A day with Paul Rukesha, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda’s Indexer

paul's blog photoWhat does it mean to be an ‘Indexer’?

I started working for the Genocide Archive of Rwanda four years ago when it first opened. As the archive’s resident indexer, my job is to make sure our audio and video content is easily accessible to the public. We have thousands of kinds of files and, without an indexer, it would be difficult for researchers to tell the difference between them. I attach keywords to every file which helps us sort them by categories such as type of experience and geographical place. Today we have 1,500 keywords in use. That may sound like a lot, but it is a relatively modest system. The Shoah Foundation, one of our partners, has 67,000 keywords.

How do you ensure accuracy when indexing?

It takes a lot of precision and attention to detail to be consistent in the vocabulary we use. Often we watch videos or listen to testimonies over and over to make sure the labels we assign to each minute of material are correct.

For instance, take terms “hiding” and “identity concealment”. They sound very similar, but the distinctions are important:
“Hiding” is concealing yourself physically – for instance, an attacker is coming and you flee and hide.
“Identity concealment” means that you go through a crowd of people and try to blend in with them, hiding who you really are. It’s not quite hiding; it is more complex.

To the researchers who rely on our archives, these differences are important and we need to be aware of them.

We also have to be as objective as possible in our work. When I’m watching a survivor talking about living in a refugee camp. I can’t assign the label “bad living conditions” to that moment of the footage. Instead, I would write “living conditions.” Indexers can’t mix their feelings and emotions into the work they are doing. If we did that we would compromise the integrity of the archive.

It’s also important to find a middle ground with keywords – not too general and not too detailed. If you are too general, you miss information and the story doesn’t appear interesting to the user. If you are too detailed, it can be confusing to understand the main themes. When new indexers start, they tend to be too detailed because they are captured by the stories. But we don’t do historians’ work. We help historians to find the story they are looking for.

What difficulties are there translating meaning from one culture to another?

There are some generalities that people from abroad are not familiar with. Here in Rwanda, most people have a ‘houseboy’ or ‘housegirl’ – someone who lives at your house and looks after the yard, runs errands, and keeps the house safe. That is a reality the Western world is not familiar with, because in the US or Europe only very rich people have live-in help. During the genocide, some of the houseboys killed their bosses and stole their properties. So when people mention ‘houseboy’ in the footage, and we use that as a keyword, it is sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand the relationship.

Most of the testimonies Rwandans give us are in Kinyarwanda, our most spoken language. We subtitle the video and audio content in other languages like English and French. But there are a lot of cultural aspects that don’t directly translate. We do our best and warn the viewer that the original work may be slightly altered by translation.

How does the team support each other?

When you are indexing traumatic material all the time, it can cause secondary trauma. To help deal with this, we talk to each other and share our challenges, we have a psychologist come in and talk to us and we also take breaks. Sometimes when you are indexing the testimony of perpetrators and you feel it’s becoming too much, you change and go to rescuers because their stories are softer. Sometimes, the team might need a week off from indexing and focus on other activities of the archive. The most challenging thing is that you share the stories with the person you are interviewing or reviewing. You have to go through what he or she has been through to fully understand it. It’s important to understand, but you also have to take care of yourself.

It is not just psychologically challenging for the indexing team, it can be stressful for the interviewees. Although they volunteer to share their testimonies, some break down when recalling their experiences. In the beginning, we didn’t have the capacity to provide support to the interviewees. Now we have a counsellor who comes to work with them before, during and after the interview. Most of our counsellors are Rwandan, but some are international. Palo Alto University has helped train our team on how to cope with these kinds of sensitive situations.

We have so much work to do at the archive to digitise all of these stories. But we never forget the survivors we interview. Sometimes they are poor and we know they really suffered in remembering their story, so we go back and try to help them ourselves. You feel responsible. The interview is done, but I feel I have to go back. When we’re hiring for our team, we look for someone who can deal with these complicated situations, someone who may have lived through difficult experiences and someone who can understand fully.

How do you prepare someone to give their testimony?

We discuss and debate this a lot. How can we prepare them enough before the interview, so they fully accept and understand what it might mean to give their history. You have to explain the whole process.

On the consent form, we give multiple options – the interviewee’s testimony can be on a Rwandan website, or only on a foreign website, or maybe in a foreign museum but not in Rwanda. Some say “I still have young kids and I don’t want them to hear what happened to me yet”, while others say “you can share my story but only after 10 years”.

What does indexing and your work archiving the genocide mean to you?

I am in position of developing tools that help people to have a hands on learning experience and to view the genocide from different angles. Knowing that people from around the world can develop deep knowledge about the genocide is a big part of why I am proud of my work.

I feel I am useful to social psychologists, historians, sociologists, economists, educators, just to name a few. Most importantly, I learn new realities about the genocide as I go through the interviewees’ life stories, and the online tools that I create channel that knowledge to a bigger audience.



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