Running the Rift

Running the Rift

by Naomi Benaron


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Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.

Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Naomi Benaron has written a stunning and gorgeous novel that—through the eyes of one unforgettable boy— explores a country’s unraveling, its tentative new beginning, and the love that binds its people together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616201944
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/16/2012
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 413,423
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Naomi Benaron holds an MFA from Antioch University and an MS from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is also an Ironman triathlete. She teaches for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, mentors for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, and has worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda. For more information, visit Naomi Benaron is available for select speaking engagements. contact

Read an Excerpt

Running the Rift


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2012 Naomi Benaron
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61620-042-8

Chapter One


Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of the bed. Rain hissed at the windows and roared against the corrugated roof, and Jean Patrick huddled closer to his brother Roger for warmth. He remembered then that Papa was going to a conference in Kigali. He said it was a very important meeting; educators from all across Rwanda would be there.

"I'm leaving now," Papa whispered, his voice barely louder than the rain. "Uwimana will be here soon to pick me up." If even Headmaster was going, Jean Patrick thought, the conference must be top level.

The lantern flame glinted on Papa's glasses and on a triangle of white shirt; the storm must have knocked the power out, as usual. "You boys will have to check the pen carefully after you bring the cattle in. Make sure no earth has washed away in the rain." He tucked the blanket around their shoulders. "And Roger—you'll have to check Jean Patrick's lessons. I don't want any mistakes from either of you."

Turning his head from the light, Jean Patrick puckered his face. He didn't need Roger to check his homework; even Papa had to look hard to find an error.

"I'll be back tomorrow night," Papa said.

Jean Patrick leaned on his elbows and watched his father walk into the hallway on a beam of yellow light. His footsteps echoed on the concrete. "Be safe, Dadi," he said. "May Imana bless your journey." Gashogoro, the rainy season of November and December, often turned the roads leading from Cyangugu into muddy swamps. On the path, Jean Patrick sometimes sank in mud to his ankles.

All day the rain continued. Streams swelled and tumbled toward Lake Kivu. Rivers of red clay washed down from the hills, and by the time Jean Patrick came home from school, mud had stained his pant legs the color of rust. After he finished his homework, Jean Patrick brought out his toy truck and steered it back and forth in the front room. His father had made the imodoka from coat hangers, scraps of wood and metal, and brightly colored bits of plastic.

Roger had a new watch, a gift from a muzungu missionary. He kept setting and resetting the alarm, beeping it in Jean Patrick's ear. The bell for the end of classes rang at Gihundwe, their father's school, and the students' voices bounced between the buildings, a river of sound muffled by the rain. Jean Patrick imagined the day he would leave primary school behind and be one of them, adding his uproar to the rest. Sometimes the anticipation bordered on fever, a feeling that slowed the passage of time down to the very tick of the clock.

"We better get the cattle," Roger said. "If we wait for the storm to end, we will be here, waiting, when Dadi comes home."

They put on their raincoats and rubber boots and took their switches from the side of the house. "Let's race," Jean Patrick said, taking off before Roger had a chance to respond.

The competition between Jean Patrick and Roger began this year, when Roger started playing football on the weekends with a small club called Inzuki—the Bees. He ran whenever he could to keep in top shape, and often he took Jean Patrick with him. He had taught Jean Patrick how to run backward, how to pump his arms and have a good strong kick behind him.

Since they lived at the school, Papa kept the cattle with a cousin of Mama's who lived near. Jean Patrick ran, keeping to the side of the road where the mud was not so churned. Each day, he'd tried to make it a little farther before Roger caught him, but today was impossible. No matter what line he chose, the road swallowed his boots. Roger passed him before the red bricks of Gihundwe's walls were lost to the mist.

From a distance, Jean Patrick spotted the wide arc of horns on the inyambo steer, their father's favorite. In the blur of rain, the horns dipped and turned above the small herd like the arms of an Intore dancer. The steer looked up, blinking his liquid black eyes, as they approached. Jean Patrick placed a hand on the steer's back and felt the wet quiver of his hide. Led by the inyambo steer, the herd shuffled into motion toward the rickety collection of poles that marked the pen.

