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The literary topography of the Rwandan genocide

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Rwanda, a small country of 26,338km², is located in the central part of Africa, between the Rift Valleys of Africa and the Great Lakes. This country is endowed with a long chain of hills and with an average altitude of between 1,500 and 1,600 meters. Bound by Zaire in the west, by Tanzania in the east, by Uganda in the north and by Burundi in the South, Rwanda is a small country with little resource potentials and with no access to the sea. The said neighbours unilaterally did their respective partitions before, during and after the 1994 genocide. Because of her continental location as a massively landlocked country, Rwanda was not made to taste the bitter pill of slavery and slave trade. The nearest seaport, Dar-es-Salaam, is about 1,000km from the capital, Kigali, with long stretches of impassable roads. She, however, has a modern airport at the centre of the city. Though peculiar in nature, Rwanda, before the genocide crisis in 1994, was not on anybody’s priority list as a place of interest and did not offer enough attractions to make Western scholars carry out serious studies on her. 

The history of Rwanda dates back to a traditional monarchical past, characterised by relative stability and social cohesion. In this social and political order, under the reign of a king, the Tutsi hegemony dominated the country for four centuries. During that period, Rwanda, under Gaboso (derived from the name of the hill around which formed the primitive unity of the country), central kings dominated a much bigger territory than present day Rwanda. Indeed, pre-colonial Rwanda was a reflection of a nation covering a wide area where submission and stability were in perfect harmony.

Struck by an obscure passage – synonymous with racial madness – that culminated in the absurd intra-ethnic killings, Rwanda remains a major topic in contemporary African history.

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In contact with the opaquely tinted separatist alien civilisation, colonial Rwanda, under the leadership of fierce revolutionaries, assumed republican status and formed a gangster state whose precursors became the artisans and supporters of a macabre spectacle of deconstruction of national solidarity orchestrated by the royalty and sustained by the basic culture of myths, rites, taboos and beliefs.

Upon attainment of independence in 1962, Rwanda decided to turn a page in her history and proceeded to change the names of its various regions. Thus, the order of the perpetrators of genocide spanned from prefects to sub-prefects, mayors, municipal councillors and the police. The country went through a spate of transformations in certain sectors, meeting points, common areas where the most virulent riots and carnage took place. The additional inhuman acts orchestrated in Rwanda, began with the advent of the independence of African states, and before the Organisation of African Unity, were part of the atrocity menu prepared by some of those intellectuals who could not fight against the impulse to see the carnage become a reality. This indeed constitutes a serious drift of the human mind.

In order to expose the cruelty of the acts committed in Rwanda, authors and engaged writers have put, and continue to put, their pens together to develop a concept which, in its various representations, examines the causes and consequences of the Rwandan genocide, a true blood festival and to which humanity at large remained indifferent.

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To this end, very spirited authors, who are the subject of our study, determinedly explore the literary topography of Rwanda to a stage of pointing a finger at the perpetrators, places of massacre and crimes against humanity.

Thus, Roméo Dallaire, in his book entitled Shake Hands with the Devil (2007), describes those areas in Rwanda that were stained with blood and those places that served as centres of refuge for the populace. He deplores the cunning behaviour and denounces the complicity of some monster states.

Yolande Mukagasana, a woman devastated by the painful loss of her dear children, expresses bitterness about the terrible killings and the pungent smell of areas that were strewn with corpses. In her book Do Not Be Afraid to Know, Death Does Not Want Me, she laments and sends a passionate plea to testify to the entire world, but particularly to the devil, for his cowardice. She names and shames those people she believes to be responsible for the atrocities committed, denounces injustice and at the same time clamours for justice.

In a similar vein, Ndoky Djedanoum, the Chadian playwright, in his poem entitled “Rwanda Write Lest We Forget”, he evokes the erstwhile lively Rwandan space that was unfortunately transformed into a graveyard. Like the previous authors, he accuses, in bold and plain terms, the entire human race for being responsible for the dastardly drama that occurred in Rwanda, warning that these acts must never be seen to repeat themselves.

The same can be said about the following authors in the works placed against their names: Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998); Jean Hatzfeld, The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide (2010); Boubacar Boris Diop, Murambi, The Book of Bones (2008); Pauline Kayitare, Tu leur diras que tu es hutue. A 13ans, une tutsi au cœur du génocide rwandais; Maurice Niwese, Le peuple rwandais un pied dans la tombe  récit d’un refugié étudiant ; Edward Kabagema, Carnage of a Nation : Genocide & Massacres in Rwanda (1994); Philippe Mpayimana, Refugiés rwandais entre marteau et enclume (2004); Yolande Mukagasana, La mort ne veut pas de moi (1997); Anicet Karege,  Sous le Déluge Rwandais (2005) and Rony Brauman,  Devant le Mal, Rwanda : Un Génocide En Directe (1994).

