Q & A: Pangs of Life, a story of resilience through the eyes of a diplomat

Rwanda’s High Commissioner to India, who was recently posted to the United Kingdom, Williams Nkurunziza, through a collection of poetry takes the readers through the deprivation and the sense of longing one has to endure for a country to call home. In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi, the diplomat-poet speaks at length about the source of inspiration for the work collected for over 25 years, and shares his personal story as a refugee.  Below are the excerpts.The New Times (TNT): This is a book that has not been seen on the shelves of Kigali bookstores. Briefly tell us about it...
Williams Nkurunziza during the interview. The New Times / Timothy  Kisambira.
Williams Nkurunziza during the interview. The New Times / Timothy Kisambira.

Rwanda’s High Commissioner to India, who was recently posted to the United Kingdom, Williams Nkurunziza, through a collection of poetry takes the readers through the deprivation and the sense of longing one has to endure for a country to call home. In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi, the diplomat-poet speaks at length about the source of inspiration for the work collected for over 25 years, and shares his personal story as a refugee.  Below are the excerpts.

The New Times (TNT): This is a book that has not been seen on the shelves of Kigali bookstores. Briefly tell us about it...

Williams Nkurunziza (WN): Pangs of Life is an anthology of poetry that reflects my experiences through my life, and my is used rather generously in the sense that my experiences are shared by my fellow countrymen and women.

The book is divided in seven sections; the first examines the theme of hope, the other examines the issues of life and loss, another examines the issue of fear and identity, the other looks at war and exile, another tackles the issue of betrayal while the last two sections are an assortment of poems that reflect my reaction to specific elements of my experience that touch me profoundly.

The very last one, which is called the kaleidoscope, is my panoramic view of our country trying to capture its flora and fauna, and capturing bits and pieces of its culture to get a sense of the new Rwanda that we are in, particularly in capturing the sounds and smells as well as the emotions of the country.

When I said that the book is about my experience and in the poems there is an overuse of the word ‘I’ but in a lot of the sections in the poems. It is to give a voice to the emotions that are prevalent in our lives.

For example in the section of hope I talk about competing emotions; emotions of genocide but also emotions of hope; in the section on war and exile, I try to examine the life of the Rwandese people when they were forced into exile – the terrible tears and fears and deprivations that they experienced – but also the search for meaning as well as solution for their state of statelessness.

And throughout the whole book, I am essentially trying to examine partly my own journey through life, but as part of a community and the book is not necessarily a historical statement but a person’s reactions to experiences. All of us individually are engaged in a perpetual conversation with the self; every time you go through a day, you get into contact with different issues and events that impact on you and we all handle these experiences in different ways for example you will go through an experience and decide to share it with a friend verbally. Others will do it in a news feature article or a novel or play.

Therefore, poetry gives me the opportunity to react to specific events that touch me profoundly or touches my environment to have an impact on me and essentially that is what I try to do in Pangs of Life; to trace my life’s journey but also that of my community.

TNT: What specific message do you try to communicate in this book?

In Pangs of Life, I try to communicate two messages; one is our community, our country and our lives have gone through a terrible traumatic state, but there is also reason for hope. In particular, I cerebrate in these poems the capacity the Rwandans have acquired today to be able to hope, to be able to laugh, to be able to live again, in spite of the terrible the tragedy that we have gone through both as a community and as individuals.

When you look at the first poem that I call I Itch to Open Your Grave, it is a conversation between a survivor and a family member (who died), where you are basically saying ‘you are gone, you went through so much pain but today we think of you and celebrate your life.’

Even though I talk about the pains of Genocide, I also recognise that we as a community have moved on and there is a basis to hope that life can and must be better.

TNT: The book comes out almost 19 years after the Genocide, what could have evoked these kinds of emotions all of the sudden?

I call this book a mirror of my life; there is no single particular event that I can say inspired me to start writing; each poem in the book has had its own inspiration. For example, some of the poems are not about Rwanda, they are about other communities but they treat themes that are relevant to all of us.

For example in the ‘Act of Reconciliation’ which I wrote in 1991, it was actually my reaction to a conflict between blacks and whites in Namibia. So each poem was inspired by a particular event and I call it a mirror of my life because it has been more of a process rather than a single even that inspired me.