Roger made it to the gate at Gihundwe a good ten steps in front of Jean Patrick. He stopped and took off his watch. "Look—it took us twenty-seven minutes and thirty-five seconds there and back. I timed it."

Jean Patrick gasped for air. Mud clung to his clothes, his boots, his hands. "You lie. No watch can time us. Let me have it." He took the watch, and there was the time in bold numbers, just as Roger had claimed.

The smells of stewing meat, peppery and rich, came from the charcoal stove in the cookhouse. Jean Patrick and Roger stripped off their boots and raincoats and went inside. In the kitchen, a snappy soukous tune by Pepe Kalle played on the radio. Jean Patrick's little sister did some kwassa kwassa steps with Zachary in her arms. His legs dangled to her knees.

"Eh-eh, Jacqueline. You dance sweet," Jean Patrick teased.

Jacqueline spun around. "Aye! What happened to you? Did you drown?" She pointed to the dirty water that pooled by Jean Patrick and Roger's feet.

Roger took Zachary from Jacqueline, and the three of them danced. Jean Patrick swung his hips the way he had seen on the videos. He was still swinging them when he heard the knock at the door, quiet at first and then louder, and still when he opened the door to two policemen. Mama ran into the room, Baby Clemence bundled at her back.

"We're so sorry to bring you this news," they said.

Mama Brought them tea, her back straight and tall. Clemence began to whimper, and Mama picked her up to comfort her. Zachary played with the truck on the floor as if the only difference between this afternoon and any other was that men had come to visit.

There were six of them traveling together, the policemen said, all headmasters and préfets. The urubaho was out of control—they always were—going too fast down the mountain with a load far too heavy for such a flimsy truck. It swerved around the corner on the wrong side and crashed head-on into the car. Two people dead from Gihundwe—Jean Patrick's father and the préfet de discipline. Two others dead and two badly injured. It was a miracle anyone survived, and the urubaho driver with barely a scratch, obviously drunk. He hit a boy on a bicycle, too; the sack of potatoes he carried on the handlebars scattered across the road. The bicycle was found, but not the boy, the cliffs too steep and dangerous to search in the rain.

The policemen clucked their tongues. It was always the best of the country—Rwanda's future—that died like this. The body was in the hospital at Gitarama. With their permission, the headmaster from Gihundwe would bring him home.

Mama stopped her gentle rocking. "Uwimana wasn't in the car?"

It was one of those strange occurrences, the policemen said, that revealed Ikiganza cy'Imana, the Hand of God. At the last possible minute, there had been an emergency at school, and Headmaster had stayed behind. "Uwimana asked us to fetch his wife from the Centre de Santé as soon as she finishes with her patients."

"Angelique," Mama said. The name came out as a long, trembled sigh. "Yes—I will be glad to see her."

The policemen rose. "We knew your husband—a good, good man. Thank you for the tea."

After they left, Mama stared so hard out the window that Jean Patrick looked to see if someone stood there in the storm. He half believed that if he closed his eyes hard enough, he could blink the afternoon away, look up, and find Dadi there, returned from his trip, pockets full of cookies as they always were.

Mama knelt by him. "Don't worry. Uncle Emmanuel will be a father to you now."

"I hate Uncle Emmanuel," Jean Patrick said. "He's stupid, and he always stinks of fish."

The sting of Mama's slap made his eyes water. "Be respectful of my brother. He's your elder."

Jean Patrick couldn't hold it back any longer. He wailed.

Mama drew him close. "We have to be strong," she said. "Think of your namesake, Nkuba. You must be as brave as the God of Thunder."

The door opened, and Angelique came in, still in her white doctor's coat. Mama collapsed into her arms.

