Cultural Expectations and Apologies in Gacaca Trials

In Rhetorical analysis, Rwanda on November 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

As part of any analysis of apologetic rhetoric, I argue that we must first consider how the cultural context influences and shapes accusations and apologies. Although I don’t have the room in this post for an in-depth discussion of Rwandan culture, I would like to offer a very brief discussion of what Rwandans expect from apologies and how that impacts not only the rhetoric in gacaca trials, but also how we go about analyzing those exchanges.

In January 2009, I conducted field research in Kigali, Rwanda to help uncover how and why Rwandans apologize. Based on the interview and focus group discussions as well as the answers participants gave to the role-play interview questions, four common characteristics of a successful apology became evident: (1) a detailed narrative of the crime or offense, (2) a statement of sorrow combined with a request for forgiveness, (3) the demonstration of sincerity and heart-felt remorse, and (4) reparations (either symbolic or real).

One of the most distinct elements of Rwandan apologetic rhetoric is the importance of a detailed narrative of the offense or crime. According to the participants’ comments, rather than simply stating that an act was wrong, the apologist must explain in detail what happened, when it happened, and why it happened.

In addition to a detailed narrative of the wrongful act, the interview and focus group research uncovered a strong reliance on third-party participation. This aspect of third-party participation echoes, to some extent, Howard-Hassmann and Lombardo’s (2008) finding that apologies are often delivered publicly in African societies to acknowledge the crime or offense and to set the public record straight. For example, one participant who was quoted by Howard-Hassmann and Lombardo (2008) stated that “if there were witnesses to his misdeed, he might apologize in front of them, in front of village elders, or in front of the entire community” (p. 222).

These cultural expectations shape the setting and apologetic rhetoric of gacaca trials. In addition, these elements are evident in the structure of gacaca trials as well as the documentation. For instance, the gacaca trials are designed for community members to come forward and participate as witnesses, victims, and judges who not only attend and listen but actively participate and shape the narrative and, ultimately, the apology that the perpetrator delivers. Additionally, as I discuss below, a detailed narrative of each crime is recorded in official court documents in the form of a lengthy written explanation of the “details of how each crime was committed.”

In that sense, one should not analyze the apologetic rhetoric or the documents of gacaca trials without also considering the cultural setting and expectations from which they are derived.

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