A powerful and profoundly moving novel of the civil war in Rwanda, told by men, women, and children on both sides
Speak Rwanda by Julian R. Pierce marks the arrival of one of the most mesmerizing novels of the year. In vivid, sometimes horrifying, balanced, complex, and utterly believable chapters, it traces the linked lives of several characters--Hutu and Tutsi, soldiers and civilians, mothers, politicians, nurses, herdsmen, and orphaned children--as they try to survive one of the most violent and deeply disturbing acts of genocide since the Second World War. Through the course of the novel, some live and some die: by the end, the reader is fully involved in the lives of these people, and begins to see a faint glimmer of hope and the promise of peace.
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About the Author
Jullian Pierce, an American, has worked and traveled in Africa. He maintains close ties with friends and loved ones in Rwanda.
Jullian Pierce, an American, has worked and traveled in Africa. He maintains close ties with friends and loved ones in Rwanda. He is the author of the novel Speak Rwanda.
Read an Excerpt
By Julian R. Pierce
PicadorCopyright © 1999 Julian R. Pierce
All rights reserved.
I envy Hutu women one thing. They can eat meat. I must admit some of us Tutsi women do too, but it isn't right and my husband, also of a good clan, would be ashamed of me if I did. Even so, now, as I knead the sorghum dough, I can smell from the opposite hill the wind-driven smoky odor of meat cooking. Tonight the Hutu women over there will sink their teeth into strong-tasting red meat, while I sit here over sorghum porridge and beans. If I told those Hutu women that I, a Tutsi of good blood, envied them anything, what would they think? That I had gone mad? What would that nice Hutu girl think, the one who once bandaged my son's cut and smiles at me each time we meet on a path? She's pretty, if short and rounded in a Hutu way. What would she think of a Tutsi woman who admitted envy of a Hutu?
But of course I would never admit such a thing. My husband is a cattle owner in Butare préfecture with standards to uphold, and I have seven children whose mother's reputation is important to them. My eldest son studies in France, the next at the national university in Butare, my girl of eighteen will marry within the year, then comes twelve-year-old Innocent, whom I nearly lost to fever in his infancy and so, secretly, is my favorite, and then the girl of seven, the boy of five. Two years ago, when I considered myself beyond childbearing, I was blessed with a baby boy who has been baptized by our Catholic priest and awarded a legal birth certificate by the government. For such children I must look and act the part of a Tutsi mother and wife, even if circumstances have changed terribly since I was a girl.
I still love our rugo, our compound of five buildings on this most beautiful of hills overlooking the valleys of the most beautiful of lands, for everyone knows that Rwanda is God's country. It is said that if Imana walks elsewhere during the day, at night, always he returns here. But sometimes I wonder if he has forgotten the Tutsi, his chosen people, his favorite of favorites. In my grandmother's day a Tutsi woman like myself would never find anything to envy in a Hutu. The idea would not have occurred to her. She would have been too proud of her position to think of eating meat. I am ashamed of myself.
And I am sorry for my husband, who has never reconciled himself to the loss of Tutsi power. After bringing in the cattle for the day, he drinks with his friends and often stumbles home drunk. I wish he could see things for what they are. After all, Imana and Jesus have preordained everything that happens. We must do our best and accept what fate gives us. That's what I try to explain to my good husband. I tell him almost every day that he's still a patron to Hutu clients, that he rents them his cattle so they can have milk and fertilizer for their fields, that the cattle will never be theirs. My husband is aware of being less than his father, who ruled his pastureland like a king. Each month my husband's father had his clients come bow to him when they paid for the use of his cattle.
Now our former Tutsi king can't even visit his ancestral land. They say he lives the life of an outcast, corrupted by whites in a white country, and frolics in the warm sea with naked women. Does my husband envy him? My husband used to compare my beauty to the glory of his favorite cattle, almost as if he were a court poet, an umusizi, in the service of a Tutsi king. My husband used to say his friends envied him for the way I gave him good children. And it's true, I paid back in fertility his bride-price of cattle. He'd never have to consider the old saying that the worst thing known to man is to lack children to mourn him. Imana has taken care of our family and Jesus has too with the help of the White Fathers in their mission house.
