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Speaking the Unspeakable

A visit with Béa Gallimore, Associate Professor of French

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: trauma rape genocide Rwanda french

Rangira Béa Gallimore has spent much of her research career speaking the unspeakable, that is, about the trauma of rape. As Associate Professor in the Romance Languages department, Gallimore’s earlier research focused on African Francophone writers. Her first book, L’oeuvre romanesque de Jean-Marie Adiaffi. Le mariage du mythe et de l’histoire: fondement d’un récit pluriel (1996), for example, examines author Jean-Marie Adiaffi. In his novel La Carte d’Identité (1995), the main character, who was a prince before the advent of colonization, has lost his I.D. card. Arrested by the French authorities for violating “the law of the I.D. card,” the prince attempts to prove his identity through orality, by asking them to check with the people of his village. “According to the oral tradition, you can go through the epic to find his origins, his ancestors, and so on,” Gallimore explains. In the system imposed by the colonial French government, however, the loss of this I.D. card results in the loss of the man’s very name and identity, showing the impact of colonization on the colonized. “In the mind of the French authority at that time, civilization and history began with writing,” says Gallimore. By employing the I.D. card as allegory, Adiaffi has found a way of subverting—or “talking back” to—the colonizer.

Adiaffi employs orality in another subversive way, noting that “the most interesting thing about this character is his name.” Mélédouman in Agni (the tonal language spoken in Ivory Coast and in Ghana) means something different depending upon how it is pronounced. If the tone is placed at the right place it means, “I have a name.” If put at the wrong place, however, especially if articulated by a native speaker of a language like French (which is syllabic and atonal), there is a tendency to mispronounce the name so that it comes out instead as “You falsify my name.” “The whole novel plays on name, and I found this to be very interesting,” Gallimore explains. What this all means, then, is that the only way to get the name right is through orality.

Gallimore’s second book, L’oeuvre romanesque de Calixthe Beyala: Le renouveau de l’écriture féminine en Afrique francophone sub-saharienne (1997), focuses on contemporary Francophone writer Calixthe Beyala. Born in Cameroon in 1961, Beyala has authored over thirteen books, so “it’s very hard to keep up with her,” as Gallimore admits. Rather than employing classic French, Beyala wrote in the French of the slums (les bidonvilles). Whereas her first book attempts to subvert “the master’s language,” her second subverts patriarchy itself, providing counterpoint to the male writers “who idealized the African woman as this beautiful symbol of the earth.” By contrast, in Beyala’s novel some of the main characters are forced into prostitution because of poverty or the trauma of rape. As Gallimore puts it, “the body in writing is exposed, it is displayed. It’s very clear in her writing that she’s using the female body discourse,” with the result that some male African writers have even accused Beyala’s work of being pornographic. “It was very shocking for an African woman to write such things,” Gallimore explains, but Beyala has persisted in writing a reality where women stand as a powerful “symbol of the violated earth, of the bad and the evil” that they have had to endure. To her detractors, Beyala responds, “You cannot deny the reality of Africa.”

Following years of studying fiction, Gallimore began the second phase of her work in response to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, when the country was “plunged into a frenzy of ethnic butchery” stemming from long-standing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups. After a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali on April 6, the majority Hutu responded to the perceived Tutsi threat to overthrow the government with three months of mass killings. Spurred on by hate propaganda, the killers were ordinary citizens—“mostly civilians armed with machetes, garden hoes, and spiked clubs”—who murdered roughly 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates (an average of 8,000 people each day, five times faster than the Nazi gas chambers during the Hollocaust)—statistics that sicken.

Included in the numbers of the slain were Gallimore’s mother, three brothers, and one sister, as well as extended family. It’s hard to imagine how one begins to cope with this kind of news. In Gallimore’s case, she went into survival mode. Gratefully, MU officials stopped her tenure clock as she sprang into action, bringing as many of the surviving family members as possible to Columbia. She took classes at MU’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma, entered therapy for her own grief, and accompanied her orphaned nieces and nephews to their therapy sessions to translate. There was no escape from the daily process of living and reliving trauma. As painful as it was, the experience has left Gallimore more able to appreciate the nature of such trauma, and how to survive it.

