From Sacred Myth to Trickster Tale: Oral-Literary Reticulation, National De-Ethnicization, and Apotropaic Storytelling in Rwanda

Lowell A. Brower (Harvard University)

This paper explores the palimpsestic relationship between several multiforms of the Kinyarwanda verbal narrative "Gahutu, Gatutsi, and Gatwa." Often characterized as a origin myth dramatizing the sacred etiology of the differences between Bahutu, Batutsi, and Batwa populations (and undergirding what Maquet called Rwandan society's "premise of inequality"), this narrative has been retold, reticulated, and re-invented by post-genocide storytellers who offer their audiences very different consequential imaginings of Rwandan history, society, and heritage. Highlighting the powers, potentials, politics, and poetics of storytelling in "the New Rwanda," this paper examines both new and enduring connections between oral literature, creative performance, ethnic identity, communal belonging, and transformative political power. What happens when a sacred myth resurfaces as a profane trickster tale, when a narrative explaining the origins of ethnic division is invoked during a campaign of national de-ethnicization, when a storyteller reclaims a story about his own community's oppression as a source of empowerment and critique?

Part of 34-05 Politics, Ethnicity, and Nation in Religious Ritual and Storytelling, Wednesday, October 20, 2:15 pm–3:45 pm