An everyday tale of Kigali folk

The Archers are going to Rwanda. At least, the woman we know as Ruth Archer is. Her task? To star in a soap opera about the rebirth of the nation. Trouble is, she mustn't use the words 'Hutu', 'Tutsi' or 'genocide'
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The Independent Culture
Fans of the long-running Radio 4 series The Archers should sit down for this. Ruth Archer has deserted Ambridge - and her current fretting about tuberculosis in the cattle herd - for the Rwandan village of Nyarurembo, and traded David Archer in for an African shopkeeper called Munyakazi. In a little recording studio in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, yesterday, Ruth's distinctive, adorable vowels had - praise the Lord - at least survived the astounding character change.

It made for an interesting mix when Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth, began rehearsing a script created specially for her and the Rwandan actor Ismael Mbonigaba (Munyakazi) to perform at the launch of the country's first soap. Urunana (Hand in Hand) begins broadcasting tonight on the BBC World Service's Kinyarwanda service.

So enter Ruth "singing a joyous song", after receiving the offer of a Rwandan government scholarship to improve her nursing qualifications. Unfortunately, hubby Munyakazi assumes that women sing only when they discover they are pregnant... again. A row follows: generally speaking, Rwandan men prefer to have the wife at home, not at college. Munyakazi accuses Ruth of using her studies to visit not one but several lovers.

Nyarurembo is already hotter than Ambridge. But then that would not be hard. If Ruth in Rwanda is surreal, so is the arrival of soap in a country weighed down by a real-life plot more suited to tragedy and epic. It is five years since up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in a genocide orchestrated by extremist Hutu politicians.

Not all Hutus killed, and some risked their lives sheltering Tutsi neighbours and relatives, but a huge proportion took part or colluded in three months of mass murder. An exodus followed of more than a million Hutus from Rwanda into Zaire (now Congo), led by the politicians who engineered the atrocity.

Three years ago the Hutus were herded back into Rwanda after orders from Rwanda's Tutsi-led government (which took power after the genocide) forcibly to break up the Hutu "refugee" camps along the Rwandan border. From these camps, Hutu extremists, fed and sheltered by the United Nations, had continued to attack Rwanda. Since then Rwanda has struggled to secure its borders, and create some kind of nation from the Tutsis and moderate Hutus who survived, and the Hutus who tried to wipe them out. It is a nightmare task. Those Hutus steeped in blood can never come home, and remain holed up in Congo, waging war across the border.

Rwanda's insecurity continues to create havoc throughout central Africa. It has already led to two wars in Congo. In 1997 Rwanda helped oust the Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko, for colluding with the exiled Hutu extremists, and the current Congolese war began when Rwanda attempted to remove Mobutu's replacement, President Laurent Kabila, because he failed to draw the poison still festering on the border.

It would be impossible to exaggerate Rwanda's social upheaval. Many survivors have lost every family member. Hundreds of thousands of children are orphaned, and women struggle to raise families alone because their husbands are dead, or among the 130,000 in prison awaiting trial or firing squad.

Yet the Kigali Felicity Finch visited this week seemed so normal, so calm. Mark Bickerton, 35, the British scriptwriter who has spent the last six months working with Rwandan scriptwriters and actors to develop Urunana, had been warned to expect a traumatised people robbed of belief in the future. "I had been told people could no longer cope with long- term planning, but that's not true. Of course the past is there, in the bullet holes in the building... but I don't feel any tension."

The tensions you would expect in a country torn apart, of course, exist. Just not near the surface. They ebb and flow around that other world, beneath the quiet, orderly facade, which is occupied by the Rwandans but generally closed to foreigners. They are reflected in the careful language forced on the new Rwandan soap, and the absolute absence in the series of references to the past. While Urunana - funded by Christian Aid, through the charity Health Unlimited, to spread public health messages - is not a piece of social drama, it seems incredible that in its first 12 episodes the words Hutu, Tutsi, genocide and refugee are not mentioned by anyone.

It is a case of art mimicking life, or, more accurately, life's surface. For the words Hutu and Tutsi - which once determined whether a person lived or died - have been virtually banned by government. In the past 18 months the "H and T words" - as one aid worker delicately puts it - have disappeared from public discourse, in the wake of the old identity cards that once recorded the group to which you belonged. One of the pillars of the government's reconciliation strategy seems to be: ban the words, and the divisions that fuelled a genocide will gradually disappear. Only time will tell whether linguistic engineering can create a new sense of identity, or if the lid has simply been placed on a boiling pot.

So far, however, the language used in public is deceptive. The fact is that physical differences between Tutsis and Hutus, and their personal histories, make it easy for Rwandans to determine just who is who. And plain speech still triumphs in private. Hutus whisper bitterly about being forced to attend the "Tutsis' political re-education camps" and Tutsis confide that the Hutus are harmless only as long as they are in power.

Even in public discourse, according to Sarah Shuffell, co-ordinator for the Health Unlimited soap, a raft of euphemisms - in French, English and the local Kinyarwanda - have sprung up to cover H and T. "Survivor" now means Tutsi, and "refugee", or "member of the former majority", indicates Hutu.

Euphemisms are also employed for new social groups. The largest and most powerful are the Tutsis who fled Rwanda for Uganda in 1959, after another massacre by Hutus, and have now flooded back. Resented by Rwandan Tutsis as well as Hutus, the Ugandan Tutsis are referred as "the English speakers" in this otherwise French-speaking land.

A mire, then, for a new drama, particularly when so many health problems are rooted in the genocide. Mr Bickerton insists that soap opera rises to the challenge if you stick to the issues. But Sarah Shuffell admits that the programme has been a delicate operation. One of her key workers was recently expelled after government allegations that she had referred to ethnicity at work.

"Even picking the name for the village was problematic," she says. With atrocities at so many locations, it was hard to find a title that was not emotionally loaded. And, with references to the past taboo, the widow in the soap has lost her husband in a car accident. In Rwanda most women were robbed of husbands by machete-wielding mobs.

The scriptwriter, Sam Kyagambiddwa, smiles at the restrictions. He is well aware of the realities of life. He was raised in Uganda and returned after the genocide to a Rwanda whose artists, like its other professionals, had been wiped out. His skills are in short supply. "We shall, of course, be addressing the consequences of genocide - the people who were raped and the children orphaned." Even the spread of Aids, he says, has a genocide dimension. "But the problem with the words [Hutu and Tutsi] is that they divide, and waken memories that were sleeping. To use them in the soap might destroy the unity the government is calling for day and night."

Health Unlimited has had to wrestle with the history of radio itself. For in this country, where few have access to television, it was radio that was used to incite a nation to mass murder. The infamous Mille Collines station spewed out vicious propaganda against the Tutsis for months in the lead-up to the massacres, persuading many Hutus that their own survival depended on the complete extermination of Tutsis. On the eve of the genocide, Radio Mille Collines urged Hutus all over Rwanda to rise up and kill the "cockroaches". Another euphemism - but everyone understood the orders perfectly.

"The genocide was so much about information and the control of information," says Ms Shuffell. "And there is still a lot of distrust of radio." The government, of course, is also well aware of radio's power to shape minds, and has harnessed it for its re-education programme. Ms Shuffell says: "There is a role for raising debate but we are not sure how one would go about it yet. There may be subtle ways of exploring the consequences of a genocide that people are still living out every day."

But now is the time to tread softly. The soap may sound peculiarly removed but then so, sometimes, does Ambridge. With its plan to entertain more than preach, it will probably succeed in getting its health messages across. "If we were shut down we would have achieved nothing," says Ms Shuffell.