From Rwanda to Norwich

Louisa Sutton 18 October 2007

Miracle in Kigali is a small book. Not only in terms of its length, but in its humble, understated and truly dignified character. I can’t say I was delighted at the prospect of reading a survivor’s account of the Rwandan Genocide, but from the opening pages, Illuminée Nganemariya’s modestly told narrative compels you to follow her bloody journey through Le Pays des Mille Collines–Rwanda, land of a thousand hills.

Nganemariya was married only three days before the murder of Rwandan president Juvenal Habarimana. His death immediately initiated a campaign of retribution which would ultimately lead to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just three months.

The deaths included Nganemariya’s new husband John, killed by friends who had celebrated the wedding with them a month earlier. Isolated in Rwanda, with her friends’ and family’s whereabouts unknown, she embarked on a hundred-day journey to safety through the unimaginable atrocities of the Genocide, with her newborn son strapped to her back. Nganemariya is believed to be the first survivor of the Rwandan Genocide resident in Britain to have written a personal account of her experiences.

The story does not begin or end at the time of the Genocide. One of the many notable features of this book is its insistence on a time before and, most importantly, after the massacre of 1994. In her foreword, Nganemariya addresses both British readers and fellow Rwandans. Throughout the book she strives to impress upon both: by inviting a deeper understanding of what happened to ‘my beautiful small country’ to those whose only awareness of the Genocide has been nurtured through the sad bits of Comic Relief and the film Hotel Rwanda, as well as offering hope and a renewal of pride in Rwanda to those who have been affected by the Genocide. To this end, she includes a sheaf of bright photos midway through and the warmly anecdotal opening chapters, in which she and co-writer Paul Dickson blend together a modern history of Tutsi-Hutu tensions with humorous recollections of banana beer and family squabbling. There is no suggestion in the final chapters that life in Rwanda will easily slip back to the way things were, but what Nganemariya reminds us is that the story of her country is not solely one of destruction and butchery.

Nevertheless, the butchery of 1994 has placed Rwanda under a dark shadow. Each chapter is introduced by a brief summary of the political situation at the time. While it is easy to be swept up in the emotion of Nganemariya’s personal anguish, the reader is constantly prompted to engage in wider issues, such as why the UN Security Council failed to send troops to Rwanda during the ‘100 days’, or why they refrained from branding the massacre a ‘Genocide’, which would have made intervention obligatory. It makes for uncomfortable reading.

Nganemariya’s journey was one that many attempted, but very few survived. Nganemariya knows that she is alive today only by chance. As her tale unfolds, her ordeal feels endless during the description of the pain and horror she has experienced, and then, all of a sudden, it ends abruptly and unexpectedly. However, the ending does not bring the relief that a reader of such tragedy craves. This is testament to the sheer volume of people who were killed in just three months, whose memory remains in the blood which still stains Rwandan streets. It also bears witness to the fact that Nganemariya’s ordeal is not over. Her journey takes her from living through the Genocide to living as ‘the only Rwandan in Norwich’, bringing with her the mental scars and fear of AIDS that continue to traumatise Rwandans around the world.

Nganemariya survived by what she now describes as a ‘miracle’. In her writing there is little awareness of her own courage: her purpose is not to profit from sympathy. Instead, her story’s straightforward emphasis is on healing Rwanda and its people. As her son puts it, “People have short memories. We need to keep talking about the Genocide”.

Louisa Sutton