The Gisozi Genocide Museum in Kigali displays, in glass cases and tombs, tens of thousands of skulls and skeletons as a memorial to these slayings, though the survivors of genocide are not likely in need of additional reminders. For them, in fact, it is impossible to escape the memories. Beyond the brutal killings, the Hutu militia, the Rwandan armed forces, and other civilians targeted Tutsi women, using rape as a weapon, intentionally infecting them with HIV, holding them in sexual slavery, and sexually mutilating their faces to mark them. That’s a heavy burden for the 250,000 women and children who survived.

In addition to helping her own family through its trauma, therefore, Gallimore found her research beginning to address matters of more immediacy and impact than her earlier literary studies allowed. She began writing about Rwandan women surviving trauma. But then something happened. “When I went to a women’s association meeting [in 2003],” she recalls, “one of the women came to me and said, ‘You are Rwandan, aren’t you?’ and I said, “Yes I am.’ And she said, ‘So you come here, you learn about us, you publish your book, and then what will you do for us?’” With all of her enthusiasm burst by that forthright question, she responded in kind: “So I looked into her eyes, and I told her, ‘I will do something.’” And she did.

In 2004, she founded Step Up: American Association for Rwandan Women. Collaborating with former faculty from MU’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma, Step Up has been working to address some of the country’s enormous needs. During a trip to Rwanda in 2006, Gallimore met with an organization called ABASA (a word that means “we are all the same,” in this case all survivors of rape). With Barbara Bauer, a Step Up psychologist, she interviewed these women in order to give voice to their stories and to provide research for her next book. Focusing on communities around Butare, Step Up is raising funds to build a counseling center to be named “Nsanga,” “come to me,” after Gallimore’s mother. Women are especially important to Rwanda’s recovery because of their prominent roles as mothers and leaders. “If you heal the women,” she explains, “you help to heal the society,” which was at one point 70% female because the genocide left more female survivors.

Rwandan women have needs that are enormous. Beyond the immediate concerns such as jobs, food, and school supplies, vast mental health problems remain as an aftermath of the horror—in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. When Gallimore goes to Rwanda, she listens to women talk about the trauma of the genocide. But there is trauma continuing to occur in the present as well. During one interview a women remarked, “I get more traumatized when I don’t have money to buy something for my kids, when I don’t have a house to live in.” Gallimore adds that “some of the women have HIV, so physically they are in need, financially they are in need, psychologically they are in need.” You can’t just treat the branch, she observes proverbially; “you have to address the tree.” Step-Up tries to take a holistic approach through a number of different projects—for example, helping women to set up their own sewing businesses, providing them with bee hives and training on producing honey, raising the funds to open a counseling center. “We cannot help all the women in Rwanda,” Gallimore says regretfully. Right now, most of their efforts focus on a few communities. But they are also providing training, in the hope that their initial efforts will spread like ripples in water.

When things settled down with her family, Gallimore returned to her book on Beyala’s work: “it was very hard because I was working on a book about fictional characters who were victims of rape. On the other side, in Rwanda, there were real women who were victims of rape. I have really had to juggle my feelings, and my writing, because it didn’t really make much sense then to write about fiction when reality was so cruel.” Even as her second book was being finished, therefore, “there was a book about Rwanda right in front of me,” a co-edited volume of essays on the genocide: Dix ans après: réflexions sur le genocide rwandais (with Chantal Kalisa, 2005) [Ten Years Later: Reflections on the Rwandan Genocide], a work that includes both academic articles and creative pieces on the Rwanda genocide.

Gallimore’s current research incorporates literary criticism as well as anthropological and sociolinguistic methods. For one thing, she is examining testimonies at the International Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, by women who survived the genocide. “I’d like to show the sociolinguistic and sociocultural obstacles to women’s testimonies,” she says. Having seen and heard these various testimonials, Gallimore has become especially interested in how women use orality as a strategy, where even sighs, gasps, and the fallibility of memory are transferred to the writing. For someone who had mainly studied fictional literature, looking at testimonials entailed a lot of additional research into trauma studies and required that she consider the problem of language involved in this kind of writing, a concern that dominates her current research. What strategies do women use to express this trauma? How do they write about it? How do they testify about it? These are hard questions: “When some of the women are talking about it, they sometimes say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’” Likewise, during the genocide, Gallimore received a lot of sympathy cards from well-meaning people, many of whom she did not even know. One woman wrote the words, “Dear Béa, I don’t know what to say,” and signed her name. These words from a stranger particularly struck Gallimore, for it summed up—simply and profoundly—her own inexplicable feelings. “I just don’t know what to say,” she reflects, can sometimes be “the right words at that time.”