There are times you feel like burying yourself in some pit, when you read a story. Why on earth do I attempt to tell any story, you ask yourself with shame? When you read a story by Philip Gourevitch, a journalist for “The New Yorker”, you will find it impossible to peel yourself off the last page.
Gourevitch’s May 4, 2009 story on Rwanda does not only make compelling reading but reveals a Rwanda that no one seems to really understand.
From President Kagame to M. Gen Rwarakabije to peasants Nyirabeza and Girumuhatse, he weaves a story that lays bare the maze of complex realities that every Munyarwanda is navigating.
Rwanda is a paradox where killer and victim are both survivors! But to comment on Gourevitch’s story is to spoil it. I just want to savour its ‘appetising’ narrative and how you feel that you are ‘living’ what he is telling you.
As we all know, by the time RPF stopped the Genocide of Batutsi in 1994, Rwanda was dead and devoid of humans. However, Gourevitch does not say it that way.
He says Rwanda was “blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans….women who’d been raped ...humanity betrayed ...infrastructure trashed ...economy gutted ...government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere …court system vitiated, its prisons crammed with murderers…”
Having been among the lucky ones to reach Kigali when the sordid sight had been cleared, I immediately remember my visit to Nyarubuye. Nyarubuye is in the Eastern Province, near the border with Tanzania.
That time, mid-1995, I was taking some visitors to Nyarubuye Catholic Church, a place of refuge that had become a scene of murder and mayhem.
I remember that even after braving the disgusting stench of death and rot, my visitors and I immediately and simultaneously threw up at the sight of the overflowing pile of dead bodies in the church.
We tiptoed back in utter dread when we realised we were standing on torn pieces of flesh, bone, brain, hair and cloth that were scattered all around the church.
Yet that was nothing, when you remember that the whole country was an overflowing mass dump of freshly murdered bodies of our grandsons and granddaughters, our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, grannies and grandpas.
Their bodies lay rotting in churches, houses, pit-latrines, in valleys, bushes, rivers, on hills, roads. But from there, Gourevitch brings you up for a breath of fresh air!
Today, Rwanda “is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa.” Here, of course, I’d be at pain to correct him, for that should have read “in the world”, short of which, it should have read, not “one of” but, “the safest and most orderly in Africa.”
For, come to think of it, which African country can stand shoulder to shoulder with Rwanda?
Botswana, perhaps? Yes, it may be safe, but equally orderly? South Africa? It may be rich, but is it safe? Asmara, in Eritrea, may be as clean as Kigali, but wouldn’t its security be rather a wee bit too fragile, perhaps? As for our EAC family members, look around!
That aside, for the journey to today’s summit of a rising per-capita GDP, national health insurance, improving education system, booming tourism industry, strong draw for capital investment, etc, Gourevitch takes us to “the beginning”.
And “the beginning” in Rwanda is the end of the Genocide of Batutsi. But it is also the village hut which, if you’ve visited granny lately, springs up so graphically in your mind when Gourevitch describes it.
“Girumuhatse led us to his house, a low abode with no right angles, no windows, and no door, only a doorway. A teenage-boy rose from a bed in one corner, shedding a blanket, and shuffled out …fetched folding chairs.”
In this hut alone, (the bed, the blanket, the chairs - even if no window or door!), you can see how people have come a long way! ‘Uti’ how?
Days were when ‘muviringo’, that round hut, was for the rich and the poor made do with ‘ingondano’, a thatched hut without mud walls.
A bed did not exist and people spread grass on the floor to act as a mattress and weaved mats were the blankets.
‘Rwegamira’, that folding chair, was a preserve of the rich and the common chair was ‘gasongabugari’, a stool!
Anyway, from the village Gourevitch takes us through génocidaire prisons, gacaca courts, reconciliation efforts, D.R. Congo wars and Nkunda, refugee rehabilitation campaigns, ex-Far/Interahamwe re-integration sessions, etc.
A good listener, Gourevitch reproduces every anecdote as recounted by President Kagame that summarises the complex web of balances that are at play in the management of ‘Rwanda Inc.’