Juliane Bitek’s 100 Days: When terrible events produce literary beauty

By Sydney Mugerwa

Before I delve into the review, allow me write a bit of a backstory into the meaning behind the words in Juliane’s spectacular poetry collection titled 100 Days. One of the worst failings of humanity, the Rwanda Genocide took place between April and July 1994, a period of 100 days. When the dust finally settled, an estimated 800,000 souls had perished in the most gruesome way imaginable.

Set against this backdrop, the musicality of Juliane’s poetry beguiles a much darker theme, akin to a chilling musical score in a Hollywood movie accompanying a horrendous tear-jerking scene. The lyrical words weave into each other like a tapestry of perpetual suffering, never ending for the unfortunate victims who forever revisit those 100 days in the movie reel of memory. Indeed, how could an event so terrible birth a myriad of powerful words so beautiful in their execution, you cannot help but be moved.

While in truth the genocide lasted 100 days, those who experienced it will beg to differ. Juliane pens a poem for each day of the hundred, casting the experiences of real life Rwandans into a time capsule for future generations. Allow me introduce you to Day 95

Time they taught us was linear & exact
a series of beats
a line extending from the beginning of things

forget that illumination is an indication of knowing
forget that we were trapped inside a hundred days
a hundred days of light
each following the other
each following the other

Picture a man-made purgatory stretching endlessly, disrespecting the passing of time and then picture those in it, trapped. Not knowing when their suffering will end, if at all it ever will. Then read the last lines, …each following the other, each following the other…

The victims ran to churches, in search of succour, only to meet their death at the one place they believed they would be protected. The survivers as well couldn’t escape death. Within their hearts died their once closely-held beliefs. To lose faith at the such a pivotal time in one’s life leaves only a shell of the person you used to be. Day 86 reads:

Jesus must have permanent presence
in the church where the door
has been propped ajar for eternity

Jesus Christ must live here
where congregants where struck in supplication
pleading for their lives
pleading, pleading for their lives

and again in Day 37
Christ either had no idea of those a hundred days
or he must have lost his voice in the first few moments

Christ may just have not been capable
or he might have noted the endless & boundless
losses of the beloved on this land

Christ might have hung his head
completely powerless

The betrayal pervading the air is of such a magnitude that it breaks such a spiritual and religious people in utter disillusionment.

Perhaps, I am not the right person to review this book. I am but a stranger from across the border, on the outside looking in, dissecting the 100 days in a detached and captivated way. Empathy can only go so far, and until someone has been at the center of Armageddon and felt their world shatter and cave in beneath their feet, then what they feel are placebo emotions at best.

To sit in my comfortable chair and critique these bleeding words with a literary eye is not enough. Juliane is a gifted poet but all she manages to do is capture a sliver of the collective soul of the suffering these poor people went through those defining 100 days. Her flawless lines, lyrical and repetitive poetry paints but a faded picture of the desolation of these people, undeserving of what happened to them. What Juliane does is remarkable and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Day 60
There used to be a joyousness in watching fish in water
gliding jumping
out & back in
out & back in
look silver
look black
look red
look grey
the river as a happy home to life

now globs of flesh
now pink spray
now whole bodies racing fish

The first time Ugandans had an inkling as to the massacre was when fishermen spied dozens of bloated bodies in a river of blood, drifting into the country. It was surreal. A betrayal to their moments as they clung to life.

Juliane Okot p’Bitek’s 100 Days is a deserving tribute to a time when humanity forgot what it meant to be human. Reading the poetry collection is a humbling experience. Bringing these demons back to life is a necessary evil, lest we forget the lessons of our past. Reading 100 Days is a guilty pleasure. I need a moment to reconcile my appreciation of Juliane’s genius while in the breath acknowledge the subject matter which leaves gushes in my heart. A truly humbling experience.

Editor’s Notes

100 Days is published by University of Alberta Press. 

This book review was originally published at She Made Me Do It, as part of the #Writivism2016 Festival Book Features. Sydney Mugerwa 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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