By midnight, the rain had stopped, the moon a blurred eye behind the clouds. Neighbors and family had been arriving since early evening with food and drink. Students and teachers from Gihundwe crowded into the tiny house. The night watchman drank tea inside the door.

The table was set up in the front room, covered with the tablecloth reserved for holidays. There were plates of ugali and stews with bits of meat and fish to dip it in, bowls of isombe, green bananas and red beans, fried plantains, boiled sweet potatoes and cassava. There were peas and haricots verts sautéed with tomatoes, bottles of Primus beer and Uncle Emmanuel's home-brewed urwagwa. Angelique had not stopped cooking, bringing Mama tea, wiping everyone's eyes. The power was off. Candles flickered; lanterns tossed shadows at the walls. Jean Patrick and Roger sat on the floor with Jacqueline, feeding Clemence bits of stew wrapped in sticky balls of ugali.

A wedge of light beckoned Jean Patrick from Papa's study, and he went inside. The lantern on the desk turned the oiled wood into a pliable skin. Papa's books surrounded him and comforted him. Books on physics, mathematics, the philosophies of teaching. Papa must have been writing in his journal; his pen lay across the leather-bound book. The cap rested beside a half-full cup of tea as if at any moment he would enter the room, pull out his chair, and pick up the pen once more. Jean Patrick put the cup to his lips and drank. The sudden sweetness made him shiver. Flecks of tea leaf remained on his lip, and he licked them, tasting the last thing his father had tasted. The house groaned and settled in the night.

Mama joined him. She held a tray of urwagwa, and the banana beer's sweet, yeasty tang tickled his nostrils. "Are you tired? You can go to bed if you want."

He shook his head. He thought of his father sitting in his chair on Friday evenings, drinking urwagwa and eating peanuts. He could almost reach out and touch the glitter of salt on Papa's lips.

"He must have been writing his talk for the meeting," Mama said, stroking the journal's skin.

Jean Patrick read. Everything in the universe has a mathematical expression: the balance of a chemical reaction, the Fibonacci sequence of a leaf, an encounter between two human beings. It is important—the sentence ended there. Jean Patrick envisioned a noise in the bush, his father putting down the pen and peering through the window. It seemed at that moment as if not only his father's words but the whole world had stopped just like that: midsentence.

The men were still drinking, some sharing bottles of urwagwa through a common straw, the women still replenishing empty bowls, when Uwimana came with the coffin. A procession of Papa's family from Ruhengeri followed. Dawn, ash colored, came through the door behind them.

"Chère Jurida," Uwimana said. He held Mama's hand. "Whatever you need, you can ask me. You know François was my closest friend."

A line of people formed to say good-bye. Mama sat by the coffin, her family and Papa's family beside her. The women keened.

"Are you going up?" Roger pressed close to Jean Patrick.

"Are you?" Neither of them moved. "We can go together," Jean Patrick said.

Papa was dressed in an unfamiliar suit. Dark bruises discolored his face, and the angles his body made seemed wrong. Jean Patrick could not reach out to touch him.

"That's not your dadi anymore. Your dadi's in heaven," a small voice said. Jean Patrick looked down to see Mathilde, Uncle's daughter, beside him. She wedged her hand in his. "When my sister died, Mama told me that. I was scared before she said it. I came for Christmas—do you remember? You read me a book."

Of course Jean Patrick remembered. Since she was small, Mathilde had had a hunger for books and loved to listen to stories. When Uncle's family came to visit, she would rush to Papa's study, dragging Jean Patrick by the hand. She would point to a tall book of folk stories on the bookshelf. "Nkuba, read me the one about your son, Mirabyo, when he finds Miseke, the Dawn Girl." It was always this same one.

Even before Jean Patrick could read the complicated text, he knew the story well enough to recite it. "Some day, like Miseke," he would say, "you will laugh, and pearls will spill from your mouth. Then your umukunzi, your sweetheart, will know he has found his one love." Each time he said this, Mathilde released a peal of laughter. "You see?" Jean Patrick would say, pointing to her lips. "Pearls! Just like your Rwandan name, Kamabera." And Mathilde would laugh again.

