“At first, Virginia had not said anything. We never speak about these things in Rwanda. There are so many things we must never speak about in Rwanda.”
In the years following the decolonization, Notre-Dame du Nil is the high-school where every young girl in Rwanda dreams of studying: situated on the high peaks of the Congo-Nile region, near the source of the great Egyptian river, the prestigious high-school hosts the daughters of ministers, diplomats and rich businessmen.
The students know only too well that they are there only thanks to their family’s wealth and, so, know how much they worth: the main goal of their education is to make them feminine models in the newly-born Rwandan society- feminine, because women have specific roles: the strict religious discipline and the elitist education provided by French and Belgian teachers aim at preserving their virtue and making them ‘good marriage material’.
However, beneath this glittering surface of wealth and prestige, guarded by the strict religious morals of Sister Lywine, more earthly things occur, such as the “rewards” given by Father Herménégilde to the worthy students (especially to Frida, the beautiful fair-skinned student). Scandal breaks when Frida becomes engaged to a rich Zairian and soon gets pregnant. Her mysterious death is a shock for the small community and her name is banished from all conversation, like a shameful memory.
Awarded the 2012 Renaudot Prize in France, Notre-Dame du Nil represents a powerful and almost merciless piece of writing about post-colonial Rwanda; a small mirror into a society in which wealth, prestige and strict rules can only increase tensions and passions. The novel can be seen as a kaleidoscope of portraits depicted in a meticulous way: Gloriosa, an arrogant Tutsi looking down on the others, Frida, the beautiful victim, Virginia the courageous who wants to know more about her ancestry. The most eccentric figure in the novel is perhaps Monsieur de Fontenaille, a White anthropologist who preaches the superiority of the Tutsi people.
It is through his predictions and theories that Mukasonga lets us foresee the genocide to come, after all, Notre-Dame du Nil only allows 10% of Tutsi students. In this selective microcosm where many things are silenced, ethnic tensions come to life and are about to burst at any time.
And yet, in this confusing atmosphere, Imaculée, one of the students, gives her friends and the reader a beautiful lesson of humanity:
“I thought about what Gorett’s mother was telling: that gorillas were once humans. I have another version of the story: gorillas refused to become entirely human, there were almost human, but they preferred being and living as they were, gorillas, in the highlands near the volcanoes. When they had seen other apes like them becoming humans, mean, cruel and killing each other all the time, they refused it. Maybe this is the original sin Father Hermenegilde speaks about all the time: the moment when gorillas became humans.” (Translated from the French)
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.
Journalist David Whitehouse’s new book In Search of Rwanda’s Génocidaires: French Justice and the Lost Decadesoffers an incisive look at post-Genocide Rwanda, using exhaustive research and interviews to provide multiple accounts of the state of the nation, its prospects for development, and the role of the international world towards Rwanda’s efforts at reconciliation and growth.
ABR: Rwanda’s reconciliation after the genocide is a topic that has not been explored with as much depth as it could be. What inspired you to write this book?
WHITEHOUSE: I happened to see a brief French TV clip about the activities of the Collectif des Parties Civiles Pour le Rwanda, the association in France which has filed some 25 civil cases in France related to the 1994 genocide. I had just ghostwritten a book, the autobiography of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had been exiled in Paris. Perhaps naively, I felt that I was capable of writing about genocide-related issues. I felt also that the legal process in France relating to Rwanda was a story that had little coverage even here in France, and was largely inaccessible to the non-expert English-speaking international audience.
ABR: What was the reserach process for In Search of Rwanda’s Genocidaires? Was it easy to find sources and people willing to talk about this subject?
WHITEHOUSE: No it was not easy! The process was to read as much as I could about the subject and find people willing to talk about it. Understandably, many people are cautious about publicly discussing such a complex and emotive subject, especially as I had not previously written about it.
Having said that, after a certain amount of perseverance it became easier. I am of course indebted to Maureen Whyte, the publisher at Seraphim Editions in Canada who believed in the project from the outset and never wavered. So people could see that the book really would happen. In the end, thanks to her, I was able to get all the cooperation that I needed.
ABR: The concept of ‘genocide ideology’ is particularly interesting. Is that rooted in a real fear of the genocide reoccurring? And how does it express itself in the day-to-day realities of Rwandans?
WHITEHOUSE: Speaking as a general observer, it would be very surprising if there was not a real fear of genocide recurring. Yet the political uses of the concept of genocide ideology are clear. It is a formidable tool for preventing or quelling dissent. Post-genocide governments are in a very strong position to construct versions of reality.
That strikes me as being a consequence of genocide. It would be a bit pointless, in my view, for the international community to be overly critical of the current government when it did nothing to prevent the genocide. If the West wants political governance that it can measure against its norms, it should be more decisive in protecting endangered civilian populations.
ABR: In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families Gourevitch notes that the Rwanda which exists today has never existed before. Your research seems to support the idea that Rwanda is constantly reforming itself and trying to decide what it wants to be as a country, but cannot necessarily call on its tensioned history to aid this process.
WHITEHOUSE: Speaking as a student of history I would say that every society has its history that weighs on the present. Coming to terms with the history has to be part of the answer. It can’t be wished away or abolished no matter how painful it is to confront.
ABR: The New York Times recently ran a visual project about the victims and perpetuators of the genocide living peacefully in the same society. Indeed much of what the West sees and reads about Rwanda show it to be an emerging economy focused on the future while striving to heal past wounds. Are we doing the nation a disservice by choosing to only focus on the good while overlooking some of the tensions the society is struggling with?
