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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Murambi, The Book of Bones, one of the twentieth century’s one hundred most significant African texts

Annie Gagiano - 2007-03-07

Murambi, The Book of Bones
Boubacar Boris Diop
ISBN: 9780253218520
181 pages

First written and published in French (in 2000) and with the English translation by Fiona McLaughlin published in 2006, this text is a major contribution to the body of African writing. It is one of a small group of texts by ten African novelists who in 1998, four years after the 1994 genocide, were given the opportunity of visiting Rwanda in order to write about it. The idea came from a Chadian journalist, Nocky Djedanoum (co-director of Fest’ Africa).
Almost immediately after its publication, Murambi, The Book of Bones was given a place in the Zimbabwe Book Fair’s list of the twentieth century’s one hundred most significant African texts. The recent translation of this, the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop’s fifth novel, perhaps misses some nuances of the original, but will allow those who read English but no French to understand why he is held in such esteem as an author. Despite Diop’s impressive credentials – prize-winning novelist, leading journalist and former teacher of philosophy – he approached the task of writing about events with social, political and moral implications of such magnitude as the Rwandan massacres in humility and with awe; he “has expressed the hope” that this text “will not betray the sufferings of the Rwandans who agreed to tell him of the horrible things they saw and through which they lived” (quoting from the Foreword).
The text eschews grandiloquence. The style is, for the most part, quite simple, understated and plain. Diop builds into his text the ancient authorial dilemma: dare one evoke actual trauma in literature? Is it possible to write about the horrors of genocide without exploiting or desecrating the victims’ memory? He does so by making the major, binding narrative of this multivoiced text that of a native but long-exiled Rwandan who himself has the intention of writing about the genocide (in the character’s case, it is a play that he envisages writing). The text is an orchestration of witnesses’ voices – not in any direct way those of the living Rwandans whom Diop spoke to in preparation for writing his novel, but those of a series of imagined participants in the 1994 events and of those directly affected by them. The voices range across a spectrum of roles, reaching from those who planned and perpetrated the atrocities to their impending victims and those who survived the onslaught.
Diop’s text simultaneously insists on the brutal simplicity of the reality that an insane and brutal logic (that Tutsis were “cockroaches” and therefore needed to be exterminated) came to prevail in Rwanda, and denies that “ethnicity” played a role in the massacre. Hutus, Tutsis and Twa all speak the same language and their ancient god (Imana) is the same. The difficulty of "explaining" the 1994 genocide to outsiders (so many of whom still assume that Africans are prey to innate savage tendencies) is discussed in the text. The most important information in this respect is that a pattern of killing (of Tutsis) was allowed to set in in Rwanda when perpetrators of earlier, smaller massacres, particularly in 1959 and in 1973, went unpunished. Though pointing fingers at initial European (especially French) colonial favouring of Tutsis and later provision of military backing of the mass killers of Tutsis, the speakers of Diop’s text insist that the spiral of evil that became the hurricane of 1994 (in which well nigh one million people were killed, mostly with machetes, in the space of a hundred days) arose firstly from the dehumanisation of one section of the population through propaganda that made the resulting mass killings appear justifiable, and secondly, and especially, from the earlier failure to expose and punish the killers in the previous massacres. Here, too, European interference shares some of the blame in the foisting on the Rwandan people of those the Europeans saw as suitable candidates for leadership, although Rwandans are still castigated for not taking charge more fully of their own society and all its components.
It is the calmness, the sense of duty with which the Interahamwe militia set about the “work” (as they repeatedly term it) of exterminating the Tutsis of Rwanda that horrifies one. The horror is compounded by the claim that it was the French who advised the Rwandan “army generals and commanders” to “begin with one side” in their killing spree – ie to do so systematically: house by house and neighbourhood by neighbourhood (28). Also horrifying is the eerie awareness of misplaced trust when Tutsis seeking shelter in churches believed that “God” or “the world”, seeing what was happening, would save them or come to their aid. As one speaker reminds us, with all eyes on the 1994 Soccer World Cup games at this time, even other Africans would react more with impatient irritation and embarrassment rather than with concern or outrage as the news of the killings in Rwanda began to emerge. In Rwanda, from the infamous Milles Collines radio station and at gatherings of the Interahamwe militia, the chilling cry "Tubatsembatsembe!" (“Kill them all!”), rather than celebrations of soccer victories, filled the air.
One of the vivid anecdotes indicating how Tutsi hatred took hold in Rwanda like a malignant virus is the account of a young couple, Valence and Lucienne, deeply in love and engaged to be married in April 1994. When the killings began, Valence initially protected Lucienne. Then “one day he rushed at her with a machete, shouting, ‘No love today!’” (69). We learn that, some years later and still haunted by that moment, Lucienne killed herself.
A more extreme example of the collapse and betrayal of Hutu-Tutsi solidarity is that of Dr Joseph Karekezi, father of the text’s main focaliser, Cornelius. Dr Karekezi, a Hutu, was famous throughout Rwanda for campaigning against Tutsi hatred and was married to a Tutsi woman (Cornelius’s mother). Yet by the time 1994 came around, he had been secretly donating money to the “cause” of Hutu supremacy and, exploiting his position of trust with Tutsis (refugees from the mass murders), he set up a “shelter” for them at Murambi Technical College, where “between fifty and sixty thousand” people were hacked to death when Dr Karekezi himself called in the killers, as he had planned. He had in addition deliberately taken his own wife and two younger children to the same camp, arguing in his mind that “It’s just history that wants blood. And why would I only spill other people’s? Theirs is just as rotten” (107).
