Sunday 28th July 2013
“Don’t judge a book by the cover”. This English adage came alive to me after reading a few chapters of Gil Courtemanche’s book, A Sunday at the pool in Kigali. For its title, I was put off at first sight of it in 2003. The title was more befitting of an article than a whole novel and I could not see how a single day at a spot by a pool could make a story for a book.
As I’m discovering ten years later, it can make a piece of history!
I should’ve read the rev reviews quoted on its covers. Or, at least, the short synopsis at the back cover: “Set during the Rwandan genocide, [it] is an immensely powerful and cathartic denunciation of poverty, ignorance, global apathy and media blindness, as well as a poignant love story and a stirring hymn to humanity.”
One inaccuracy in this description: “the Rwandan genocide” sounds as if outsiders attempted to exterminate Rwandans. But the aim of the genocide was to obliterate a section of Rwandans and it was perpetrated by a section of fellow Rwandans: thus, the genocide against Batutsi……..
Which gives me occasion to make a plea, as I’ve done before, against the use of Hutu, Twa, Tutsi, which, perhaps inadvertently, is usually supported by Rwandans. Rwandans, you are Banyarwanda. And, if you accept to be abbreviated and compartmentalised, then you can also be Bahutu, Batwa and Batutsi. Or else, you’d as well accept to be called Nyarwanda or, worse, Nyarwandas!……
Otherwise, as I was saying, the novel is an explicit expression of the hell that Rwandans lived before and during the genocide. It’s a searing indictment on the regime of the time, which fittingly’d call for an alarming title. And yet, how else can you so delightfully bring out that contrasting humanity of some characters involved?
The underlying horror of the times and the demented demons responsible for it are not diminished by the happiness and laughter of the individuals being hunted or observing. If anything, the stark reality of the horror comes out more strongly.
Some scenes of relationships sound alien and may assault the sensibilities of many Rwandans, no doubt. Otherwise, whoever wants to get an explicit picture of how the horror was unfolding before the genocide should read this book. The story, again as a reviewer says, is “Brilliant, beautiful, upsetting, angry, seductive, impassioned, polemical and horrifying.”
Consider the lovebirds of the protagonist (a Canadian) and his Rwandan love sitting quietly, enjoying each other’s company. Then they are interrupted by a piercing reminder that they are in Rwanda. When they rush out to check the source of the screaming, they are greeted by the spectacle of a woman hanging on the rails of the balcony bellow their own, sobbing.
A plump Belgian man in a room next to theirs is also on the balcony, cursing the woman bellow. They disagreed on something – a fee perhaps – and he tossed her down. So, what happens? After sometime, security officials from the Belgian embassy – not from the government – come and take the badly wounded woman away. And that’s the last anyone will hear of her.
The Canadian, who actually seems to be the author, cannot bear it and he and his girlfriend go to report the crime to police. What they get is mockery. Police and prosecutors explain to the man that as one from a friendly country, he should avoid the dirt of cockroaches. In short, he is the one who’s in the wrong, not the killers!
Rwandans were not equal, the government was telling him. Some are only good for elimination.
There are many scenes that are only imaginable in hell. Like when a Rwandan friend leaves his room in the hotel, to go home. For being associated with the Canadian, who is associated with a “cockroach” girlfriend, he finds his wife being gang-raped. After many unspeakable rituals, the militias kill them both and leave them there for the dogs and vultures.
You realise that sometimes we judge hell unfairly. There are things that are beyond hell.
The whole country was in the grip of similar militia gangs but, still, more were being poured in by the lorry-full, from training camps in the north. This was much before the genocide, putting to shame those who push the lie that genocide was triggered by the death of a president.
However, somewhere the author seems to insinuate that the rebels fighting in the northern fringes of the country, once in power, would do the same. For that, I hope Gil Courtemanche, who is said to have stayed over, has seen different. Those rebels, in the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), are part of the ruling party today.
Aside from that, the real names – Lando (RIP), Faustin (of the “murasetsa” infamy!), Zozo (a Hotel M.C. fixture?) and others. The gigantic tree and the hierarchy of the birds in its branches.
They are the “stirring hymn to humanity” that triumphs over the horror-hell that was Rwanda.