Today is World Genocide Commemoration Day. For this occasion we talked with Jaspe Azabe Habarurema (25)Her parents fled Rwanda when she was a baby, right before the genocide started. ‘Since I have been living in Belgium, I have had to learn how to respond to racism.’ 

When the Rwandan genocide ended in 1994, the country had to be rebuilt from scratch. Now, 24 years later, Rwanda is still healing. The Netflix series Black Earth Rising, a drama about the prosecution of the international war crimes that happened during the genocide, was released. The hit series is educating many, but not enough. Few people know the Rwandan genocide was the most brutal massacre of the 20th century.

We meet Jaspe in a restaurant next to the Indigo hotel after a short train ride to Antwerp. She is two minutes late, but embraces us with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. ‘Hi I’m Jaspe, shall we go in?’ She seems a bit chaotic at first, but is probably just eager to smoke her cigarette. After a brief smoke, the interaction comes along smoothly. She talks with a mixed accent, Dutch and Flemish. Having lived in The Netherlands until she was 12, undoubtedly is the reason why. After ordering a glass of water, we dive right into our interview. Here you can find a link of the Dutch version of this article, published by Charlie Magazine.

Rwandan roots
‘I don’t think I can confine myself to my Rwandan part. My identity is still very much under construction. Of course I still speak Rwandan, but I forgot my Swahili, because I hardly ever hear the language anymore. What I do notice is that there are some cultural ‘rules’ me and my siblings inherited from our parents. First of all it is very important to pay attention to everything happening in your surroundings. In our culture you must be in touch with the world. Secondly, I’m very sensitive to conflict situations because of the terrible war we fled from. Whenever I go somewhere or make a life altering decision, one of my priorities is to make sure I feel safe. My future has to be safe and secure. Probably one of the remnants of my past.’

The red arrow shows the location of Rwanda. © Google Maps

‘One of Rwanda’s important traditions is oral storytelling. During family gatherings, elders were always telling stories and fairy tales concealing crucial life wisdoms. I don’t think it’s about whether or not you believe them, but it’s more about realising how others think. This storytelling culture has influenced me tremendously. Once I better understood the language and learned more about Rwandese customs through my parents, I gained a deeper insight into the culture as well. This perception has encouraged me to learn other languages to get to know even more cultures. Sometimes, at any given moment, a random Rwandan saying comes to mind, that’s when I connect back to my roots.’

Assimilation

‘When I arrived in the Netherlands, the local community welcomed me and my family with open arms. It’s interesting, because my main objective was to adapt and assimilate. There were so many things to learn and I wanted to know everything there was to know to become a real “Hollander”. After a while I realised that, even if I do everything according to local practices, I will never be white nor Dutch. Later in life, I came to the realisation that I always did everything to adapt myself, to please others. Yet, that wasn’t my true self. I also had never thought twice about being black until I moved to Belgium at the age of 12. Since I had always been in schools with a certain cultural diversity in the Netherlands, Belgium came as a complete shock. It was the first time I realised I was black. From then on, my cluelessness concerning my sense of belonging started sinking in.’

‘Now, my identity is evolving on a daily basis. I have learned how to respond to racism, but the journey up to this point was long and painful. For my parents, like many African parents, my education was and still is very important. They both had high expectations and I always had the feeling I had to live up to these. After high school, I went to the IE University in Madrid, Spain to study Communication. This experience was different to what I was used to on so many levels. It was an international university with over 80 nationalities on campus.’

‘For the first time ever, I felt like I wasn’t the only one who had to explain where she was from every single day’

‘I was always so used to assimilating and adapting wherever I went. Except that in this environment with so many different cultures adapting became almost impossible. I was working very hard to create my own identity as Jaspe, the girl with Rwandan roots who lived in the Netherlands. Sadly, the pressure became too much to bear. I snapped and in my third year of the programme I had a burn-out. I think it was a combination of my school work and the realisation that I was a war refugee. Not just of any war, but of a gruesome genocide.’

Education
‘I’ve watched the first two episodes of the series Black Earth Rising. One word: heavy, kind of dark and gloomy. Especially because the situations feel so real and I recognize so much from what my parents have told me. But the series is a good initiative, necessary even. In Europe, education on international conflicts and incidents is constrained. Especially regarding the African continent. This gives me mixed feelings, because in the end a lot of the current problems are the result of Western colonisation. Look at the history lessons in Belgian high schools for example. Not one teacher has ever mentioned the tragedies in Congo to me, even though the Belgian colonialists were at fault.’


The official trailer of the Netflix hit series Black Earth Rising

‘The fact that no one seems aware of the role the West played in Africa is not only detrimental to immigrants, but also to native Belgians. There is a big part of your own history you don’t understand. Of course, it can be scary to see all these dark skinned people wandering about in your country, not knowing where they come from and why they are here. All this lack of education results in a lot of anger and incomprehension. Even when there is a glimpse of education, it is very superficial and biased.’

