In-laws, Outlaws, and a Pratfall from Grace
I met a man once who told me about a pigeon that his cook fixed for him in Cairo. He said it looked as if the houseboy had just shot the bird with a pellet gun and it crash-landed on his plate. Its drumsticks were splayed, head twisted sideways, wings akimbo, tail in the air.
That’s pretty much how Juvenal Habyarimana met his end. Shot from the sky like a pigeon.
He dies, and wherever you look, tender shoots come suddenly and enormously abloom. For something like four years, and on his orders, men and women credentialed in the cultivation of hate had been seeding poison in neat rows, and now for an even one hundred days and uncountable nights, their business blooms, boiling at last into a crime that spreads beyond your ability to comprehend.
From too far to see much or know much, I find it floating through my imagination, a bloom of algae suddenly sickly green on hills that roll like liquid swells. Up close, it stares back, an ooze with eyes called “genocide.” Blooms of bobbing corpses foam up on the cold roaring feeders of the Nile. There’s nowhere to hide.
But that’s when he dies, and those hundred days after, and just now, that’s not what’s on my mind. What’s on my mind just now is those last few days before he dies. I don’t know why.
Juvenal Habyarimana and I were countrymen. We were Banyarwanda, people of the mountain nation called Rwanda. We were Africans. So let’s see if I can draw you a picture of my brother African as he was during those last six days I can’t get off my mind anyway. Let’s look at the picture he presents before his big bang, before he goes nose-first into the mess he’s made and his bird-beaked soul flutters up in thin air.
This can be tricky. You think back to his last few days, and it’s hard keeping your mind off what’s coming, for him and for us. But why not try? After all, right there, just then, watching him go about his business that first week of April 1994, who knows he’s a man on the cusp?
Well, clearly somebody knows. Somebody’s about to shoot him out of the sky. And besides the shooters, a few other personalities might well know something’s up. For all we know, one of them is Juvenal Habyarimana.
He’s quick. Never has this man been easily blindsided. He may well have an inkling. But put me there, or you, and we’d have no inkling at all. So let’s look at the man we the ignorant might witness during the last few days before he makes that last lurid appearance on the slick pages of Jeune Afrique, his tasteful Afro still neatly carved, his head cleanly cleft at the neck by the force of the crash, sitting wide-eyed on its left ear just meters short of his pride, his swimming pool.
He stands trim, square, proud, his necktie smartly knotted, his head firmly on his shoulders. He steps out like Johnnie Walker on the whiskey bottle. His eyes are clear, intelligent.
His smile is healthy, white, genuine. His manners attend so considerately. He actually listens. He cares who you are. In just a few weeks, King Baudouin of the Belgians will look up in silence as he’s told what Juvenal Habyarimana was up to behind closed doors. At last his royal highness will speak. “But he was such a Christian. . . .”
Some soldiers can make a career of standing at attention. Good soldier Habyarimana has made a career of paying attention. He’s risen from the ranks by drinking in every drop of detail, and he’s risen far. He springs from the poorest of the already poor people who make up the great mass of our nation.
Juvenal H, Confounder of Cartoons
We call his people Bahutu. They call themselves Bahutu. Nobody else knows their name. Nobody knows our name. At least not where I’m at work that final week of his life, worlds away from Africa in a strange land of Post-it notes and drive-thru banks.
“How can things get so all, like, nuts?” asks a voice at work. “In Africa. On the news. Or was it the Jiffy Lube? USA Today in the waiting room? No. It was my podiatrist friend, Lorraine. A news junkie, world class. Now who is it you are? The Hottentots?”
As I said, nobody knows our name.
It’s been a charged few months, following a charged year. No sign that this will be the week, Juvenal’s week, our week, but all the same, come Thursday an occupational hazard gets the best of me. I’m a translator. I get paid to be picky with words, and I’m not handling the week as well as I should. Thursday noon, I’m standing at the elevator with Bea from Benefits. She’s a mild woman who always smiles and nods and likes to get familiar. She asks the usual topsy-turvy questions, and I find myself explaining, in a tone I’m certain is all too picky, “I’m Tutsi. The minority people. The other people are Hutu. Which is an adjective, not a noun. The noun is Bahutu. Batutsi.”
“Oh precious,” she says. “Thank you so much. Now I remember. Saw it just the other night on Fox Five. The Hutsie are the other ones. The poor ones. Poor, short, and not exactly stocky, but they do have this, well, issue with weight. You’re like the rich ones. The tall ones. Skinny. So when are we going to see some flesh on those bones, young lady?”