"You have to tell your papa you love him," she whispered now, "so he'll be happy in heaven." She stood on tiptoes and peered inside the coffin.

Jean Patrick looked at Roger, and together they approached the coffin. They knelt down to recite Papa's favorite words from Ecclesiastes.

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom—"

Jean Patrick stopped. If he spoke the word grave, tears would stain his Sunday shirt.

Uwimana canceled classes on the day of the funeral, and all the teachers and students from Gihundwe escorted the coffin to the church. Cars packed with people wound through the streets, followed by crowds on foot. Children ran on the paths in a cold, drizzling rain. Mud splattered their legs and shorts.

A brown kite swooped from a branch; its sharp cry hung in the mist. Jean Patrick wondered if Papa's soul had wings, too, like the paintings of angels in church. Mist rose from Lake Kivu. Fishermen emerged and disappeared in a gray space that belonged to neither water nor sky. Long-horned cattle grazed in the green hills. As the procession passed, farmers watched from their fields. Some signed the cross; others stretched out a hand in farewell.

Instead of the chapel at Gihundwe, where Jean Patrick's family worshipped every Sunday, they went to Nkaka Church. The harmonies of the choir and the steady beat of drums poured through the open doors. All the pews and chairs were filled. Behind them, people stood shoulder to shoulder. Above the coffin, the Virgin Mary wept tears of blood onto her open robe. The whiteness of the Virgin's skin, her wounded heart, the reverberating drums and clapping, combined to fill Jean Patrick with terror. He shut his eyes and tumbled back in time until he arrived at the moment when he had lain warm inside his bed and wished his father a safe journey. He undid the wish and told his father instead not to go.


Excerpted from Running the Rift by NAOMI BENARON Copyright © 2012 by Naomi Benaron. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Barbara Kingsolver

“Truly fearless writing . . . culturally rich and completely engrossing.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, founder of the Bellwether Prize, author of The Poisonwood Bible

From the Publisher

“This is truly fearless writing: ambitious, beautiful, unapologetically passionate.”
—Barbara Kingsolver


