The Minister of Sports and Culture, the towering Protais Mitali, is probably one of the least visible members of the Rwandan Cabinet. He is not talked about as one of those who carry weight in the political power play in this country.
So, when on November 1, a statement in Kinyarwanda was issued by his ministry, complete with his signature, banning the celebration or marking of halloween, some people became curious about the man. But that curiosity could have been misdirected: Many took to the social networks to vent their frustration.
The statement declared that halloween was incompatible with Rwandan culture and that no permission had been sought by anyone who planned to celebrate or mark the day.
What made this whole thing more interesting to me is that the ministry was not banning halloween in public places only but even individuals, it appeared, were being ordered not to celebrate it in private.
A decade ago it would be hard to find local people in Rwanda or even in neighbouring countries celebrating such things as halloween. If any, they would be among the expat community or European or American backpackers caught up by the “holiday” as they went about their business of mountain gorilla trekking in the Virunga Mountains. It was a mzungu thing, and common to hangouts or bars frequented by them.
If you are familiar with the nightlife in Kigali or any other city in the neighbouring countries, you will realise that people who love to party are not content with just going to bars or nightclubs and drinking, dancing and hooking up.
They want to do it in style. Proprietors of these establishments have therefore started coming up with themed nights. For instance, revellers may dress in different outfits or colours to represent or mimic something in real life but in the club setting.
A number of things become obvious from this kind of development that originated from the ministry. One, there is certainly an attempt at over-regulation of public and private life.
Two, there is limited understanding, or appreciation, of the importance of nightlife among the sizeable number of Rwandan young adults, more so those who have had varied cultural and social experiences, given the fact that many have lived in different countries.
Also, there is the importance of such themed nights to the businesses. Seemingly, proprietors of such establishments lack a voice in the decision making process and are not organised to demand for better treatment. Many establishments are routinely closed down over petty misunderstandings with the authorities.
Some would see focusing on such an incident and issues around nightlife as something small and inconsequential. But it could be a reliable indicator of what the general picture is.
Is it not an infringement on an individual’s rights? Or how do we reconcile the need to champion and promote Rwandan culture while not appearing to be instituting a “culture police” of sorts.
Source of trauma
Some have suggested that Halloween could be a source of trauma to the survivors of the genocide. But that would be to speculate, since Mitali’s statement did not point to that.
The state is present in people’s lives most of the time. Apparently, there are going to be attempts to unnecessarily regulate and watch people’s lives, and that will only help to create unhelpful perceptions of the state of Rwanda.
Culture is never promoted by legislation or enforcement; it evolves, and, when necessary, even the greatest of world powers promote their cultural imperialism through soft power. It’s about persuasion and making it attractive.
Following the debate on Twitter from far away, I realised that it was largely the young, urbane working class that did not take Mitali’s statement kindly.
It was refreshing to see young people willing to poke fun at the minister and lampooning him. The democratic nature of the debate on the politics of Halloween shows young people are not going to be deferential to erratic leaders in future.
Frank Kagabo is an Erasmus Mundus graduate student of journalism, media and globalisation at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Swansea University, the UK, specialising in war and conflict reporting. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @kagabo