Rusimbi may be described as a pioneer novelist in Rwanda – at least in the English Language. The novel genre is a rarity in Rwanda creative arts.
Undoubtedly a few writers have attempted the novel genre in Kinyarwanda, but in all sincerity, most have managed novellas, notably Francois Xavier Gasimba’s Hagati y’Isi n”ijuru , Mukarugira Perpetue’s Giramata. Niyonteze Pascal’s Imali ya Shuni is perhaps the only full length novel in Kinyarwanda.
Readers might have been acquainted with Rusimbi the writer last year when his second novel, The Hyena’s wedding: The untold horrors of genocide, was launched in Great Britain where it was published and widely publicized in Rwanda.
It is worthy of note here to say that Rusimbi has served as a Member of Parliament, Headmaster and Civil servant since his return from exile.
I had an opportunity to review it in these columns. That was before I laid my eyes on his first novel, By the Time She Returned which I have found a remarkable reading, considering it is the author’s first published book.
The novel which can be classified in the category of Diaspora literature is set in Uganda and draws heavily from exilic experience there, although there is little to suggest it is autobiographical.
The tone and mood of the novel evoke a feeling similar to the late Edward Said’s perception of exile which he defines as “The unhealable rift between’ human being and the native place, between the self and its true home.
The essential sadness of the break can never be surmounted”. Blending history with fiction Rusimbi weaves a narrative that depicts dislocation of thousands of Rwandans from home and their scattering all over the world for over 30 years.
The novel explores the sorrows of exile, cultural alienation and marginalization engendered by forced migration, the impact of exile on the psyche of refuges and their desire to return home.
In addition to the pain of displacement, the refugee’s disillusion is exacerbated by persecution suffered under the host country’s successive repressive regimes.
Rusimbi interrogates the principle of nationhood in respect to the refugees’ right to their motherland. While the refugees are marginalized in employment, economic activities as well as in education, they are not spared xenophobic treatment characterized by the derogatory “Ka nyarwanda identity”.
The refugee is demonized and paradoxically some local ethnic groups are also mistreated and the “nyarwanda identity” is thrust upon them.
They join the category of the “other”, the outsider, the unwanted, and the scapegoat. The identity of the Rwandan refugee is portrayed, in the novel, not only as an unwanted intruder but an enemy who deserves exclusion.
This hostile environment explains Rusimbi’s characters’ failure or refusal to migrate into the culture of the host country and instead long to return home.
The narrative paints a picture of deprivation, and despair, but the characters cling to their culture and identity. Cultural identity is sustained through discourse of memory often enacted by elders.
The elders play the role of historians to sustain the spirit of nationalism. Throughout the novel the colonial administration is blamed for the rift that tore the Rwanda society apart thus sustaining a memory of Rwanda as their homeland, once harmonious until Europeans came to the scene.
The conditions of exile evoke a longing for a place of comfort among the characters, a home to fend off ‘the ravages of exile’. They crave the jouisance of a nation.
A reader familiar with Diaspora history of Rwandan exiles in Uganda is struck by fictionalization of the refugees’ patriotic quest for their homeland. Historical facts are fictionalized.
The late President Habyarimana’s rejection of Uganda’s diplomatic efforts for peaceful repatriation of refugees is dramatized through the infamous metaphor of the glass.
Habyarimana is reported to have compared Rwanda to a glass full of water, “you can’t add more” urging neighboring countries to naturalize refugees.
The narrative foregrounds the triumphant military return to the homeland with meticulous, albeit secretive, preparations characterized by patriotic rhetoric, mobilizing exiles to join a cultural welfare foundation, which besides promoting cultural revival in the Diaspora advocated the need to find a lasting solution to the “ long standing problems of misery, degradation and destitution”.
By the Time she returned, is as interesting as it is informative and written in a language accessible to most readers. Rwandans readers should find the novel illuminating. Schools should obtain copies of Rusimbi’s novels.
It would be a fruitful way to introduce our youth to the discipline of literature, for as the Banyarwanda says “ijya kurisha ihera kurugo or charity begins at home” .
It is crucial for our educational authorities to nurture national literature as channel for enhancing national ethos and culture.