I felt ashamed when last week I chanced upon a review of Steven Kinzer’s book on Rwanda and President Kagame, “A Thousand Hills”.I was drawn to the title of the review without even bothering to look at its author’s name. The title was: “Soldier of Good Fortune.”
Like me, I am sure, you immediately think of ‘pirate’ when you see ‘soldier of fortune’. This, especially coming at the hills of reports of young Somalis who have been hijacking cargo ships on the high seas off the East African coast.
You quickly rethink your conclusion, however, when you see the ‘good’ that comes before ‘fortune’.
That is when you take time to read the elaboration of the title: “Rebel leader Paul Kagame ended the Rwandan genocide. Has he also made that country a model for the rest of Africa?”
Like the author of the book that is the subject of the review, the reviewer concludes in the affirmative, but his answer is tucked away obtrusively in the concluding lines.
Being encoded in the last lines, this answer does not come directly to you and I had to reread the review so as to properly grasp it.
That is when I wondered why I had not recognised the name of the author. When I reflected over his being in Rwanda in 1994, I was filled with shame for not having recognised Joshua Hammer immediately.
Hammer was actually in Rwanda during the genocide of Abatutsi and he was among a handful of journalists whose reports practically provided a lifeline to us outside the country on what was happening. He was then writing for ‘Newsweek Magazine’ and helped in highlighting the cataclysm that was unfolding.
I remember his article of somewhere around June 1994 whose title screamed: “Rwanda: Situation Is Desperate!” This article seems to have shaken the slumberous world community because it was then that the United Nations began to debate the issue.
Of course, the UN did nothing in the end but you wouldn’t slight Joshua Hammer for not trying his best.
He must have moved on to cover other countries after that and that is why I had forgotten about him. As he reviews Kinzer’s book then, he recalls his own experience while covering Rwanda for ‘Newsweek’.
He remembers one particular time when he followed a convoy of vehicles that overtook him on the road only to find he was virtually the only correspondent covering an encounter between the RPA commander, Paul Kagame, and the head of the peace-keeping mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), Romeo Dallaire.
Hammer remembers that he noted “a grim determination, a contained ferocity” on Paul Kagame’s face when the latter emerged from that meeting.
He recalls encountering the “grim determination” again later when he interviewed then Vice-President Paul Kagame amid the ruins of Kigali: “Rwanda can go it alone,” the Vice-President assured him.
So, even if he says the title of the book suggests a hagiography (praise of an individual), Hammer displays an irresistible admission that Kinzer provides a balanced look at a country that was impoverished and decimated but is now “a potential model for the rest of Africa”.
That “grim determination” of one man has translated into a “doctrine of self-reliance” for a country!
Interestingly, though, it is that hagiography that Hammer craves! He admits that on reading Kinzer’s “admirable and often gripping book”, the frustration he got was not “getting a bead on its chief protagonist”.
In other words, he was frustrated by not getting the principal character of the story, President Kagame, to open up and bare his soul.
Hammer admits that, apart from wanting to know about the before-courtship, he “longs to hear how he (Paul Kagame) felt when he encountered the churches filled with corpses of his Tutsi brethren, left behind by the fleeing Hutu army.”
Yet, that “pent-up anger” is exactly speaking out in the loudest voice possible!
That ‘coiled rage’ is carried by one man on behalf of a people who have suffered what Hammer calls “practice genocide” in front of an unconcerned international community from 1959.
For 35 years, a people were subjected to this “practice genocide” without anybody raising a finger until it became “ultimate genocide”.
Joshua Hammer, you played your part in trying to speak up for Rwanda and Rwandans are ever so grateful to you. But perhaps you did not do enough to unravel Paul Kagame’s “unknowability” and “mystique” because there was no way you could have the time and patience. Nor could Stephen Kinzer, and hence his inability to unveil it for you.
Paul Kagame is a people. For a people to bare their soul to you, you have to understand their language.
To understand their language, you have to have ‘lived’ it. And to have lived it is to have been with them from 1959 and to have been the target of “practice genocide” not only in your country but in all countries where you sought that illusive solace.
And to have perished in “ultimate genocide”.