I consider myself as a student of literature and a social commentator. I try to react to events as they happen and to understand the content of the book require that you look at each poem as an event by itself that was inspired by a specific event or set of events rather than saying the whole book is inspired by a particular moment.

TNT: When did you start putting down these collections?

That was about 25 years ago and I wouldn’t say that I started by writing a book, I started by reacting to specific events and that what happens normally when you are writing poetry because it is a collection of events that people react to. Some literary critics have defined poetry as a spontaneous outflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity.

My collection has therefore spanned a long time; some have been inspired by personal experience but some for example in the poem Ravaged, I am not talking about my experience or even about Rwanda. I am reacting to what is going on in our continent. Where I ask a single question; Africa, with all your bounty, why are you on your knees? Why do you allow yourself to be raped when you have the capacity to stand on your feet...

TNT: Much of the content in the collection rotates around the deplorable life one tends to subscribe to while a refugee, what is your personal experience as a refugee?

As said, Pangs of Life is a mirror of my life; I begin to see the world through the eyes of a child in a refugee camp. I was forced into exile just like most of my country men and women; in 1959 I was barely two years old. I stayed for a lot of my earlier life in a refugee camp. Until I finished my primary school I had never been anywhere else other than a refugee camp.

I remember when we started primary school; we studied under trees and the dust on which we sat – because we did not have desks – became our exercise book. You would spread the dust and begin writing in it.

That was the life in a refugee camp and of course with God’s blessings and the hard work of our parents we were able to grow out of the refugee camps and get into school. That is partly what I deal with in some of the poems in War and Exile but also in sections of Life and Loss where I talk about the death of an inspiration, where I mourn the death of my mother who died before I was able to repay for the sacrifice she had to go through in order to make me and my siblings survive.

So that was the beginning and of course we grew, went out of the refugee camp and had gone through school, but we remained refugees without complete citizenship with many deprivations; you cannot get fully involved in normal life where you are because everybody essentially brands you as someone lacking a sense of belonging.

You are denied equal opportunities given to the citizens of your host country. I remember some countries while we were in exile, no matter how well educated you were, there were only specific jobs that you could do. For example you are a doctor but you could only teach because the other career options were only open for citizens. Those are the experiences that a lot of us went through.

We lived like that until we were very mature people and, in part, because of such deprivations to which we subscribed, and the sense of statelessness led our leaders to begin crafting a strategy for our return to Rwanda because we realised you could not survive as complete human beings, unless you had a home to call your own, until you become a full citizen of your own country.

That is why, to a great extent, I celebrate the success of our leaders in giving us the opportunity to end this state of statelessness as well as to find our voice again.

TNT: To be more specific, which countries did you go through as a refugee?

As a kid, I traversed about three refugee camps; I finished my primary school in a refugee camp in Bunyoro called Kyangwali and I did my secondary school in Kampala; I went to Makerere University and after which I worked briefly in Uganda before I went to Kenya in 1982 when the situation was increasingly becoming hostile for Rwandans.

In Kenya I worked as a teacher before I went back to school to study mass communication. After this, I worked in the media field then left for Namibia, where I worked until 2002 when I came back to Rwanda.

Of course throughout the time in exile I was part of the conversation by Rwandans about looking for a solution to our state of statelessness. I was a founder member of what we called Rwanda Welfare Foundation and I was and still remain an active member of the RPF.

TNT: Rwandan refugees will lose the refugee status come June 30 when the Cessation Clause is invoked. This government has been active in encouraging Rwandans to return home but some remain adamant. What message, as a former refugee, do you have for these people?

Having lived a life of statelessness and after having enjoyed benefits from a life in a state that you legitimately call your own, I would say that you cannot trade citizenship for refugee status. I would say that the terrible days we lived as refugees taught us to appreciate the meaning to citizenship and tremendous benefits that come with it.

The cessation clause essentially is intended to communicate to the world that Rwanda is now stable and a free country for its daughters and sons and that no body should choose to remain out for fear of persecution or violation of their rights. This clause is therefore being enforced come June 30, simply because these fears are not justified because this country has opened its door to all its children.

