African Studies Quarterly

Do I Still Have a Life? Voices from the Aftermath of War in Rwanda and Burundi. John M. Janzen & Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2000. Pp. 234.


The title and publication date of “Do I Still Have a Life?” may suggest that this book deals with the situation in Rwanda and Burundi a few years after the respective tragedies of 1994 and 1993. For anyone interested in the current situation in both countries, this would be an exciting prospect. In Burundi, due to ongoing low to medium intensity conflict, it has been nearly impossible to carry out any ethnographic work over the last few years. This has also been the case in Rwanda.  Since the return of the refugees at the end of 1996, the possibilities for conducting fieldwork among rural and ordinary populations inside Rwanda have been extremely restricted. For this reason, researchers have a very limited understanding of how people have resumed their lives and are now coping in the years immediately following the tragedy.

The fieldwork for this book was carried out over a two month period from the end of 1994 to the beginning 1995. At that point, it was still relatively easy to carry out fieldwork due to the fact that there were over 150 international relief agencies in the region. The authors were recruited by the Mennonite Church to provide analysis and philosophical reflection on the situation in the Great Lakes and to listen to individual stories.  This gave the authors access to vast networks, which allowed the authors to discuss events with people freely. Indeed, many people were very eager to tell their stories; this situation has changed dramatically since then. Following their fieldwork, the authors have continued their work by following up on some individuals through correspondence in order to cross-check divergent accounts of certain events and learn about the complicity and participation of certain individuals they interviewed.  Do I Still Have a Life? has clearly been put together with a lot of reflection and commitment, and thus is, in this sense, a quite remarkable book.

This book is an ethnography, focusing on individual experiences of the war and genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, but it differs from the majority of existing testimonial anthologies in three fundamental ways. [1] First of all, other works have mostly focussed on genocide survivors, while the Janzens’ have tried to collect as many different perspectives as possible (visiting both the camps in Zaire and localities inside Rwanda and Burundi).  They have opted to give voice and agency back to the individual characters in the wider tragedy, without objectifying individual choices and actions.  Moreover, they believe that

despite the important place of writings...that suggest that the events surrounding the genocide and a war can be understood by careful historical reconstruction and disciplinary analysis that is rationally understood, our point of departure is that many of the individuals whose stories we heard reflect the fundamentally irrational and incomprehensible nature of war, on the part of both those who were involved in it and those who observed it from the outside....Therefore there is a need to listen to the voices to examine the many complex ways that rationalities and irrationalities interact in the lives of individuals, their communities and their families. [1] [2]

Secondly, the authors do not just focus on people’s experiences during the war, the genocide and life in the refugee camps, but have opted for broader life histories. As such, they are able to grasp Rwandan and Burundian society in all its complexity and contradictions.  A stereotypical and overly simplistic Hutu vs. Tutsi approach was purposely avoided, which constitutes a laudable accomplishment making for a refreshing read. Finally, simply recounting testimonies is not the main aim of the book. Instead, the stories are used to gain deeper insight into topics such as the role of ethnicity, healing, reconciliation and justice (which are further elaborated in part II).

The book is written with clarity  and academic seriousness, giving careful thought to methodological questions and ethical dilemmas with respect to fieldwork.  The material is presented in an extremely accessible manner that is bound to appeal to a much wider audience beyond the often small circle of academics directly concerned with Rwanda and Burundi.  It is richly illustrated with drawings and photographs, including for instance a section on drawings of children and their visual memories of peace and war. Unfortunately, the book only includes one general map of the region. It would have been helpful to reconstruct the route the Janzens took during their research in Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi.  Those who are interested in grand theories or the final explanation for the Great Lakes tragedy will be disappointed. Readers interested, however, in the reflections of ordinary characters in this unfolding drama and the realistic options for post-war healing and social reconstruction at the local level will find a wealth of material to ponder.  Despite the focus on Rwanda and Burundi, those working in different (post-) war zones on the African continent will undoubtedly find relevant material for comparison in Do I Still Have a Life.

Saskia Van Hoyweghen
Brussels Centre of African Studies
Vrije Universiteit



NOTES

[1] For example, African Rights, “Rwanda, Death, Despair and Defiance,” London: African Rights, 1994; Phillip Gourevitch, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda,” New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1997.

[2] John M. Janzen & Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen, “Do I Still Have a Life? Voices from the Aftermath of War in Rwanda and Burundi”, Publications in Anthropology N°20, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2000, p.3.