A Conversation with Naomi Benaron
You write about a hugely tragic moment in history, yet you imbue your novel with so much beauty, and the people with a genuine sense of joy. Based on your time in Rwanda, to what extent is that an imagined vision or a real one?
My vision of Rwanda is absolutely based on my experience there. I initially went to the country in 2002, as a tourist, and I fell in love the moment I saw those beautiful green hills rising up below the wing of the airplane. It was early morning—just past dawn—and the light played through the clouds to give the land the illusion of a sea, the sparkles of sunlight like the white crests of waves. I was immediately touched by the people I met. At that time, the country was still reeling from the effects of the genocide. Although Kigali was rebuilding, as soon as you left the capital, there were burnt-out shells of houses, bullet holes in walls. Yet, despite all the ghosts of the war, I have never seen such open and beautiful smiles. It was the resilience of the Rwandan people that planted the seed of my novel in my heart. I have spent a lot of time in people’s homes in Rwanda—they are an extremely welcoming people—and it was really important to me to try and convey the sense of love I felt and the wonderful wry humor I began to understand.
Of course, to some extent, my vision must be imagined, because I see the culture as an outsider. I am only beginning to learn the language (an impossible task!), and without the complexities of the language, I cannot understand the culture from which it springs. I also do not want to minimize the long shadow that the genocide continues to cast over the country. Healing will be a long and difficult process; I cannot begin to imagine the depth of the scars it has left. But every time I go back, I see new signs of the journey forward, new life sprouting from the ashes of the old.
Jean Patrick wants more than anything to beblind to history and to live in a world where politics don’t matter.Your novel is set in the 1980s, but in your more recent visits to Rwanda, did you find people who still wanted to be apolitical (which seems much more an American phenomenon)?
When I talk to survivors of the Rwandan genocide, I am immediately struck by the parallels to the stories I have heard about my mother’s family in Eastern Europe during the 1930s. Although my grandfather was increasingly alarmed by political and military developments, most of his family and my grandmother’s family refused to take events seriously. When he begged them to leave, they made excuses: Hitler was a madman, they lived in peace among their Christian neighbors, they were secular—things like that. My mother and her parents escaped. The rest of her family did not. It’s a terrible choice you are left with, and who wants to become a refugee, uprooted in every sense of the word? Who could predict the scale of atrocities in Eastern Europe or Rwanda? I think it is a natural human trait to deny that such a possibility exists.
In terms of postgenocide Rwanda, I don’t think it is possible to remain apolitical. The government is laser-focused on preventing a recurrence of the events of 1994. There are intensive efforts to educate the children, and every year, at the time of the anniversary of the genocide, the entire country shuts down to memorialize the event, now for a week, but before—I believe—for the entire month of April. There is a strong feeling, and I believe rightly so, that change lies in the hands of the young. It is when Hutu and Tutsi truly see each other as “the same” instead of “the other” that true progress happens. I wish there was a similar effort in the Middle East, or even here in the United States.
The details about training to be a runner are so precise that it’s clear you know about competitive running firsthand.Did you run the thousand hills of Rwanda, just as Jean Patrick did? What is different about running there, aside from running barefoot?
Hah! I have never run in Rwanda, although I have always “meant to.” The elevation in most places where I have spent time in Rwanda is over 5,000 feet, so breathing with exertion, for someone who lives at an elevation of 2,000 feet, can be a challenge until you get used to it. I imagine it is not dissimilar to running or cycling in Colorado—except for dodging chickens and goats—which I have done and enjoyed immensely. Once, on a particularly rainy day, while I was out for a brisk walk, I saw a runner emerge from the fog. He was lithe and tall, dressed in a shiny blue tracksuit. It was as if my main character, Jean Patrick had breathed life into his body and stepped from the pages of my novel. It gave me chills. I gave the runner a V sign, and he smiled and waved. I could never have begun to keep up with him. And about barefoot—don’t we now pay big money for barefoot shoes?
The metaphor of a geological shift runs throughout the book. What parallels do you see between geology and these sorts of conflicts?
It was in no small part that these parallels gave me the geologic leitmotif of my book. Africa is indeed splitting apart beneath its not-so-tranquil crust. As a poet, how could I not be inspired by the metaphor of it? You have all this boiling, seething magma whelming toward the surface, thinning the crust, creating this breathtaking and beautiful rift valley that perhaps will one day become a sea, drowning all. And then there is Mount Nyiragongo in the DRC, just across the border from Gisenyi, Rwanda, which erupted in 1994, as if paralleling the events in Rwanda. As a writer and a scientist, it has always been the tempest and upheaval that draws me, never the tranquil drifting down of sediment.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have just finished two collections of short stories that I read in parallel: Glen Chamberlain’s Conjugations of the Verb to Be and A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories. It was an interesting juxtaposition; Chamberlain is absolutely grounded in the earth—the mountainous terrain of Buckle, Montana, to be exact—while Byatt’s stories have an uncomfortable edginess of the surreal in them. And yet, there were intriguing similarities of theme, both dipping from the same well of uncomfortable beauty we all, in the end, drink from. I have also just finished Lucille Clifton’s collection of poems, Quilting. It makes me weep that I decided at the last minute not to attend what would be her last reading here in Tucson. I am also slowly making my way through a collection of Pablo Neruda’s poetry that is literally and figuratively heavy enough to sink a small fishing boat. And then there’s Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Thor Hanson’s Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. And I am about to start Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus, which I am hugely excited about. And then . . . and then . . .