This terrible truth – that his father was not killed for protecting his Tutsi mother and their children, but was the orchestrator of one of the worst massacres of the 1994 genocide – is communicated to Cornelius only some time after his return. He goes to see the bones at Murambi, which include (as he knows) those of his mother and two young siblings:      
In this place, amid sorrow and shame, his own life and the tragic history of his country met. Nothing spoke to him of himself as much as these remains scattered on the naked ground. Siméon’s words came back to him. He had told him, a few days earlier: “Cornelius, don’t regret leaving, because you deserved to live more than anyone.” He had asked him why and Siméon had answered: “Because your mother, Nathalie, brought you into this world running, to escape from the people who wanted to kill her.” And that was where his destiny had come full circle: a young woman in labor hiding from bush to bush in Bugesera, and now him, Cornelius Uvimana, standing in the middle of these remains in Murambi. Presently, he could add: “After all, she ended up being killed. By my father. And her body is here. Lost among thousands of others.” Nathalie Kayumba. Julienne. François. Pathetic little bits of bone. (146)
Cornelius’s Uncle Siméon, now a solitary elderly man (having lost his own wife and children in the killings) exudes one of the few strong, steady lights in this very dark narrative. Remembered always by Cornelius for having given him a spiritual sense of the beauty and value of Rwanda, it was Siméon, too, who led a teenage Cornelius and his friends to safety in Burundi when an earlier wave of anti-Tutsi violence began (in 1973). Cornelius would only return in 1998, needing the wise support of his uncle and his two oldest friends, Jessica and Stanley, to face the news that far from having died a martyr, his own father was the (now exiled, but alive) “Butcher of Murambi” (115).
Jessica is another strong and linking figure in this text. She took the huge risk of masquerading as a Hutu to provide intelligence to the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF, whose army eventually liberated Rwanda from the killers’ clutches. But she lives with many harrowing memories, among others of one of her friends whom she greeted for the last time when this young woman sought shelter in a church that Jessica knew would not provide protection against the killers. The woman’s corpse is preserved in its death agony, after multiple rapes, with a stake still driven into her vagina, in this very church – now a shrine and a warning. Jessica is also unable to forget the stunningly beautiful Tutsi woman who came to her, knowing that she was too beautiful to escape mass rape and murder. In the aftermath of the genocide, this heroic young woman lives in dirt-poor surroundings, a volunteer worker in several organisations assisting genocide orphans and rape survivors. “If some day they have the means to give me a little salary, so much the better. In the meantime, there are all these wounds to bandage” (63) is a statement that sums up Jessica’s resolute, pure spirit.
Diop’s muted but indelible account of an “unspeakable” horror is fully equal to the task he set himself (as expressed in the words of his novel’s writer-figure, Cornelius): “to call a monster by its name” (179). This text is unflinching in looking at – and making us see – the horrors of Rwanda ’94. Without a shred of sentimentalisation, Murambi, the Book of Bones also pays tribute to those who were true to their own and others’ humanity. “We fought,” says Jessica, “to make Rwanda normal. That’s all. It was a good fight” (63).
The novel is as balanced and nuanced as an evocation of a genocide could be. While deploring the role of the French military presence at the time – symbolically illustrated in the fact that they set up their camp in Murambi right on top of the mass graves of the Tutsis who had sheltered there, first requiring the Interahamwe militia to "tidy up" by burying the corpses – Diop also portrays the French commander as open-eyed and sarcastically critical of his own nation’s role. He agrees with a friend (Jean-Marc) who insists: “It’s not our fault”, replying, “No, … it’s the fault of the Rwandans themselves.” The commander continues the conversation, however, balancing his initial agreement with a qualification:
“They [the Rwandans] need to cope with this enormous bloodstain in their history. To say otherwise would be to think of them as irresponsible children. But, Jean-Marc, we [the French] did nothing to prevent the massacres. We were the only ones in the world who could have done it.” I slid my finger along my left arm and said, “My dear Jean-Marc, we’re in blood up to here in all of this.” That was the very evidence, he knew it. Shaking his head he said, “And here we are, required to help the killers escape justice in their own country.” (124)
Jessica fears that because the organisers of the genocide flee when their defeat by the RPF becomes obvious, “their flight will shelter them from a trial that would heal our people of their trauma”, for “What is forgiveness worth without justice?” (111).
Balancing her concern are the words of old Siméon, warning against the vengeance spiral. Taking revenge against “the Hutu” may seem tempting, he says,
But afterwards, you won’t be able to stop for many years. I want to tell you this: you have suffered, but that doesn’t make you any better than those who made you suffer. They are people like you and me. Evil is within each one of us. I, Siméon Habineza, repeat, that you are not better than them. Now, go back home and think about it: there comes a time when you have to stop shedding blood in a country. Each one of you must have the strength to believe that that moment is here. If someone among you is not strong enough, then he’s no better than an animal. My brother’s house will not be destroyed. It will be a home for all the orphans who hang about on the streets of Murambi. And I’m going to say one last thing to you: let not one of you try, when the moment comes, to find out if those orphans are Twa, Hutu, or Tutsi. (164)
In the context of the multiple perspectives offered by so challenging a text, this seems a balanced, chastened conclusion.