “In the open-air prison which the world is becoming […even] the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter” (p. 34). Rather than banning poetry per se, Adorno seems to be warning that to persist in engaging in culture after an atrocity can be a way of—if not raising monuments to—distracting from the system that has produced the barbarity. In a later work, he speaks of the need for “finding words for what otherwise would find none” (p. 111). Genocide must somehow be spoken about so that, at least, ignorance can’t be claimed. This is necessary but not sufficient. Or maybe we don’t want to be human, as distinct from gods and machines? Which, in the age of cyborgs and biometrics, would be a valid question.

To return to the poetry-or-no-poetry predicament, a few, very few, writers (including Paul Celan and Primo Levi) have found “words for what otherwise would find none”. Juliane Okot Bitek has too. Transcending the deadening framework of barbarism, she has proved what Celansuggested: “there are / still songs to sing beyond / mankind”. She has said yes to Adrienne Rich’s second question: “And if they kill others for being who they are / or where they are / Is this a law of history / or simply, what must change?” So what must change? The themes appearing in the hundred days of this book suggest answers. Time and space are shattered here so, in no-time and no-place, her themes are universal and therefore a moral exhortation overridingHomo necans to address Homo sapiens, those humans who are still wise enough to want to save their species and the planet on which it resides. Perhaps eternal themes drawn from extreme violence can shed light on human nature rather than thrusting it into Stygian darkness?

Betrayal, by people and nature, strikes at the most elemental qualities of the human being: “It was the earth that betrayed us first // it was the earth that held onto its beauty” (Day 100). The beauty of imperturbable, lovely earth in the midst of vicious slaughter is mockery. So “what do we need nature for // all it does is replicate its own beauty” (Day 50). There is no question mark because the answer in the middle of a massacre is so obvious.

Voices from the hills order murder: “the same sweet air […] / amplified the voices / through whispers   gossip     airwaves” (Day 99). Or they fail. “We tried to sing but ended up croaking / we who used to be songbirds // in time our throats had gotten dry // this is what happens when you start counting / days in hundreds from a date that never was” (Day 77).

Silence, a silence of dread, “a conspiracy of silence” answers silenced voices: “if there was a shocked response / if this was an unnatural state of being / if this was a never ever situation / why didn’t the world turn upside down” (Day 75). Again, no question mark. The fact of having to ask the question is the answer.

Time goes haywire. It measures a hundred days but is also stopped: “we were already in medias res / we were always inside one hundred days” (Day 98). Time, too, is a betrayer in a hundred days “that have morphed / into years / & years”. And it connives with space to betray even more: “how can we exist outside of betrayal / by time & land” (Day 95). Yet it had to be calibrated somehow if life was to continue: “we needed a rhythm to walk / to move    to drag ourselves along // who could count past four / acel aryo adek aŋwen” (Day 94). This time has no end: “it wasn’t as if after all those days / a veil would lift / as if it would have taken just those days / nothing more” (Day 44). It is a weapon: “machete hangs in a museum in Ottawa / a machete hangs perpetually / in a museum / in Ottawa // a machete hangs like a mockery of time” (Day 91).

Reconciliation and other soothing words usually come on the heels of genocide. It’s time to think “about reconciliation and forgiveness// […] the irrationality of ethnic cleansing” But “ultimately / commemoration is a crafted affair” (Day 90). Reconciliation is one thing for those who urge it and quite another for survivors who hear the words “never again & reconciliation / like wayward birds about my head // a nothing in front of a nothing” (Day 80). It bears an implicit jolly-up message: “it wants me to forget my first born daughter / the one I could not bury” (Day 87).

Tourism, genocide tourism, proves that reconciliation can turn it all, twenty years later, into this “nothing in front of a nothing”. Tourists are welcome to “come & see / how we live / how we get over everything / how we exhibit skulls / how we caress skeletons / & tell stories about who these bones were” (Day 22).

God: “what God in such a time / what God afterwards / what God ever” (Day 3). Or is this the god of Psalm 137:9? “Happy shall he be / that taketh and dasheth / thy little ones against the stones” (Day 86).

Curse: “we curse you / we curse you / we curse you” (Day 36).

