/ 27 August 2010

Calling a monster by its name

Calling A Monster By Its Name

The enormity of the atrocity in Rwanda demands that we keep revisiting it and questioning it. There is no guarantee it won’t happen elsewhere

As Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel, Murambi, The Book of Bones, draws to its philosophical climax, a character contemplates the lessons of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. One thing is clear to him: “He saw in the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis a great lesson in simplicity. Every chronicler could at least learn — something essential to his art — to call a monster by its name.”

Naming is what Senegalese author Diop has done in this rich and textured novel. It is one of 10 stories to emerge from a visit by 10 African writers to Rwanda in 1998.

By turns sad and moving, informative and philosophical, the novel features Cornelius, exiled to Djibouti, a small country on the horn of Africa; Jessica, a tireless activist who criss-crosses the country working for the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF); a wise-cracking patriarch, Simeon; and a surgeon (whom I won’t name so as not to spoil things for readers) “for whom the idea that a human life has any worth is pure convention”. That’s not just philosophical — he really doesn’t believe that human life is of any value. This genocidaire actually kills his wife and children.

I meet Diop at a restaurant in Johannesburg’s Houghton to talk about his book, the genocide and Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, the man described by some as a dictator. Why a novel? I ask.

“How can you tell the story of a man who kills his wife and children as a journalist?” The only way to do it, he argues, is to write a novel, using the devices of fiction.

About Kagame, who was recently returned to office by 93% of the Rwandan electorate, Diop says: “The day people tell me he’s a corrupt leader [and] he’s killing people because they are Hutu, I will start asking myself the question if he’s the right person for the job.

“He abolished the death penalty in a country like Rwanda where it was easy to kill people. Abolition of the death penalty [anywhere in the world] is a step towards progress but in a country like Rwanda that’s exceptional.”

Diop is a fellow at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, where he is writing a fictionalised account of his compatriot, Captain Mbaye Diagne, a United Nations soldier stationed in Rwanda who saved 600 people before he was killed.

“If it was a film, I would call it a documentary. I have already met his parents, his widow and his former colleagues,” he says. “This soldier understood that you can talk to the worst people,” he says of the man who rescued people in his care not by the force of the gun but by begging the militia to spare them.

I recently visited Rwanda as part of a large group of invited journalists to cover the inauguration of the RPF’s election campaign. A government information officer took us around the hilly capital, Kigali, an obligatory stop and the site of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The multi-storey, circular building is a rather cheerful edifice that masks its grim foundations — beneath this building lie the bodies of 250 000 people, most of them mercilessly hacked to death.

When they tell you a million people died in this tiny state, you expect to see bullet-pocked buildings, tenements half destroyed by shells and missiles. Yet, as Cornelius notes in his account: “The city refused to show her wounds. Besides, she didn’t have many. There hadn’t been any shellings, aerial bombings —”

Still, one finds Kigali eerie and disturbing, the kind of place in which the worthlessness of African lives hits you. That’s a bit contentious — perhaps I should rephrase that to “the hitherto worthlessness of African lives”. For I find it difficult to believe that another band of murderous madmen would kill that many people again. But, then again, this is Africa, and Africans and the rest of the world still remain indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate — so one can never be sure.

But what can be said with a degree of certainty is that genocide in Rwanda — whether of Hutus, Twas or Tutsis – won’t happen again, certainly not while Kagame remains at the head of the RPF.

Indeed, a character in the book says the government is doing its part: “They’ve eliminated the mention of ethnicity on ID cards — but the real problem is the mechanics of power in Africa. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”

But there’s real progress on the ground, Diop tells me. “People have to be aware that, for the first time since 1959, you have a period of 16 years in which nobody has been killed for ethnic reasons.”

That’s a significant statistic because, between 1959 and 1994, the Tutsis were victims of nine ­genocides.

Murambi, The Book of Bones is told by several narrators, who include perpetrators, a French soldier and victims. It’s an unstable story that allows the bias and subjectivity of the “I” voice to give the story its sense of immediacy and its feel of being accounts by witnesses.

Shorn of a filter, the accounts are chilling and strike at you repeatedly, perhaps with the manic ferocity of the militia as they hacked people to death, poured acid into vaginas and committed other atrocities.

Trauma stories are notoriously difficult to read because once you begin them you feel obliged to finish them. They are important, the kind of story about which you must be able to say to your activist friends: “Yes, I read that book.”

Murambi is different, presenting a capsule history of Rwanda while remaining readable and digestible, and not skimping on grisly content. Although its lens is fixed on Rwanda’s strange ethnic dynamics, the book is expansive enough to accommodate other trauma stories.

“Take the example of the Afrikaners in South Africa. They were real foreigners, those ones, and they turned out to be infinitely more cruel to the blacks of that country — When Mandela won, the Soweto blacks didn’t say, ‘We’re are going to kill them all’.” If black South Africans had gone out and decimated their former white oppressors, “no one would have said, ‘Oh, those poor South Africans, you’ve got to understand them, they suffered so much from the arrogance of white racists for three centuries’.”

Strangely, that’s the kind of warped reasoning that was used to explain why Hutu militia killed one million Tutsis in just 100 days — that is, 10 000 people hacked to death every day.

One finds it necessary to shock people, to bring to the surface the enormity of the violence in Rwanda because, as Diop points out, there’s reluctance among African intellectuals to interrogate what happened. They often state, “let’s move on”, a line that pretends to be forward-looking yet averts its gaze from reality.

As I sat through a press conference at which Kagame was explaining to the assembled hacks why his party was so loved in Rwanda, I was struck by how many times he kept on saying, monotonously, almost like a refrain in a pop song, “in 1994 —”, “in 1994 …”, “well, in 1994 —”

Diop explains this clearly: “It’s very important that they live with that. We have to start with 1994 …”

Perhaps Kagame has read Murambi, The Book of Bones and deems himself a chronicler who feels the need “to call [the] monster by its name”.

Boris Boubacar Diop and Veronique Tadjo are in Session 5: M&G Masterclass — Difficult Writing: writers respond to Murambi: The Book of Bones on Saturday September 4 from 3 pm to 4.30 pm. Pamela Nichols of the Wits Writing Centre will chair the event.