Can the ghosts of 1894 be exorcised?

By Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa

I think Oduor Jagero has accomplished a feat in telling the story of Rwanda like it were his own. And that is very much one of the morals of the story – that we are each other. That our stories are bound up together.  That the Banyarwanda are Banyarwanda and not necessarily Hutu or Tutsi or Twa.

Under the old baobab tree and later in the small Anglican Church, we were taught
about Jesus Christ and Africa. We played together and giggled together. It is here
that I learned of Rwanda. It was, our teacher said, the fourth smallest on the African
mainland after Gambia, Swaziland, and Djibouti. A close-knit family that only needed
to reinforce their bond with Ubumwe, Umurimo, Gukunda Igihugu (unity, work and
patriotism).

Oduor Jagero’s sophomore novel is a fast-paced, suspense-filled, heart-breaking, soul-searching, hope-finding tale! (Yes, you can now pause for breath before I continue.) I think East Africa’s writing star just gets brighter and brighter. We have here, a complement to the works of East African writing maestros like Jennifer Makumbi, Binyavanga Wainana, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who all continue to give a new narrative of Africa; an Africa that understands herself, her past and works to build her future.

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We start by being taken back in time, all the way to 1894 to trace the roots of an event that portends the events of 100 years later. The story brings together the uncanny history of the Germans, Belgians, French and how they are intertwined with the history of Rwanda. From one crime in Europe, to a search for revenge in Urundi-Ruanda to the start of a dichotomy of a people which eventually almost wipes out that people.

Oduor gives you a Rwandan heart. Rwandan eyes. You travel and relive 1993.

He gives you a first-hand experience of what it felt like being the hunted in Rwanda in 93. The buildup is palpable. The running, the sweating, the hiding, the horror, the loss, the betrayal, the hope; all as intense as can be. In movie terms, you are on the edge of your seat for the largest part of the story.

The story is a masterclass in juxtaposition. We see stories from 1894, 1993 and 2007 effortlessly put side by side with ease. The story of a Rwandan man Habineza is sewn together intricately with his eventual soulmate Vestine, their daughters Juliet and Akamanzi, a journalist from Colorado, Sandra, and her brother Lee, as each try to survive the genocide that falls upon their lives like lightning.

And yet those are not the only compelling characters you will meet and fall in love with, and jeer at or weep for. You will meet Francois, if only briefly and find that

some men are “…different; a sheep in wolf’s clothing. A man who had not lived by the beliefs of others, but had deciphered life’s issues without borrowed ideologies.”

You will find Kangu, a man who has no hope in his own people and is ready to denounce himself. You will find Buddy, a mountain gorilla who takes on the role of provider for helpless children. Or Captain Bah, a man whose hands are tied as he watches the gore of an erstwhile beautiful land. And there are many others.  How Oduor manages to focus on all his characters without losing any in translation is commendable due artistic diligence.

The history lessons are startling. Yes we start in 1894, and the backstories are revealing.

 “Who dies from a small stone? Our grandfathers were baffled. White sorcerers, the villagers whispered…”

Tales of men tall and beautiful who might be gods, of plots to burn villages, of words like Inyenzi and the black hearts that gave birth to them, of radio stations playing hate music… It’s like a live action history book about Rwanda.

The scope is worthy of an East African Union mention. Oduor might be Kenyan but his writing embraces most of East Africa and her history. He becomes Ugandan as he travels in time to Habineza falling in love with the Pearl of Africa, her matookeluwombo and a Muganda princess. He travels to Zaire (DRC) introducing Habineza’s brother who has a wife worth keeping for oneself. Kenya, her first feel of elections with Daniel Arap Moi and the closeness of help in the border town of Goma.

Sometimes as you read, you feel that this is not even a book about Africa, as Oduor occasionally travels to Colorado and New York and immerses himself in an American existence. He is almost like a shape shifter when writing about different cultures and people. He takes on their very form. He is more than convincing.

The story is vividly human. Falling in love. Family. Survival. Friendship. Faith.

Theist-apathy is not something he partakes in; the book doesn’t shy away from this vivid part of society; God. In fact, the characters are involved in a back and forth tension of their faith in Imana, even the Americans from Colorado pray when things get tough.

In the story, the worst can happen. It is what makes it very alive.

Oduor clearly didn’t take the safe route but the brave and honest one. A tale chronicling an actual time in history that affected a people so deeply might have some skirt around it carefully, however, he dares recollect in an effort to show us that we must know our past to mark out our future. I am sure this will bring tears to many. Is there resolution in the story? You must read to find out.

For Habineza and his family, and for many Rwandans, the question being posed is, can these ghosts of 1894 be exorcised, can three people become one again and can home finally become home?

The plane touched down at Kigali International Airport at 8 p.m. It was quiet and serene. The lady at the immigration took the Habineza’s passports — the four of them — into her hand. They were all new with only the Kenyan stamp. She  looked at him then at Vestine, Akamanzi, and the girls. “Welcome to Rwanda. I hope you enjoy your stay.” She said.

Ntwatwa
Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa

This book review was originally published at Nevender.com, as part of the #Writivism2016 Festival Book Features. Joel Ntwatwa is one of the select official book bloggers. He will review a number of books that will be launched, featured and available for sale at the festival. Look out for the badge below on your favourite book blogs. And come to the festival to buy the books and get them signed.

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