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Running the Rift 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written and a wonderful journey to follow. Worth getting through the first half of the book to enjoy the second half :)
archetype67 More than 1 year ago
Naomi Benaron's <i>Running the Rift</i> is an excellent, but at times, difficult read: difficult in content not in execution. It is the story of Jean Patrick, a Rwandan Tutsi who is a runner and of his family and friends.  We first meet Jean Patrick when he is a boy when he learns of his father's death.  His father had always tried to believe that the peace between Hutu and Tutsi would last, but that belief is not shared by his wife, his brother in law, or Jean Patrick's older brother Roger.  We follow the progress of Jean Patrick's life - from his waiting by the radio after taking national tests to see if he is top in his class so he can go to secondary school on scholarship (government quota's limited how many Tutsi's could continue schooling) to his days as a runner training at university for the olympics.  Throughout the novel the reader sees Jean Patrick's stubborn determination - to be the best runner, and to ignore the politics and the building tension around him.  We see how he is popular and how people make concessions because although he is Tutsi, he is a world-class runner.  We also see the embedded hate simply because he is not the favored class of Rwandan - he tolerates being threatened, beaten, insulted and worse because he, and others like him, cannot fight back. Through Jean Patrick and his experiences we learn of the cultural and history of Rwanda and we see the ever present bias that pits one group of people against another &mdash; people who have been taught that despite their common language and culture &mdash; that they are different, and one is superior and the other is a threat.  Jean Patrick sees his running as something that can represent all of Rwanda and he is encouraged by family and his coach to use that to his advantage, and to do whatever is necessary, even if it means denying his heritage.  It is his girlfriend Bea, however, that pushes him to see more that is going on around him.  She is Hutu, but her father is a journalist and willing to defy those in power to let the world know of what is happening in Rwanda. What Jean Patrick tries to ignore, the audience sees and  the story pushes us to what we know will be the genocide.  A history we, especially American's, have often only have a vague sense of.  The novel's impact is that it is small story - one boy from one family in one province of Rwanda - yet manages to show how the true horror of the Rwandan genocide was not that it was perpetrated by a government that sent troops to round up and kill or by an invading force, but by a minority of hardliners who convinced neighbors to turn on neighbors.  Over the course of a few weeks, an estimated million Tutsi and Hutu's who aided them or were seen as sympathizers were murdered by fellow Rwandan's who used machete's, clubs and knives far more than guns and grenades or camps.   Benaron doesn't dwell on the violence, but paints enough detail to leave the reader with a sense of horror at what happened, and what the West didn't do.  While 'fictional' violence doesn't tend to impact me on a personal level, knowing that what Benaron shows the audience is only a sliver of the real violence of those months, it is enough to leave me with bad dreams. At the end however, the audience is left knowing that while so few survived and lost everything, they yet somehow retain hope, even if that hope is slow in rising.   The title of Benaron's novel refers to the geological feature of the area (the tectonic rift formed by the violent upheaval of the earth's crust), but also calls to mind the attempt of Jean Patrick to live and navigate between worlds that have a history of violent collision.  Science - physics and geological feature in the story and act as metaphors, as does the sport of running.  In the notes, the author says that she was a serious runner, and it shows in the descriptions of runners, and racing.   I'll note here that, as a book written about such a complex situation by someone from outside of the culture, there has been some accusations of cultural appropriation.  I think those are unfounded in this case (and perhaps leveled by individuals who haven't read it) because Benaron has done her homework - both learning the history of a nation and developing an understanding of a cultural that has seen tremendous upheaval and loss.  He characters are never stereotypes and are complex individuals.  I listened to parts of this on audiobook and it moves lyrically - she has spent extended time in Rwanda living with Rwandans and her love of them and the country shows in her writing.  The audiobook gave me a sense of the language - its metaphors and rhythms, while her details gave me an sense of a culture I didn't know, and made me cheer for characters I knew in my heart were doomed.   This book is likely to stick with me for a long time - both negatively and positively.  Benaron didn't write an unbelievable against the odds ending, and I am thankful for that, having read many articles and accounts of the Genocide, but it also wasn't a bleak ending.  A powerful story that should be read by those who like their fiction with a social consciousness.  
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