I was almost finished with the dough and getting the smell of cooked meat out of my nose when Innocent came in to ask for something. I shook my head and said nothing, because it's bad luck to speak while preparing sorghum dough. It's all right to speak while preparing maize but not sorghum dough. His eyes were bright while he panted and poked the air with his toy spear. He must have come from playing with the Hutu boy on the next hill. In the old days when we Tutsi were the warriors and they our servants, the Hutu would never touch a spear without permission. Now their children are teaching ours to be fierce. I gave Innocent a warning look that had him backing out of the house with downcast eyes. Later on, when the dough is finished, I will speak to him again about remembering the past. I don't want him to forget the splendor of our people when Imana brought them southward four hundred years ago and gave them these beautiful hills to rule as they pleased. But perhaps I'm asking too much of a twelve-year-old. Some people say the glory of our Tutsi past should be forgotten. They say it only makes things worse to remember. After all, thirty years ago many of our people left this country in fear, and for all these years the Hutu have been in charge. Or thought they were in charge. It is all so difficult to understand. When I see boys playing with toy spears and jabbing at one another with glee, I worry that someday their play will change to real violence. We have seen too much of it in our beautiful hills. A man dead by the side of the road, his throat cut with a panga as if he were a goat. Two brothers hacked down in their pastureland. Whole families murdered. A massacre of ten here, of fifty in a nearby sous-préfecture. Year after year the numbers grow. Confusion, accusations, and more hatred.
I don't understand politics, but when my husband and his friends come here to drink, I overhear them talk about such things. They discuss the civil war that has been going on for almost four years now. Tutsi refugees from Uganda crossed the border and started it all, although they haven't got very far. From what I know they stay mostly in the north and hide in the mists of gorilla forests. All they do is come out for raids that annoy the government. Even so, my husband and his friends are proud of this little war, perhaps because it gives them hope for a Tutsi victory some day. Fortunately, my two eldest boys think more of education than they do of war, and Innocent has the cleverness of someone twice his age. But what of the five-year-old? Already he begs to go with Innocent when the boys play war. And the little fellow of two? These questions make me secretly hope that the Tutsi soldiers from Uganda will go back to that place and give up causing trouble here. Our country is so beautiful. These terraced musozi are planted in good crops by Hutu farmers, and Tutsi cattlemen like my husband make daily trips into pastureland with their longhorns. We all eat well, Tutsi and Hutu, and the smoke of our cooking fires mingles in the wonderful air breathed out of the divine mouth of Imana.
But these are thoughts I keep to myself when my husband comes home. They say a hen mustn't crow when the rooster appears.
It was late when it happened and all the children had eaten and gone to sleep, but my husband still hadn't come home. He was drinking in a beer shop somewhere with his friends. So I sat under the electric lightbulb and did some sewing on a new raffia basket. I like to do close, even work. I make complicated designs with dyes just to challenge myself. No change is possible after beginning with colored designs. I'm proud of my coiled work.
There was a program of Ethiopian music on the radio that I was half listening to when a voice interrupted with an announcement. President Juvenal Habyarimana has died in a plane crash tonight under mysterious circumstances. I put down my awl. Some kind of missile had shot the plane down and all aboard were killed, including a French crew of three and the leader of Burundi.
President Habyarimana dead. Who killed him? Tutsi? Hutu? Tutsi? Perhaps we Tutsi would be blamed for the death of a Hutu president.
I looked at a Kenyan calendar pinned on the wall. Sixth of April, 1994. If this date was special in the mind of Imana, our lives would be changed by it. Six has often been a special number for me. I was married on the sixth day of the sixth month. Someone once told me that six was Imana's favorite number. But favorite could mean important, not good. So the sixth of April could mean the day when important bad things began for us all. I wanted my husband to come home, but surely the moon was going to be much higher before he staggered back into the rugo, full of banana beer and brave talk.
