Hearing Mutware’s story

Hearing Mutware’s story

MK Speth, MESc 20211

Have you heard the story of Mutware?” Alfonse’s question hung in the brisk and not-yet-hot early morning air that stood stagnate above the waters of Lake Ihema in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Alfonse, our safari guide for the day, kept the small motorized boat stationary on the lakeshore while I sat next to my research assistant and across from three middle-aged American tourists. The question fell on my ears, but I hesitated to respond; this boat ride was supposed to be a relaxing time away from my research, which focused on the construction and dissemination of tourism narratives in Akagera. The last thing I wanted to do was sit through a story that I had heard countless times over the past seven weeks in the field. Through my irritated silence, my tourist boated companions replied that they had not heard the story. So, to my chagrin, Alfonse launched into the narrative in an obviously well-practiced performative manner.

Over the next five minutes, our guide detailed how Mutware - a bull Elephant who resided in the park and had risen to international fame due to his traumatic experience during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. My fellow Americans on board were enraptured; I a little less so. By now I knew the story almost by heart; I could effortless recount Mutware’s traumatic arch from friendly elephant to beloved nuisance. Yet, as a committed and practicing ethnographer, I still took out my notebook and pen and wrote furiously. I not only attempted to record the story, but also to note Alfonse’s mannerism, the tourist’s reactions, and, most critical, any general observations and perceptions that I had of the story and the scene at large. Alfonse concluded his performance by explaining to us that Mutware had recently perished from old age on the nearby shores. The bones of the elephant remain in the spot, actively protected by the park management until a memorial is built in Mutware’s honor. This last bit of information had not come up in my field work, so I underlined it twice in order to remind myself to include it in my later analysis. Pleased that I had ‘heard’ Mutware’s story yet again and was slowly working towards a full picture of this larger-than-life pachyderm, I closed my notebook, returned it to my backpack, and set out to enjoy the sun for the remainder of our boat ride.

Upon returning to the United States six weeks later, my field notebook remained buried in my backpack, yet the story of Mutware was inescapable. I was captivated by Rwandans’ use of nonhuman protagonist to deeply speak to and inspect the typically unspeakable trauma that the entire country endured during the 1994 genocide. Thus, I was compelled to write about the significance this powerful narrative as part of my Master’s thesis. I sat down one afternoon with my notes, committed to dissecting and analyzing every small detail of the nonhuman trauma narrative that I had slowly and collectively (re)constructed. I spent hours poring over my almost-indecipherable field handwriting, attempting to discover the unearthed revelations of human trauma and recovery that Mutware’s story held. Yet, the entire time Alfonse’s question unceasingly rang in my head: Have you heard the story of Mutware? Have you heard the story of Mutware? Have you heard the story of Mutware? Finally, I took a step back and examined my notebook pages, in which Mutware’s story was almost half covered by my own observations and thoughts. In that moment, I realized I had not heard Mutware’s story.

Yes, over the twelve weeks of my ethnographic field work, I had been told Mutware’s story time and time again. But each of these times I had listened. I had forced his heartbreaking trauma narrative into my own academic box, confining it to the limits of my own worldview and attempting to extract what I had deemed as meaning from it. I had used the theories, case studies, and all the lessons that I had spent the past year in graduate school studying, dissecting, and attempting to commit to memory to understand both the story of this famous elephant and its (re)telling. Listening, as I understood it, was what made me a productive ethnographic researcher. I believe that this practice allowed me to both identify the extraordinary in the ordinary, to be able to draw out meaning from everyday situations. Then, by applying pre-existing knowledge to these data, I would be able to produce novel findings, the ultimate goal for all those in the field and academia at large.

Yet, in this quest to be a good ethnographer, I ended up losing one of the most humane, ethical practices of not only academia but everyday life: hearing. Over those twelve weeks I was unable to hear Mutware’s story. I had never allowed it to just wash over me, with the aim of avoiding judgement or scrutiny instead of pursuing it as listening intends. I did not let the story exist in the form intended by the storytellers. I, instead, coopted this extraordinary narrative of trauma for my own use, my own personal gain. Even worse, I did not to acknowledge in the moment that I was doing so. I was blinded by my position as a researcher, convinced that listening and scrutinizing ‘data’ was exactly what I was meant to do, thus allowing my perspectives as both an academic and a white, American female to overshadow the rawness of Mutware’s story that numerous informants during my time at Akagera attempted to demonstrate to me.

