After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world, so said British author Philip Pullman.
As a child, my favourite time of the day was nighttime, especially during school holidays, when my cousins and I would compete to tell the most outlandish and captivating stories to each other before drifting off to sleep.
This was a tradition passed on from grandma, aunties and uncles in an attempt to pass on the family history, but we went a step further. We invented new characters, narratives and allowed imaginations to roam wild – an exercise that ushered us nicely into the magical world of childhood dreams where anything was possible.
As children in a family traumatised by the loss of near and loved ones and living at the scene of the crime, a made-up world was the only piece of escapism we could afford whilst our overwhelmed parents tried to piece our lives back together.
Video: Testimony by Jo Ingabire. Source: global i-casts limited/YouTube
It is no surprise that I grew up and became a writer. After all, stories have always been a solace for me; a place of true comfort, a source of knowledge and wisdom, a glimpse into strange and foreign lands and peoples where time is compressed and the mind expanded.
I became an avid reader as soon as I touched the British Isles, consuming all sorts of literature, histories, scripts, articles, comics – you name it, I read it.
Something strange began to happen. The more characters I got to know, the farther away I got from myself.
Desperate to fit into an English, middle class milieu, I began to make up all sorts of stories to define myself. The first and longest lie was of my origin.
Whenever I was asked where I came from and South East London wasn’t answer enough, Burundi was the next offering.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of my heritage. My mother has told me countless stories of my ancestors’ great exploits. They were innovators, warriors, entrepreneurs, and scholars – people anyone would be proud to descend from.
The trouble was that they had all died and all trace of their accomplishments had vanished with them. A good three quarters of my family were massacred during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Their names were at the top of the kill lists and their killers were careful to leave no survivor.
My father, two sisters, brother, cousin and night guard were killed before my eyes.
I survived miraculously; the scars from the bullet wounds in my body are a constant reminder. I was five years old. My father’s whole family was completely wiped out. My brother, sister and mother feel their loss every day.
And that’s why as a teenage I pretended to be Burundian. The story of my childhood was not one to share.
Firstly, it was too shocking for my friends. You can’t really have small talk when someone drops the genocide bombshell. When I was 14, I cut class to hide behind a building because I had been crying all morning after a restless night of nightmares about my experiences of the war.
While I sobbed quietly, a classmate approached me, her face streaked with tears. I asked her why she was crying. Her cat had died. She asked me why I was crying and I considered telling her for a moment, but how could she possibly understand? So I wiped away my tears, wrapped my arms around her and told my best pet jokes.
And so I denied my story and identity for a long time. Even some of my closest friends had no idea of what happened to me during the war. My scars were as well hidden as my shame and sorrow for having been a survivor.
The worst part about admitting that I was Rwandan was answering the follow-up question, which inevitably came:
“Were you affected by the Genocide?”
If I answered that, I would have to acknowledge that I was a survivor, and that word, well, I abhorred it. It conjured up images of helplessness, weakness, unspeakable pain, anger, trauma and rage. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
Then I got my first professional writing assignment; a script based on a strong female character with a traumatic past. With all the excitement and naivety of an amateur just turned pro, I expected inspiration to fly into my lap and dictate inspired words for an award-winning screenplay.
No such thing happened. I worked harder than I cared for, creating many different scenarios but it all fell flat because my female lead was always inauthentic.
A way out of the quandary
I decided to try something different and drew up a psychological profile for my leading lady to unveil her motives, explore her psyche and whatnot. It was then that I realised that you couldn’t lie as a writer. Sure, you can make up stuff, and that’s half the fun but it has to come from a truthful place.
You can’t create characters you don’t understand – you have to make peace with all their strengths and weaknesses. In short, you have to understand yourself before you attempt to understand anyone else.
Now I’m making peace with my past, my future and myself. Being a survivor is not just about what happened to you. It’s a chapter in the book of your life, there’s more to come. Once upon a time, I felt abandoned and alone in the world; today I enjoy the richness of friendships more fully for having been truly lonely.
There’s a strength and beauty in postponing your meeting with death. Once you’ve looked that old foe in the eye, you’re no longer afraid.
Fewer things will ever be worse than what you went through. There’s every reason to hope for a better tomorrow.
You’ll cherish family more than most, you’ll push yourself harder because you know you can bear a lot, nothing worthless will distract you because you know what is of real value.
You’ll touch divinity when you forgive, you’ll know that love is stronger than death. You, above many, will be closer to discovering the meaning of life because you’re a survivor. Therefore, you should be heard. The most inspiring people are people who have faced adversity and risen above it. Isn’t that what defines a hero?
I recently met Eric Eugene Murangwa, a man famous in my family for having been a great goalkeeper before the war, but someone I hadn’t met before. His is one of the most compelling stories of a survivor I have ever heard.
An incurable optimist, he set up a charity (FHPU Enterprise) to unite young people through sport and has been a vital champion for the survivors in the Rwandan community in London.
Determined to speak more loudly than any Genocide deniers, he visits schools raising awareness and ensuring that Rwandans have a role in how their story will be told in history.
I believe that Rwandans owning and telling their stories is a powerful way of defining our national identity, sharing memories to help promote reconciliation and construct a literary culture where we explore who we are and share that with the world in a format familiar to them.
And that’s why I’m sharing my story and a small part of it at that. I did not mention the Rwandan Army general who risked his life driving my mother and me across the country to safety after his comrades failed to finish us off.
Nor did I mention the relative who against all logic betrayed a friend and spent over a decade in prison for Genocide crimes. My mother religiously visited the prison, supplying them with expensive food and medicine. My mind struggles to compute that kind of compassion.
But that is the story of Rwanda. It is incredibly complex which is why stories shared are very important.
I would like to invite you to share your Rwandan story with us as we curate 100 stories to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the Genocide. As part of Survivor’s Tribune, a survivors’ organization based in London, we want to encourage storytelling (testimony, films, art, music, essays) to document the effect of Genocide after 22 years and to promote understanding, awareness and the progress achieved since.
If you’d like to get in touch, email us at email@example.com
We would like to hear from survivors, their families, and those born after the Genocide, perpetrators, and foreign nations affected – anyone willing to share.
Your stories will be treated with every confidence and published only after fact checking and with your approval.
We’ll be launching a website shortly where the public can access these stories. In the meantime follow our #100days100Rwandanstories campaign on Twitter for updates.