I was sleeping with a girl in the back room of the commune's office when someone knocked on the door and called out that President Habyarimana had died in a plane crash. Getting up, I pretended in front of the girl to be surprised. In fact, I had expected for weeks that something like this would happen and should happen.
"Get out of here," I told the girl and watched her sweet ass vanish through the back door while I was getting dressed.
"We'll all have to work hard now. Not just me," I told Denis, who was waiting in the office. "So tell me about the death of our dear president."
A frightened little man, Denis explained with much stuttering what the radio had said. At 8:30 tonight a Falcon jet carrying our president and the president of Burundi and their entourages was hit by a missile and crashed near the palace.
"We must have justice," I said with a shrug. "We must have revenge."
Within minutes the office was crowded with people wanting to know from their bourgmestre the names of those who had killed our beloved president. As their representative, I told them that members of the Tutsi revolutionary party, the RPF, had planned his death and sabotaged the plane.
My people are good people, but in fact they don't understand politics. The RPF would never have killed such a weak adversary who lately had helped their cause by showing a new willingness to negotiate with them. The old fool paid with his life for failing to boycott talks that would give Tutsi politicians a new foothold in government.
My Hutu party, the Coalition pour la Défense de la République, had quite reasonably arranged for his death. Now it was time to get rid of our real enemy, the Tutsi. As I explain to my constituents day in and day out, just because I'm short and have a flat nose I'm no less a man than one of those tall, skinny, long-nosed Tutsi. If that doesn't make them think, I remind them once again that eighty-five percent of the population are Hutu. We are the majority people. In a democracy the majority rules. That's what I say.
"It's time to clear away the bush," I tell visitors with a laugh. Seeing me laugh in anticipation of doing such a thing relieves my people of fear and uncertainty. They laugh too.
I don't go home but stay for the night in the office, so I'll be up early and at work. I send Denis out to get us a pot of beer for a private little celebration, even though I still have two worries. First, our préfect in Butare is a Tutsi, I am ashamed to say — the only Tutsi with such high office in the country. Surely he won't order retaliatory action against his own kind. For us to go forward, he must be removed. Second, I wonder if everything will be accomplished by the time cassava is harvested in May and the second bean crop is planted and the maize and sorghum are harvested in June and July. A good bourgmestre wants things done in an orderly fashion, so I'm sensitive to the schedule of harvesting.
Someday I'll end my political career and let one of my friends become bourgmestre. What I'd like to do then is grow coffee again. At one time I had been a somewhat successful grower, but when world prices fell I could hardly give beans away. It's why I turned my attention to politics.
I miss the growing of coffee. I like the look of waxy green leaves a hand-length long, and the white jasminelike flowers that enjoy only a few days of beauty. In the old times I used to stand among the trees after they were topped under fifteen-feet high for the purpose of harvesting. Each day I'd watch how the clusters of green beans became golden brown and how they ripened to a bright-red color. I remember taking off the outer pulpy skin and finding beneath it the yellowish stuff around the two little beans that looked like the halves of a peanut. Like twins in the womb, though twins are a bad omen. We grow arabica around here, classed as a "mild" coffee on the world market. I'd like to have three hundred trees, twice those of the average grower, which is what I used to be. And why not three hundred? You need five pounds of coffee cherries to produce one pound of coffee beans. One tree will give you only two pounds a season, which is why I want at least three hundred, maybe four. But I don't know. If the world price fell again, I'd fail again. Tea is a possibility, although it requires much too much land. Perhaps I'd do better with bananas and beans, I don't know. But coffee is just right for this high altitude and moist soil. I'd like to study the use of new fertilizers because they say our yields here are low. I'd prune the trees correctly and spray and manure twice a year and mulch too and use Western chemicals.
