‘I was a victim of facial discrimination’: Architect Patricia Mhoja speaks about her motivation to research Genocide against the Tutsi

By Wycliffe Nyamasege
On 8 April 2024 at 09:18

Architect Patricia Mhoja has revealed that discrimination based on her facial features motivated her to conduct research on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The 28-year-old came into the limelight in 2022 after her Master’s thesis, “The Port of Evidence: Reconstructing Past Events of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi,” from the University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture, received a distinction.

She also scooped three other merit awards for her research, which largely challenges the validity of the documented history on the three Rwandan communities – Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa.

Speaking during her presentation dubbed “Architectures of Memory: Exploring the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi” at the Kigali Public Library on Saturday, April 6, 2024, Mhoja said that her research investigated an ideal ethnicity, which was validated through the eugenics movement started by Belgian colonialists in Rwanda in 1919.

Mhoja said personal experiences where she was often subjected to discrimination based on her facial appearance in her home country Tanzania and other countries, shaped the objectives of her research work.

According to the architect, due to her Tutsi ancestry, she was once stopped by an immigration official who demanded to see her birth certificate.

She disclosed that her grandfather was from Rwanda and was exiled to Tanzania by the Belgian colonizers.

“My interest in the subject began with me constantly being discriminated against in different countries including my home Tanzania and asking why I am discriminated against based on how I look and my facial features,” she said.

The perception about her looks pushed her to look into the craniometric measurements performed by Belgian anthropologist, Jean Hiernaux, on the classification of the three ethnic groups of Rwanda.

Hiernaux had through his findings developed an index which classified the ethnic groups and claimed that the Tutsis were more “superior” because they originated from Caucasoid phenotypes. Using facial features and their sizes, the Tutsis were compared to the Aryans, Jews, and Greeks.

The Belgian government then used this index to assign ethnic cards, which afforded the most privileges to the Tutsis that brought about hate, which is blamed in the killing of more than one million people 30 years ago.

Using her training in architecture, she was able to disprove Hiernaux’s Index using her facial measurements as the Index could not prove that she was a Tutsi.

Using archived materials, she was also able to analyze how other infrastructures including the media such as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) were used to continue to perpetuate hate messages against the Tutsi.

“Through looking at the infrastructure that facilitated the genocide, I began to question how we can subvert the historical narrative of these infrastructures facilitating genocide and look to informal spaces and public areas which can provide healing, learning, and information about the dangers of the genocide,” she said.

The Master’s thesis took Mhoja a year to complete.

She noted that she faced several challenges in the research including sieving through all types of information on the internet including that from genocide denials and filtering the truth from false information.

Mhoja intends to continue to explore the subject of the genocide further in the future as part of her Ph.D. work.

Some of the notable personalities who attended the event included genocide and history researcher Tom Ndahiro and political analyst Albert Rudatsimburwa, among others.

The presentation came a day before the 30th commemoration of the genocide where several heads-of-state across Africa and other high-ranking dignitaries including former United States President Bill Clinton are scheduled to attend."

Architect and researcher Patricia Mhoja Bandora during the presentation of her work.
Tom Ndahiro, a researcher about genocide and history, makes his contribution during the presentation
Attendees explore the genocide exhibitions during Patricia Mhoja Bandora's presentation
Patricia Mhoja Bandora's exhibitions during her presentation at Kigali Public Library
The audience keenly following Patricia Mhoja Bandora's presentation.
Political analyst Albert Rudatsimburwa makes his contribution during Patricia Mhoja Bandora's presentation.