Harvest of Skulls

Abdourahman A. Waberi

Illustration by Dianna Xu

No Kigali is not sad

July 1998
. Kigali. As a native of Djibouti and the arid lowlands of the Horn of Africa overlooked by the Ethiopian highlands, paradise for me has always been enveloped in the kind of luxuriant greenery found on Mount Kigali, which ended up, moreover, being the last bastion during the battle of that name; the aim had been to capture the large town named as the new capital by the grace of rural exodus. Only recently, in the mid-seventies, at the height of the social revolution, did it acquire, thanks to foreign aid, the minimum of decorum expected of political capitals. However, the southern university city of Butare (formerly named Astrid in honor of a Belgian queen), rather sleepy these days, has always harbored an unhealthy jealousy toward Kigali.

In this area where the soil can be earthy, cindery, or rich in silt, at times dusty or with lateritic ores as in Nyamirambo, the eucalyptus trees, reputed for depleting the groundwater, are parrot green. Lazy afternoons under amber skies. There has been no rainfall for months and folks are finding reasons for concern: Might the God of the Christians be definitively angry because of all that happened? But climate has nothing to do with the hot, dry khamsin winds of the Red Sea. I do my best to comfort my interlocutors by arguing that at least when it comes to the weather, hell is a long way from Rwanda. The grove of trees, hills, the scenery in general, are more of a foretaste of what paradise is like. Nonetheless, by digging a little into the past, one discovers that no less than six famines have struck the country during the twentieth century, which is not trivial for such a heavenly place. This enchantment might very well explain the immediate love felt by the missionaries when they arrived during the nineteenth century. A somewhat zany poet once told me that you cannot survive merely from contemplating the land, as beautiful and magical as it may be. This paradox is contained in the following phrase: “A land of Cockaigne!”

On the bus racing down the seven hills of the city, with me on board, I listen to the other passengers chatting away, to the rising and falling tones and linguistic subtleties, their glances full of tenderness and their eyes bright with excitement. If the word ariko is used over and over again, then that’s because the discussion, just like the bus itself, is bumping along in jolts and jerks. It may not at first seem obvious, but this is just a little grain of sand in an otherwise well-oiled social machine. At the destination and before parting ways, after catching up after God only knows how long, chest to chest, hand in hand, warm embraces are exchanged.

Managed efficiently and with considerable tact by Spéciose, out of exile and back from Haiti, the La Mise Hotel, where we’re staying a few more nights, is located in Nyamirambo, one of the livelier densely populated, poorer neighborhoods and commercial districts that is also home to Muslim Rwandans. To get from the al-Fatah Grand Mosque to the regional stadium, you have to take a bus that stops in front of the Petro-Rwanda gas station or the small Seventh-day Adventist church.

July 12, 1998. France has just won the World Cup. This is an incredible moment for all the children of the tricolor fatherland. But here, the reaction is quite different. Rwandans aren’t feeling festive, all the more so given how the French army and political establishment repeatedly disgraced themselves prior to and after the genocide. I halfheartedly cheered for Les Bleus, not so much for the way they played but rather because of the disappointing mediocrity of their Brazilian opponent. One or two car horns can be heard outside on account of a few nostalgic memories of the Franco-Rwandan friendship in evidence between François Mitterrand and Juvénal Habyarimana at the Franco-African summit held in 1990.

The sons and daughters of this country are working tirelessly to rebuild it. In every office you step into there’s a civil servant eager to assist you, which is unfortunately a rare occurrence in most of the continent’s administrative buildings. Better even, those who acquired skills abroad during the years of the ordeal and of exile are increasingly contributing to different sectors of society. Journalists in the morning, consultants for international organizations during the afternoon, teachers in the evening, juridical counselors on the weekends, while also lending a hand in a few other ways as well. In post-genocide Rwanda, no one expects special credit for these activities. Quite the contrary, this is the new norm and the elite (as well as the masses) no longer count their time, even if they do find time when duty calls to throw back a few cold Primus or Mützig beers before getting back to work the next day. The waiters and the waitresses are a bad influence, keeping a watchful eye on your glass and topping it off as soon as the level drops. This combination of business acumen and remnants of an ingrained tradition of hospitality and welcome that has been handed down over the years can prove a little unsettling for the newcomer ignorant of local customs and habits and, as is common in such instances, often clumsy in his words and gestures. The buildings in Kigali’s city center are home to numerous private dispensaries, medical offices, hair salons, pharmacies, and newly opened businesses. There is also a flourishing private security industry, a strong indication of the emergence of an active middle class, or at least the consequence of the widespread insecurity that resulted from years of criminal governance. Still, what is missing are bookshops. The Maison de la Presse doesn’t really qualify, and so Librairie Caricas is the only establishment worthy of the name. There’s also barely any music on the streets, with the exception perhaps of the voice of Annonciata Mutamuliza. The scent of blood has vanished. The signs of the battle have disappeared, except for a few isolated buildings like the National Assembly. Life has been back to normal for quite some time now. The city is buzzing with activity, and there just isn’t enough room for all this energy and these fresh ideas. The spaces I got to visit were too confined in relation to the enthusiasm and dynamism of the occupants. Courage increased with each passing day. One refrains from awakening the still waters of memory, sheathing wounded hearts in leather. One starts to miss a few vacation days here and there, neglect Sunday rest, forget a friend’s wedding on the weekend, and stop getting the right amount of sleep. Unrestrained, we perform the task we’ve assigned ourselves.

translated from the French by Dominic Thomas

Excerpted from Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Harvest of Skulls, which will be published by Indiana University Press in February 2017.