When I get on this idea of a large coffee plantation, it's hard to get off it. Right now, to make extra money, I have to sell hoes and pangas — my hoes are special enough to sell for brides-wealth gifts — but I'd like to have land again. I wouldn't raise cattle, though. There's no competing with Tutsi when it comes to keeping cattle. And yet — what if there were no Tutsi? Perhaps raising cattle would be a good idea then.
This thought relaxes me so much that I put my head down on the desk and take a nap, which Denis interrupts by returning with the beer and some news. An hour after the plane crash seventeen priests and seminarians were killed in a room of the Christus Center in Kigali. No one knows who did it.
I say to Denis, "It shows our people they can't trust the Catholic Church to protect them. They need to trust us." But Denis points out that the Catholic Church has always supported our cause against the Tutsi.
I shrug that off. "Those priests had better support us if they want to live."
Denis grimaces at the idea of killing priests. He's such a frightened little man, but he does run errands for me and his uncle in the gendarmerie is someone I can count on.
Once a local family had complained to the gendarmerie that I had accepted a gift of cows for taking their neighbor's side in a dispute. This uncle of Denis told them, "Why shouldn't he accept a gift?" He pointed out that some judges refused to handle a case without first receiving a gift. I thought it was a reasonable defense of my position. Apparently it was, because the complaint stopped there. I like Denis and his uncle.
Even so, I don't trust Denis or anybody. So as usual I have him taste the beer before I do. My father taught me to do that. No one will ever poison Silas Bagambiki. After we drink awhile, I feel sleepy and go to the bed in the back room, the bed still warm and moist from my body and the girl's. I let Dennis sleep on the the office floor.
Waking at dawn to the hammering of rain on the tin roof, I send Denis out for a bowl of sorghum porridge. It stops raining just before his return, so I order him to go around and help collect the civilian militia. I tell him to tell the local captain I want the Interahamwe mustered on the training field by ten o'clock.
Meanwhile, I telephone the préfect's office in Butare to see if orders will be going out today to the bourgmestres. I get connected to Butare with surprising ease. As I expect, there are no orders for action, none at all, as if nothing of importance occurred last night. I don't bother to point out that the morning radio is filled with reports of raids against the Tutsi taking place throughout the entire country. After all, I'm speaking to a clerk who tells me the Tutsi préfect and his staff are in a meeting. In a meeting!
Hanging up, I call CDR headquarters in Kigali and report that I can't hold my boys back much longer. They're thirsting for revenge, I claim, and rightly so in defense of their threatened country. It isn't right that my own préfecture still has a Tutsi cockroach in charge. He's protecting his own people by refusing to take action, I complain. An aide to the secretary-general of the CDR promises to help me. The man is respectful and a good listener, but unsure of himself. What would people in the capital do without people like me in the provinces?
Pleased by asking myself that question, I go outside and stretch in air fragrant from the recent rain and the scent of spring flowers. The terraced musozi, surrounding my cement office, glisten in their ordered greenery. What a beautiful country. I know of nearby Tutsi pastureland that would make an excellent coffee plantation. Its Tutsi owner is on file in my supply-room cabinets where I keep thousands of indexed identity cards of everyone in the commune. A photograph is attached to the name, address, occupation, and ethnic affiliation.
Excerpted from Speak Rwanda by Julian R. Pierce. Copyright © 1999 Julian R. Pierce. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Captain Stephen Mazimpaka,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After spending a month in Rwanda doing mission work in June 2006, I came home looking to read all I could on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I had already read several books, but this by far was one of the best. It is a fictional story based on true events. The chapters are titled with different people's names. Each chapter gives an account of what the individual is going through. The people profiled in each chapter are killers, soldiers, refugees, children, etc. The book goes into great deal about the condition of refugee camps during the genocide. There are many gruesome details, many of which turned my stomach. This book really made me realize what Rwandans (both Hutu and Tutsi) were forced to endure. The Rwandese are beautiful people. The country is still healing from the genocide and will continue its healing process for many years to come.