WHITEHOUSE: Well there are certainly plenty of critics of the current regime out there, Filip Reyntens is perhaps one of the best-known, and in the book I tried to summarize his critique of the regime in a somewhat simplified way. Reyntjens argues that the current government is a brutal dictatorship that hunts down and eliminates opponents inside Rwanda and around the world. It has made ethnic references illegal, yet this, he says, serves only to obscure the narrow ethnic clique that controls the country. Legal processes inside and outside the country are used to sideline potential opponents. He says the Rwandan government bullies the international community and blinds it to its crimes by using the “genocide credit” earned in 1994.
The problem is that such claims tend to lead others onto a slippery slope of genocide denial, as in the recent BBC documentary “Rwanda: The Untold Story” which has caused a rift between the Rwandan government and the BBC. It should be possible to evaluate whether a country is democratic without denying the genocide that took place in 1994, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch do a good job of this.
A more benign view is given by Phil Clark. In his work on the post-genocide gacaca courts, he stresses their role in reconciliation and social cohesion, even if they don’t meet international legal norms.
So I don’t think there is an unrealistically positive focus among international observers of Rwanda – there is a very full spectrum of views available about the country and the direction it has taken.
ABR: You also use the term ‘pretending peace’ to describe how some of the tensions in Rwanda today are addressed. I’d like to explore what that means. How are they pretending peace? What effect does this have on the citizens themselves?
WHITEHOUSE: The term ‘pretending peace’ asks whether this cohesion is just a surface phenomena and whether violence will recur given the opportunity. I don’t think anyone can honestly claim to definitely answer this question. I do think that suppressed opposition, in Rwanda as elsewhere, tends to create a pressure-cooker and that the concept of loyal, legitimate opposition eases that effect.
One unfortunate feature of Rwanda’s modern history is that French attempts to instill democracy there coincided with the start of the 1990-94 war. People are naturally cautious or scared of it. That doesn’t mean that democracy was the problem, just that it was a failed process that, I think, was overwhelmed by other developments.
In general, human societies do seem to need outlets for opposition to be stable. It would be easier to be optimistic about Rwanda’s future if there was a credible opposition that the government could accept as legitimate.
ABR: You delve into the processes of the multiple genocide trials held in Finland, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as those occurring in Sweden and other countries. To what extent do you think that reconciliation and moving past the genocide remains an issue for Rwandans and what efforts should the Rwandan government and other countries be expending to aid this effort?
WHITEHOUSE: It’s hard to imagine full reconciliation when many of the people who are alleged to have been among the main players in the genocide remain untried. Even after the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa, there is a large backlog of unresolved civil suits in France. The extreme slowness of the French legal response, it seems to me, has tended to permanently entrench some people in their positions and make it harder for reconciliation to be achieved. France should urgently decide which if any of cases that have been filed are strong enough to go to trial, and other countries should push them to do this. How that fits into overall reconciliation, I think, can only be judged in the distant future. But I feel sure that the French inertia is one big obstacle, one stumbling block.
David Whitehouse comes from Plymouth in southwest England and has worked as a journalist in Paris since 1996. He is a part-time PhD student at the University of London in Paris, researching the impact of missionary activity in Rwanda and Burundi.
A void is all they see
No covering mask, but still a mystery.
A face that reveals like an open book :
But one with blank pages in a searching look.
In this empty void,
But know this creates the strongest shield
Against prejudiced minds and devious hearts.
For none but I may understand the thoughts,
Of this void of mine.
But sometimes don’t you see,
When golden dawn breaks over a formless sky?
A flicker, a flash, a beam of light.
But if this happens, what will be the fate
Of this empty void of mine?
But know this is no ordinary void :
For in my mind’s eye I see :
Of broken promises, failed goals, dead dreams.
Yes as I walk, I feel, I see, I hope ;
I know one day in my mind there will no longer be
This void of mine.
Why: Simple answer: The final kindling of a flame, centuries old, leading to a massive flare, hundreds of thousands dead.
Should I read it: Yes.
Qq: “Rwanda had the memories and the habits of a long past, yet the rupture in that past had been so absolute that the country I was driving through was a place that has never existed before” Pg. 180
Surviving violence is often an extension of the pain one has escaped. Indeed, when that pain is caused by your neighbour, your in-law, your priest, your government, surviving is a rebirth into an essentially different world. An intriguing, if slightly undeveloped, aspect of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, is Gourevitch’s focus on the survivors of the genocide. Having provided an indepth look at the forces behind the genocide, (“genocide is never spontaneous”) Gourevitch seeks to understand how the survivors battled the fears, guilt, and hopes that came with that position. He asks, along with the Rwandans he interviews, how to face western forces that first helped feed into the hate and propaganda spurring Hutus to kill hundreds of thousands of their Tutsi friends, in-laws, congregation members, neighbours, using only machetes, then turned away from requests to intervene and stop the violence, provided aid to perpetrators-turned-refugees, and then arrogantly demanded that both Tutsi and Hutu fractions put aside their differences, like little children, and live together again. (Desmond Tutu urged them to bond over their shared blackness). In many ways, Gourevitch attempts to underscore the efforts of the people and the nation as a whole, not to pretend to move past their pain, but in light of their shared and individual experiences of violence, loss, and devastation, answer the bigger question, “now what?” Should the violence be forgotten? Should it be commemorated (Rwanda now has a national holiday in remembrance of the genocide), can the batutsi reach out to the bahutu? Can a tutsi woman raped during the genocide love her enfant mauvais souvenir, child of her hutu rapist? When does the pain go away? Gourevitch’s recount is not just a piece of investigative journalism, it’s not just a westerner attempting to piece together a foreign story, it’s an insight into what it means to experience the extreme violence humanity carries out against humanity, and what it means to survive, to find the right words to ask questions with no compact answers, to seek an amorphous justice, to understand the limitations of retribution, and to live. We Wish to Inform You, is not light reading, it’s necessary reading.