There was a time in history when I was four. When I had not fully shed away the innocence of childhood. I was without blemish, and if Jesus had come back then, there is a fair chance that I would lead the way to the glorious lands of milk and honey. At that time and age, ‘extermination’ was a word I could not even pronounce, especially when used in the same breathe as ‘tribe’- another word I could not even spell. I could make out the meaning of the phrase ‘tribe extermination’ as much as most of you readers can decipher hieroglyphics.
During that same time, in a neighbouring world, there was a 24 year old lady marooned in a 3 by 4 feet bathroom, together with seven other women. They were jammed into that little space for ninety-one days; damned to frolic in shit and piss because someone thought that their fathers and/or husbands were either too tall or had long noses. To those people, that fact was equal to treason- made good only by death. So they were reduced to cockroaches and made fugitives- running away, not from the law; but from the same people who just some full moons before had been their friends, neighbours and family.
Her name is Immaculée Ilibagiza. She too, just like me, once played in the sand when she was four with the security of her entire family. She skipped rope with other kids, and the last thing that crossed her mind during those formative years was their phenotypic appearances. Two decades passed as she wallowed in her blissful ignorance, until one day she was squeezed into a toilet alongside seven other women because she had committed the greatest atrocity to mankind; being born a Tutsi.
I met Immaculée a few weeks ago- in her book Left to Tell. She narrated to me a story bikozulu style; with her eyes closed. She started calmly, talked to me about the beauty of childhood and its blamelessness. I resonated with her. Then she delved deeper into her story, and as he did, so did the storm gather. Her idyllic world began to crumble before her very eyes when she went to school one day, and was confronted by a class teacher who did ethnic roll calls. He called out names from a register and pupils were to respond with the tribe they were born into: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. If you were not Hutu, you were excused from class. Actually, excused seems to be a rather mild term to use given the fact that she was literary kicked out and humiliated in front of her peers. She went on- talking about how she almost missed a chance to get into the university (via Rwanda’s version of JAB) because of her tribe. Never mind that she was the best in her year.
Shit hit the fan when she went home from campus for Easter Holidays. Somehow, a few individuals couldn’t withstand having people with noses longer than usual littering the beautiful country of Rwanda. They had some beef backdating to pre-colonial times about how the Tutsis hoarded too much power, and so a message was spread. A message that Tutsis were a pervasion of mankind; and it was spread all over via every available medium. They were called Inyenzis (meaning cockroaches), and the message was clear. The country needed to be cleaned, and that meant that the fate of the roaches had been sealed. They had to go; and exterminators were contracted; The Interahamwe.
Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda for “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) were the Hutu paramilitary wing. They were pawns, and their job description was simple; kill anyone who is not Hutu or is a Tutsi sympathiser. Think of Kenya’s Mungiki sect; only that these ones are far more unforgiving. They had the morals of a pirate crew.
Immaculée Ilibagiza’s story is strangely familiar; only difference is that hers had scarier numbers. She says that from Kibuye in the north where she grew up, to Kigali and Kibango, thousands of Tutsis were tricked into seeking asylum in churches and schools; and when The Interahamwe found them, they were not only killed- they were slaughtered. These people did not use guns; they used machetes and spears and knives. After irrigating their throats with cheap brew, they unhinged limbs from their victims. Mothers and daughters regardless of age were first repeatedly raped in the full glare of their family members, before being sent to the afterlife one after another.
They butchered the old and the sick, mothers and children alike. The child of a cockroach is a cockroach, they said. They were all slaughtered. Killed because their IDs said they were Tutsis, or because they had a Tutsi heritage/parent or because someone said they looked like a Tutsi. With the same ire, the Interahamwe descended upon and slew hundreds of Hutus who protected Tutsis or those who refused to kiss the ring of a policy that sought to wipe out a people who, for years before, hugged them as friends and in-laws.
It was in this quagmire that Imaculee lost her family. All of them save for a brother who was away on academic scholarship in Senegal, met their fate. Her mother was killed just in front of their house together with her kid siblings. Her dad was dragged into the streets and shot- his body was never found. As for her elder brother, Damascene, his fate was the harshest. Being a graduate, he was renowned in the village, and when he was caught hiding in a hole, he was pulled out by irate Interahamwes high on something cheap. They must have been high because one of the killers said he was curious to see how a Masters Degree brain looked like. So he sliced his head and spilled his brains out and then went boasting about his accomplishment. At last he had seen an educated brain, and he wore that moment like an expensive suit.
Immaculée and her fellow refugees stayed in that bathroom for 91 days, feeding off the kindness of a moderate Hutu pastor. For the
time the holocaust lasted, they never bathed even when their menses came around. All they did was pray. That is why Left to Tell is not a history book, but rather an account of how a 24 year old woman discovered God during one of history’s bloodiest massacre. Which is rather ironic because from how I see it, God packed up and deserted Rwanda for three months. Just like Herod of old, he sold out his people, leaving them for dead. Literally! He was no better than President Clinton who, while the country brimmed with blood and dogs scavenged on rotting bodies, Monica was down on her knees performing secret service on his crotch!
When she was done narrating to me her ordeal, Immaculée finally opened her eyes. They were hollow from all the pain, but even then, they were still beautiful. They looked searchingly through me. And boy did I marvel at their grandeur. These eyes looked at the man who executed her entire family, and incredibly saw pity and mercy on the man. For when it was all over, and she came face to face with the Interahamwe killer, she reached out and quietly said to him…“I forgive you.”
Those eyes, my goodness! All my compliments to the chef.
Her words, nonetheless, I felt a huge lump stuck on my throat, and she handed me a handkerchief. Her story did not make a mockery of my manly poker feelings because of anything else other than the fact that, it showed me the direction we are taking as a nation.
People say that our 2007/08 skirmishes taught us a lesson; but then every time I log into Facebook and Twitter, I am reminded of an aching reality. UoN has a group page that was initially created for students to channel grievances. It’s called Comrades Forum. Looking at the comments flying around that group, it is pretty obvious that education is not a panacea to senseless ethnicity. If you think I am kidding, then take a look here.
What’s more saddening is that Comrades Forum is just but a snapshot of the conversations that we hold amongst ourselves all over the country. Until that day when we shall stop wearing our ethnicity round our necks, and focused on living as Kenyans, the imminence of hell will continue hanging above us. Hovering. Waiting patiently for someone to cast the first stone. And when that happens, many of us will be like Immaculée Ilibagiza; a lucky survivor left behind with nothing but a story to tell.
My only hope is that when that happens, nobody would be interested in examining how a blogger’s brain looks like.