I wish the previous governments had done the same long time ago; Rwanda would be a much better place, with a vibrant, coherent community. We have therefore got to celebrate the excellent leadership that we have, that opens its door even to people known to have committed crimes. Former President Juvenal Habyarimana and those before him denied us to return when we were innocent children that had not committed any crimes. This government is telling its sons and daughters irrespective of their crimes to return home. Not only to enjoy the benefits of citizenship but also accept responsibility for playing their part in the development of the country.

So bottom-line for me, is for the Rwandans outside to return and enjoy the protection of the state. It is something that they can do so that all of us pool together in building this country. To choose a life of statelessness is to compromise this very life and that is not something I can encourage any Rwandan to do, especially because we experienced the life of dislocation and the general lack of a nation to call your own and a government to turn to when faced with problems.

TNT: How did you manage to juggle through your official duties and the putting down of this book?

Fortunately poetry is not a form of writing that requires you to sit and do extensive research, as I said earlier, it is one’s spontaneous reactions to powerful emotion. So this reaction is something you are able to define for yourself given the way you see it at a particular time. This is also coupled with the fact that the collection has been built over time, hence it is not something that may put a strain on the work that I do.

And it is not going to be the last book; I will try and write more, as long as I focus on the poetic genre, it should not be very difficult to continue writing while I am doing the work tasked to be by my government.

TNT: There is just a handful of Rwanda literature by Rwandans on our bookshelves. What do you think could be the reason?

I could only fathom a guess. I think the lack of literature in Rwanda is typical of the African experience. A lot of African literature was and continues to be more in folklore – poetry and song – rather than being written. Traditionally we communicate by word of mouth; we sing, we share folklores, all vocally.

There is more of literature, even here in Rwanda; all you need is to go to a wedding or other events. Rwanda has some of the best poets that I have seen who craft poems and songs on a daily basis. The only difference is we have not been able to actually capture these narratives and but them in writing.

One thing I would actually love to do, if I can, is to create an anthology, capturing some of the best poems in Kinyarwanda, composed by local artists that we hear and see at every wedding but whom you never see in print.  So I think the lack of written literature is because traditionally there has been an overemphasis on oral rather than written literature otherwise the creative process in our process goes on every day just that there is that lack of transition and there is no writing culture, just as there is no reading culture.

TNT: Briefly take us through the publication of the Pangs of Life and how Rwandans will be able to get it...

The book has been published by Jain University Press (in India) – a publishing house affiliated to Jain University, which is an institution that has had an interest of building a presence in Rwanda.  We had a conversation about what they do and what they intend to do in Rwanda. One conversation led to another and they got to know that I write poetry. They picked interest of looking at my collection which they liked and decided to publish it.

About presence in Rwanda, the publisher plans to bring the book into Rwanda and the East African Community by next month so during April it will be available in Rwandan bookstores.

What I would like to emphasise is that to me, the publication is in part a reflection of the meaning of citizenship. That citizenship gives the voice that statelessness denies you. And in my acknowledgement of the book I thank our leadership for having made it possible because when you are not free, you barely think. So in the acknowledgement, I thank the leadership for having given us the space to think, the space to dream and to share our thoughts and articulate positions on some of the position of some of the emotions that we go through as individuals and as a nation.

TNT: Who is your favourite writer?

I do not have one; I have read works of different authors, be it African and European, including Wole Soyinka, Shakespeare and many others and everyone of them has taught me a thing or two; but I consider my writing to be inspired by my personal experience rather than the wisdom of other writers.

TNT: What message do you have for Rwandan students of literature, especially the youth?

You see, throughout civilisation, societies have been able to advance because of the ability to communicate. Like our President says, we have the duty to tell our own story, lest someone else tries to tell it for us, which will be possibly done wrongly. So we have a responsibility to ourselves as individuals, community and as a nation, to encourage more Rwandans to take an interest in reading, and writing so that we can also be able to define our narrative and share it with the rest of the world. No body should be allowed to tell our story before us where we can and one of the best ways to do it is by writing literally materials whether it is poetry, whether it is songs, or novel, we as Rwandans should already take an interest of sharing our emotions through literature.

Through the writing we can immortalise our experiences as a community and as a nation.

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