This analysis, which focuses on literary topography, cannot be done without understanding what a multidisciplinary approach is. Maint, the geographer, states that “literature will benefit from research done in geography.” Demography has experienced such a dazzling growth making Rwanda a populous country with arable farmlands. The caricature of her land mass is due to the fragmentation of land from generation to generation through inheritance.

One could draw parallels between the history of Rwanda and the legends derived from Biblical texts. Like one of the biblical trajectories, Rwanda begins with Genesis and ends with Apocalypse. The story of Adam and Eve, who lived peacefully in the Garden of Eden, is similar to that of the Tutsi and Hutu who share the same peace and socially cohesive territory. The deceptive serpent or the devil of separation is equated with the colonial settlers and missionaries, who, through deceit, succeeded in breaking the strong ties existing among Rwandans by putting in black on white, and in a very destructive manner, manifested repugnant moral behaviours that led to the genocide. God, the absolute authority, is likened to “Imana,” the god of Rwanda; prohibition to enjoy the fruit in the middle of the garden is compared to taboos and beliefs; Zoe’s Ark is compared to refugee camps; and the flood is likened to the Rwandan genocide.

On Page 223 of her book N’aie pas peur de savoir, Yolande Mukagasana builds and confirms her case that the history of Rwanda is a legend in a new Bible. As far as she is concerned, it is the legend of the man who killed his brother, and not that of Cain and Abel, where the only thing that propelled the murderer to kill his brother was envy. It was rather that of a child killing his own brother with the weapon that served as a witness. She narrates: “In the land of a thousand hills, two children cherished play-fight in order to toughen themselves: one is called Muhutu and the other Mututsi. But one day, a stranger goes through the land of a thousand hills “Who are you stranger?” I am called Muzangu: “Why are you fighting? Look, here’s a machete. And I want the stronger to bring back to me the head of the other”. The children killed each other, and the victor offered Muzangu the head of his brother. Having realised then that he had done wrong, Muzangu apologised to the victor. But the child replied that he did not know what forgiveness meant. “Here”, he adds: “here is the body of my brother”. As a punishment, you shall carry it till your last breath and you shall narrate how you divided Rwanda “.

In summation, Mukagasana, in this passage, argues that “the Belgians taught us to hate each other.”

On a factual note, beginning well before 1994, specifically with the outbreak of the war on the 1st of October 1990 in the provinces (former prefecture of Buyumba and Umutara in the northeast; Gisenyi and Ruhengeri in the north-west), the peak period of the killings was between April and June 1994, during which period there were 99.2% of total victims across the country. In all, 1,074,017 people would have been killed according to an official report from the Rwandan Ministry of Territorial Administration at the end of a census conducted in July 2000. Of these victims, 934,218 were identified with certainty.

According to the same report, 93.7% of the victims were killed because they were identified as Tutsi; 1 % because of kinship, marriage or friendship relationships with the Tutsi; 8% because their physical traits resemble those of the Tutsi and 0.8 % were killed because their ideas ran counter to those of the Hutu regime of the time or that they had hidden and/or they were out to protect Tutsi or people pursued by the killers. Overall, most of the victims, within a certain age bracket of approximately 53.7% were children and young people of 0-24 years. This was followed by about 41.3% adults from 25 to 65 years. Gender wise, men (56.4%) are more affected than women (43.3%). These figures are based on a socio-demographic survey carried out in 1996 according to which the percentage of women rose from 51% to 54% of the Rwandan population between 1991 and 1996. The percentage of women heading households increased from 25% to 34% in 1996. On the socio-professional level, farmers are in the lead with 48.2% of the victims and the students of secondary and higher education constitute about 21.2% of those killed; followed by pre-school children and the elderly above 65 years constitute about 16.8%. In the same report, it was discovered that among the weapons used, the machete accounted for the highest number of deaths (37.9%); the club caused about 16.8%; firearms about 14.8%. The total number of victims (0.5%) are women who were either ripped apart or raped. Others were forced to commit suicide, beaten to death, burnt alive or thrown into lakes or rivers. Live infants were crushed against trees or walls, slaughtered, dismembered or pounded like millet.

This study covers twenty-eight works on the Rwandan genocide. Through this work, we will endeavour to identify all the towns and villages cited, in order to ascertain their geographical area as well as which of them were most affected by this human madness. 

As mentioned above, we have randomly selected 28 works on the Rwandan genocide to analyse her literary topography. In so doing, we have identified 632 names of places discussed in these works. From a geocritical stand point, the Rwandan space is therefore a fertile ground for expression. Thus, these names are repeated 7,862 times in this corpus. In this paper, we shall focus on about thirty names but we shall lay emphasis on the most representative in the various works whose names have been mentioned 5,101 times.


Dr Pierre Gomez is a senior lecturer and the dean, School of Arts and Sciences at the University of The Gambia.

By Dr Pierre Gomez


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