Witness: witnessing is an unbearable burden when there are no words for such a testimony: “there are stone witnesses / even on the road less travelled // […] // did you know stones to scream // they did in those days // & they still do sometimes” (Day 73). And how can one bear witness when “[…] in the thick of days / memory is a slippery thing” (Day 61).

Incredulity: “incredulous is a naïve word / tepid & blubbery // because everything can happen / & everything did” (Day 61).

Home: “She is my country // […] // what use do I have / for the carrier of bones” (Day 40).

Innocence: etymologically speaking, there is a beautiful kind of wise innocence, from the Latin innocentia, meaning blamelessness, uprightness, integrity, and not harmful. That kind was murdered in Rwanda and replaced with studied ignorance outside the country and, inside it, something affronting because it is a luxury of other people: “& innocence will not shield anyone from these days / & innocence does not cleanse / & innocence will not save us / from what we now know” (Day 39).

Loss: Christ raised Lazarus from the dead but here he was powerless or just passive. Otherwise, “he might have noted the endless & boundless / losses of the beloved on this land” (Day 37). Perception, too, is lost. So “boundless” becomes bounded as total: “one minute we cared / & the next nothing mattered” (Day 55).

Saved: what is this? “savage savage savage / savagesavagesavage / sa vedge sa vedge / sav edge sav edge / save edge save edge / saved saved / saved” (Day 11). There is nowhere for the saved to dwell: “there is no space for those of us / who are not dead / & have yet to be resurrected” (Day 74).

Memory: these days, there is a lot of talk about historic memory, often frozen in memorial stone, but what flits in the memory of those who were there? “Images of those days return like silent movies / the available light from the rest of this life / & I can see / but I can’t hear / anything // just the whir / of silent movies” (Day 6).

Pundits speak when survivors can’t, citing “people murdered / calculated & rated on a per hour basis // […] // never people you know / until they are (Day 10). From the muteness of those who have lived horror, others appropriate words, even construct sequences: “first the pity-inducing event / those poor poor people / pity in the numbers / pity in the grotesque photos that followed / the writing & the reading that followed that” (Day 19 – link to photo added).

Explanations are knowledge-affirming for experts who knew “that it was inevitable / that it was coming / that it had to happen after all those years”. They seem unaware that this insultingly insinuates “that we had to be blind & deaf & dumb / to not have known / that we had to have been oblivious / to think that we could live / to a full life of family / community / like other people elsewhere” (Day 43).

Identity: people who’d lived “like other people elsewhere” were robbed of their identity and relegated to being “those ones / who in being slaughtered & reported as slaughtered / lost any claim of intimacy or self” (Day 70). Identity as a label is capricious and murderous: “So what if we were all Christian // would the media brand it / Christian-on-Christian violence // how do the dead declare / the part of their identity they were killed for” (Day 52).

Echoeskeep resounding, from Acholi through Poland and Palestine to Zimbabwe. There are also not-even-echoes like West Papua. Genocide isn’t picky: “if not here    over there / if it’s not over there / it’s on its way here // ours wasn’t the first or only one / it was merely our most painful” (Day 51).

There is no blood and gore in these poems. Rwanda suffered more than enough violence. Repeating it, even if only in words, merely adds to horror in a world saturated with every kind of savagery, of people against other people, against all life, animal, vegetable and mineral, against the planet itself. What Juliane Okot Bitek has achieved, apart from everything else, is a major political feat, in the Aristotelian sense that the human being is a Zoon politikon, a political animal, a social creature with the power of speech and moral reasoning, developing its potential in a collective context. She reclaims this collective context. Speaking of and to humanity in raw, beautiful, moving words and rhythms about immense pain, the tragedy of what can be lost, including humanity itself, 100 Days appeals to the sapient, sentient, social side of human nature, reminding us that we are largely a carbon-based life form, earthlings (“human” comes from the Proto-Indo-European, (dh)ghoman and its root dhghem- earth), nature’s subjects in thrall to a sun, far from omniscient, terribly error-prone, and mortal. We ignore Juliane Okot Bitek’s message at our peril. Which is another way of saying, if you want to be more human in the best sense, read this book.Think about it. Feel it. As a matter of urgency.