This dilemma – the struggle of balancing listening & hearing, the attempt to understand while allowing stories and those who tell them to speak for themselves – is not unique to my examination of Mutware’s story. The dilemma is actually highly prevalent in all forms of research, yet most apparent in qualitative studies. As noted above, scholars in a variety of fields are taught to listen. We are told that it is fundamental to producing and publishing research; we must collect data about everyday phenomena and then analyze them using a particular lens or theory, attempting to listen to what these occurrences reveal to us about other peoples and cultures. Yet, what is often ignored, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that this practice of listening is permeated with bias. By relying on this fundamental aspect, we, as scholars, are not revealing truths about the world, but instead are perpetuating our own understanding of it. Failing to hear in qualitative studies not only prevents the researcher from appreciating data in its unaltered state, while creating a singular epistemology that silences certain, often marginalized voices while projecting and preserving dominant ones.

The creation and perpetuation of a single epistemology is harmful in all research situations, but it is even more dangerous when the topic at hand directly or indirectly involves trauma. As Jill Stauffer details in her book Ethical Loneliness (2015), the telling of trauma often creates an irony; what is said by a survivor is not what is heard by those positioned to hear. Stauffer goes on, explaining that humans need to see the world as benevolent, thus the persons positioned to hear will resist any aspects of a trauma narrative that may counter this worldview (Stauffer 2015:75). In other words, those positioned to hear fail to do so and instead listen. In this way, society (re)abandons the survivor, “imposing a loneliness, a second harm in addition to the original violation” (Stauffer 2015:110).

While Stauffer’s notion of hearing is intended for truth and reconciliation practices, I strongly believe that it is equally applicable to scholars and practitioners whose research focuses on trauma. Academics are often some of the first outsiders to enter active conflict or post-conflict regions, leaving the comforts of their own home in hopes of identifying powerful narratives of trauma, resistance, recovery, and reconciliation. While it is likely that these missions have good intentions, the basis of qualitative work described above often requires one to transform stories told in the field, conforming them to the constraints of the Westernized academic or professional realm. Thus, as academics or professionals, we are positioned and committed to listening, yet we repeatedly fail to hear, consequently (re)enforcing the exact harms that we set out to understand and potentially rectify. In the environmental field, this is gradually becoming more of a concern. As climate refugees, violent (un)natural disasters, loss of traditional livelihoods, systematic poaching and so on become increasingly commonplace in our disastrous reality, trauma – for humans, nonhumans, and the land – also becomes progressively more central and fundamental to all environmental work. At such a pivotal point in time we, as environmental scholars and practitioners, must ask ourselves: will we listen to the stories of trauma, creating a singular way of understanding environmental destruction and potentially (re)enforcing harms or will we hear the stories, allowing those who endured such harms to speak for themselves?

As I sat at my desk with notes on Mutware’s story spread sporadically across the surface, I reflected on this ultimatum. Would I progress with my chapter on Mutware or would I let the story just exist in the world? While I would very much like to say that I whole-heartedly choose the latter, I cannot. Academia is structured in a way that scholars are obligated to analyze, scrutinize, and dissect; we are in the game of creating new knowledge. This game and the research practices that comprise it will always be filled with ethical dilemmas. Yet, we can at least begin to minimize the harms by building simultaneous spaces in which stories from the field are unassumingly told and heard. In other words, research will continually predominant in the forms of journal articles, theses, and analytical books but we must also take it upon ourselves to let stories speak. Therefore, while my post-humanist analysis of the ways in which Mutware and his story reveals novel insights to human, nonhuman, and terrestrial trauma exists as a thesis chapter, I aim to take this space as a means to let Mutware’s story of trauma speak. This (re)telling is my own reconstruction, therefore it is not the form in which Alfonse and all other storytellers intended it to be heard. I have though, drawn directly from data collected over my twelve-weeks in Akagera via participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and passing conversations. While removing my own positionality and bias in the (re)telling is impossible, I have attempted to omit any analysis or scrutinization that defines academia. In doing so, I hope to have created an opportunity in which the reader and myself can simply just hear Mutware’s story.

Mutware’s Story

Mutware’s story begins in the late 1970s in recently independent Rwanda. At this time, Mutware was a young juvenile living in Akagera National Park, which, while created in the 1930s, Akagera at the time was receiving increasing attention. Dianne Fossey had just begun her infamous mountain gorilla research in the northern region of Rwanda, thus bringing all of the country’s national parks under an international microscope. Unlike most of elephants who resided in the park, Mutware had an unusual upbringing. Instead of roaming through the wild of Akagera, he, along with two other young elephants named Mwiza and Helico, were instead habituated and raised by a keeper living in the park at the time; the keeper fed and cared for the three juveniles. While Mwiza and Helico eventually returned to their compatriots in the wild, Mutware choose to continue with domestic life, even venturing further into the human world.