‘A comparable example is the current migration crisis in Europe. It infuriates me to see immigrants dying at sea or when crossing borders. And if they do make it to a “safe” European country, they are made to feel unwelcome. It could’ve been me, you know. I was lucky enough to come into a very loving environment all those years ago. In fact it would have been a whole different story if I had arrived in the Netherlands at this point in time. The hatred towards outsiders puzzles me. Especially when you ask yourself the question: “Why are these outsiders arriving at our borders?” Whereas the European countries and their governments are anything but innocent.’

‘It breaks my heart to see how refugees are treated these days’

‘My father is a preacher and also one of the first Rwandan preachers to arrive in Belgium. He founded many church communities and organised gatherings, which at first seemed like a family obligation to me. However, in the last couple of years I have become more aware of the importance of these family ties. The Rwandan community and other African communities are everywhere. Cultural events and get-togethers seem more like an opportunity to get to know the Rwandan culture than a childhood obligation. I was actually supposed to visit my grandfather in Rwanda this summer, but work prevented me from going. He is my only surviving grandparent who I haven’t seen since my parents fled the country. He has witnessed the genocide and the reconstruction of Rwandan society since. I have so many unanswered questions and gaps that need to be filled. I hope that someday my grandpa will be able to share his experiences and many stories about my family.’

Media and magazines
‘This is one of the reasons I decided to create RECKLESS magazine, a compilation of stories relating to cultural struggles and the search of identity. During my studies in Spain I realised I was not the only youngster battling with my multifaceted background. Media and magazines have always been an interest of mine. I collect, devour and absorb them. Especially when it comes to fashion and lifestyle. Before my trip to Spain, I did an internship as a stylist at Sanoma, the Belgian branch of the International Finish media group. In those six months, I hadn’t encountered a single coloured or biracial individual.’

‘I want kids like me to be able to recognize themselves in my magazine’ © Angel Metodiev

‘The concept of the magazines was also based on people in which I couldn’t recognize myself. Stories concerning youth of multicultural backgrounds, people like myself and many of my friends, were scarce. When I went to university, I learned business skills and marketing. That’s when I realised I had to create something, anything, for a specific target group. All my frustrations that brought on my burn-out eventually led to my lightbulb moment. I left the IE University in Madrid and literally stayed in bed for a year. I made one of my first drafts and created an initial business plan for the magazine. What helped me the most was the critical feedback from my surroundings.’

‘Finally, I decided to apply for some coaching sessions with BAAS, a Belgian agency focused on supporting young entrepreneurs. In the end, I had to present my work in front of a jury and my project was one of the 21 selected projects to receive further guidance. Moreover, the coaching was completely free of charge. So now, I have a team of creators, writers, photographers spread all over the world from Vancouver to Cape Town. By next year, I would like to publish the first edition of Reckless magazine, volume 0. At the moment, I am trying to find a clear production process and efficient work pace. Another challenge is uniting the international creators and stories in one monthly magazine. I am still looking for young, inspiring writers. After all the end product depends on its makers.’

TCKs
‘Third Culture Kids, the main focus of Reckless magazine, is meant to target what culture and lifestyle actually means for these kids. If you want to learn more about Rwandan culture in Belgium, you have to be extremely resourceful. But also for those interested in other cultures and lifestyles Reckless could become an easier gateway to information and stories. I believe intercultural stories are often left out, because integration is a huge part of “the European way”. I moved to Belgium and had to adapt. Just become Belgian and leave my Rwandan, even my Dutch existence behind. Many youths get the impression they should suffer in silence and bury their identities. That’s very distressing. Earlier this year, Zwart, a literary collection of Afro-European authors, was released. Finally stories that I can relate to being Afro-European myself. In spite of the rise concerning coloured individuals in the media, Belgium and other European countries keep a conservative stance. But step by step things are starting to change.’


‘Now you must be wondering: what are these Third Culture Kids? Well, there are many definitions. The term was first used to describe American youth living abroad, such as children of diplomats. I perceive TCKs as people who have been raised in two or more dissimilar cultures. And that have the ability to speak at least two languages since childhood. As it happens, there is no fixed definition. I believe that a white Belgian growing up in Brussels also deserves to be called a TCK. Diversity is everywhere and various identities can live together successfully.’

Rwanda today
‘Rwanda has transformed since the genocide. My mother went back a few times and felt like a stranger in a country where she was born and raised. Not only the culture, but also the economic development took a drastic turn. Did you know that plastic is completely forbidden in Rwanda? Not only on an ecological, but also on a technological level Rwanda has been improving. The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, wants to convert the country into Singapore 2.0 . Furthermore, mentioning the genocide is forbidden in Rwanda. My parents often joked about not bringing me there, because of my big mouth. Therefore, printed media are significant to me. Writing down stories about the past and its link to the present creates an almost truthful picture. Personally, I can’t get to the truth, but I bet my grandfather’s and other survivor’s accounts can pave a way to get some answers.’

Text: Camille Meus & Elodie Kona