Myriam Küng, MA
Myriam Küng was born in Rwanda in 1985 and spent one year of her childhood in that country shortly after the 1994 genocide. This early experience with the African continent raised her eagerness to understand people with different cultural backgrounds and to apprehend the way society works and influences the life of individuals. Myriam obtained her BA in History, Political Science and Russian from the University of Lausanne in 2007. Before she started the MA in African Studies in Basel one year later, she took a few months to travel and practise foreign languages, spending three months in Russia in autumn 2007 and three months in South Africa in spring 2008. From April 2009 to February 2010, Myriam worked as the departmental aide of Professor Patrick Harries in the History Department of the University of Basel. From January to July 2010, she took part in a research project led by Professor Elísio Macamo on the moral basis of the Swiss decision to ban the construction of minarets. In autumn 2010, Myriam went back to Rwanda to do some field work among the students of the National University for her MA-thesis. She graduated from the University of Basel in June 2011.
MA Thesis: Normal Life in Rwanda. Everyday life on the campus of the National University from the perspective of the student restaurant
The National University of Rwanda (NUR) is the oldest and one of the most prominent universities of Rwanda. It was founded in 1963 and is situated in Butare in the Southern Province of the country (135 km away from the capital city Kigali). In 2010, the NUR counted 11’488 students, most of them living on the university campus or in private accommodations around it. According to data collected in autumn 2010, a third to half of these students ate everyday in the student restaurant – the main one on the campus, supervised in cooperation with the university administration and the student association NURSU. There were also many other smaller private restaurants for students around the campus.
The aim of this thesis was to take the student restaurant as a starting point for studying everyday life on the campus and the way it has evolved since the NUR foundation. There are different reasons for adopting such a perspective. Firstly, the point is to shift the focus away from genocide, ethnicity and the post-1994 political regime – the main topics of most studies done about Rwanda in the past decade. This is not to say that these topics are irrelevant, but to stress that they are not necessarily as pervasive in ordinary Rwandans’ everyday life as an external observer would think them to be. What seems more interesting here is to find out when and why genocide, ethnicity and politics become relevant in everyday life, and when they do not. Secondly, the decision to do the research among university students was based on the assumption that it would be relatively easy to communicate and identify with them in contrast to other groups of population. Thirdly, choosing a restricted physical space as a starting point helps structure the data collection. Instead of looking at everyday life on the campus as a whole, the objective of the study is to look at the way everyday life can be perceived and explained through the restaurant.
The research methodology is based on qualitative approaches, in particular ethnographic methods of data collection. Grounded Theory was also a source of inspiration, but proved to be too demanding to be conducted systematically in such a narrow timeframe. Field work took place in September and October 2010. The data collected during that time include up to 100 interviews and group discussions, various descriptions of locations and events, personal observations, statistics about the student population and other documents of NUR everyday life. The theoretical framework for the analysis is built on an approach to the notion of ‘everyday life’ developed by Christian Lalive d’Epinay. ‘Everyday life’ is seen here as the locus of three types of dialectics between routine and events: the construction of the everyday, where originally unusual events repeat themselves and come to be taken-for-granted, the pursuit of the event, where events are perceived as desirable external changes in a boring routine, and the production of the event, where events are consciously prepared and organised to depart from the everyday. These categories are used throughout the thesis to distinguish between the different elements making up student everyday life, to understand how these elements relate to each other and to underline their evolution over time.
The conclusion of the thesis is threefold. First, the student restaurant is a good entry point to study everyday life on the NUR campus. One the one hand, starting with the main restaurant leads to an understanding of the whole catering system at the disposal of students and the way they make use of it, which is a significant element of their everyday life. One the other hand, the restaurant also represents an important social space where one can learn more about how students interact with each other and define themselves and their relationships. Second, everyday life on the campus is complex and diversified. It is influenced by a wide variety of factors, among which genocide history, ethnicity and the nature of the political regime are far from being predominant and only come to the fore in specific situations. Most of students’ everyday life consists of studying, seeing to their basic needs, negotiating personal and collective identities as well as interpersonal relationships, gossiping and going out. From that point of view, NUR students live a ‘normal’ life, which means a life similar to that of many other students around the world. Third, the world of students can be seen as reflecting to some extent the rest of Rwandan society. The social cleavages of the campus, such as the one between English-speakers and French-speakers or the one between Rwandans who came back from the diaspora after 1994 and those who were in Rwanda during the genocide, are also to be found in Rwanda more generally. To understand these cleavages and the heterogeneity of society, it is suggested to use a broader interpretive lens than that of ethnicity, taking into consideration Rwandans’ country of residence before, during and after genocide, differences between social conditions in exile and back home, and language preferences.