Mutware was often seen roaming in villages near of Akagera. While this region of Rwanda was sparsely populated at the time compared to the rest of the country, Mutware’s presence was still highly conspicuous and met with a range of reactions. Villagers with limited prior interactions with elephants with fear and aggression towards Mutware. They would taunt him and, at times, even chase the young elephant with nail-filled boards (Root 2016). Others though, met him with a kindhearted curiosity, providing him with a steady supply of bananas and cassava. Regardless of villagers’ intent, Mutware met every interaction with a tender kindness, never hurting people or destroying property (even though he would sneak crops every now and then). Mutware’s kindness and gentleness allowed him to slowly establish a unique relationship with the villagers, who saw him as a nuisance, yet also loved and cared for him. The two groups were so trustful of one another that Mutware, as an adult bull, would curl his trunk around consenting villagers and tenderly lift them into the air (Ntirenganya 2019). Sadly, this loving and mutual relationship along with the peace of the country at large was utterly shattered on April 7, 1994.

In the early morning of the day, President Habyirimana was killed when his plane was shot down right outside of Kigali. At this moment, the country, which had experienced periods of political violence in the past, descended into unspeakably violent chaos. Over the next hundred days, Hutu militias targeted and slaughtered up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Like all living creatures in the country at the time, Mutware’s life was sent into turmoil. Not only did his adopted village family disappear, but the normally serene confines of Akagera were rife with conflict and confusion. The park was filled with refugees attempting to flee the conflict and armed genocidaires patrolling the lands for inyenzi – the derogatory name for Tutsis, meaning cockroach. Mutware approached these new people with the same care and love he shared with other humans, yet he was met with hatred and violence. Mutware was shot by genocidaire, who brutally removed his tusks and left the beast for dead.

Mutware survived the attack but his world was forever changed. As Rwanda as a whole began to return to some semblance of peace after the liberation by the Rwandan Patriotic Front on July 4, 1993, Mutware was left alone, scarred, and hungry. At first, he attempted to rejoin the other elephants in the park (Root 2016). As a bull though, Mutware was challenged by other males upon arriving; lacking tusks, he sorely lost and was thus rejected from the herd.

Afterwards, Mutware was forced back towards humans. Yet, with the painful memories of abandonment and torture, he was no longer his kind self but instead grew angry with and highly aggressive towards people; “he became crazy” (Personal Interview 2019). Confined to the park limits due to a series of fence projects, Mutware began to charge tourist vehicles. In 2005, the United States Embassy in Kigali even released a warning discouraging people from visiting Akagera because Mutware had overturned three cars in the span of a few short months (BBC 2005). Even when he wasn’t driven to such violent extremes, Mutware would still aggressively approach visitors or intentionally block roads for extended periods of time, behaviors that were rare in all the other elephants in the park. Other times, Mutware, who was conspicuous without his tusks, was seen roaming the land alone. It was obvious to everyone that the traumatic events Mutware suffered in 1994 had erased his any positive associations with humankind and had completely the ways he conducted himself in the world.

Despite his anger and violent behavior, Mutware remained a beloved part of the Akagera landscape. People would travel from far and wide to see and take pictures of the elephant. Akagera employees would readily acknowledge his traumatic past, retelling Mutware’s story to all those who visited the park. Due to this acknowledgement, people never faulted Mutware for his outbursts. They tried to treat him with kindness, just as the elephant did when the villagers first attacked him. As he entered into old age, the elephant was still skeptical of humans but began to rebuild some relationships. One guide even stressed that Mutware was her 'best friend' and that, due to this closeness, she was able to calm him down when he became irritated (Personal Interview 2019). When Mutware died at the ripe age of 48 in September 2018, Rwandans from all walks of life and many from abroad came together to mourn this pivotal creature, loving paying tribute to his complex and challenging life.


BBC News, 5 Dec, 2005.'Elephant Prompts Embassy Warning.'news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4514294.stm.

Ntirenganya, J.C. 30 Sept. 2019. 'Tribute to Mutware.' ArcGIS StoryMaps. storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/b2958d359fb54181a610d92c57298e71.

Stauffer, J. 2015. Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard. Columbia University Press, New York, USA.

Root, T. 14 Apr. 2015. 'Rwanda: The Elephant Chief.' Harper's Magazine. pulitzercenter.org/reporting/Rwanda-elephant-chief.


Speth, MK. 2020. Hearing Mutware’s story. Tropical Resources 39, 00–00.

  1. MK Speth is a candidate for a Master’s in Environmental Science at the Yale School of the Environment. As an environmental anthropologist, her research focuses on the intersection of conservation, ecotourism, and identity politics in post-conflict states.

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