So there you have it, no one knows our name, but all the same, there’s a cartoon doing the rounds: Hutu means the masses, squat and sturdy. Tutsi means patrician, tall, slight, and you will please ignore the tendency of patrician teeth to stick out. Thursday after work I find myself silently lecturing produce at the Safeway. “There just aren’t many rich Batutsi anymore,” I silently instruct a bin of indolent cabbages. They seem not to pay much attention, so I turn to some equally inattentive eggplants. “As far back as the fifties, figures show Bahutu doing about the same as Batutsi.” Facts and figures document my lessons, fastidiously honed footnotes pump through my head.
“And you chattering onions there: This business about a Hutu ‘issue with weight.’ I’d say more Bahutu are underweight than overweight.” Indeed, plenty of Bahutu are hungry these days.
For that matter, plenty of Batutsi are hungry these days. Right enough, some Batutsi are skinny for no other reason than genes. But hunger has slimmed all our people. Hunger is in our souls, in the souls of all of us, Batwa (Rwanda’s pygmies), Bahutu, Batutsi.
You see it especially in our worship of amplitude, and especially in the eye our men have for cows. Time was, the gift of a cow from a Tutsi lord was one way a Hutu man won rank, a step toward becoming Tutsi, which some did. Even as I fill my cart with Sara Lee, my brothers in Africa are grooming their cows to a sleek sheen, lotioning them with butter. They can pay a woman no greater compliment than to call her a cow. They would admire Big Bea from Benefits.
Like most bahutu, Habyarimana confounds the hutu cartoon. He’s neither short nor all that heavy. Even as he ages, he’s built just fine, and looking smart hasn’t hurt this bella figura one bit. He’s married well. Agathe Kanziga is not a daughter of the Batutsi. Like him, she’s Hutu. But she’s far better educated than most Batutsi, and in the mystery-ridden ways of our nation, she is also higher born than most.
This latter-day queen would be higher born than most of us once-patrician Batutsi even if her republic had not stripped us of all station (no, worse, of all credit) after the Belgians began handing them power in 1959. Her line of Bahutu once ruled a princely state, and lineage shows in her bearing. Married to this highborn Hutu woman, Juvenal Habyarimana has risen from the poorest of the already poor Bahutu and become His Excellency, president of the last African nation to be discovered by Europe, the last successfully to be made a colony of Europe, our Rwanda, at bay with the mountain gorilla in Africa’s high interior.
Smelter of Iron, Carver of Terraces
I grew up in Habyarimana’s Rwanda. When Albert Einstein was born in the industrial-strength Rhineland of 1879, our nation had yet to be glimpsed by a single white person. For years, soot-belching freighters had been plying the sea-lanes from Brindisi and Suez to Mombasa. From booming Mombasa, the Uganda Railway regularly chugged up past booming Nairobi to our very gates in the Uganda highlands.
Where we heard you knocking, but you couldn’t come in. Behind those gates, locked tight, we were a stubborn people, and not simply stubborn but illiterate, and not simply illiterate but innumerate. We couldn’t count.
Another decade comes and goes. Young Colette is enumerating her beaux. Young Albert is working differential equations. We can still barely count.
White people—Zungu people, Bazungu—remain something we know the way we know that our paramount chief, our mwami, is divine. In Paris, photographs are starting to move. In Berlin, a man named Benz is designing an automobile. In Cleveland, a black child who will one day devise the traffic light enters school. We remain ignorant of the wheel, a people still unseen by even one Muzungu.
And yet . . . Presume if you will that we’re aboriginal, some elusive stone-age remnant whose scant numbers and simple ways let us hunt and gather in deep secrecy. In the event, we’re neither much of a secret nor graced with Pleistocene charm. With iron we’ve long since been smelting in bush forges, we’ve long since—centuries since—felled most of our forests. We’re isolated, a small place adrift in wilds without end, but our isolated valleys are crosshatched with irrigation channels, our hills stepped in painstaking terraces. Our cows give rich milk, our bees fine honey. Our women weave fine basketry.
For nearly half your nineteenth century, the rifle-armed merchants of two different Muslim worlds have been heading for us from two different directions. From the north out of Ottoman Cairo marches the expanding merchant world of the Nile. From the east marches the expanding merchant world of Zanzibar. As John Wilkes Booth fires his derringer at Ford’s Theatre, hired Arab gunmen are circling us, dragging the endless wilderness about us for slaves and ivory as they eye what they call our “infidel sultanates.”
Nor are they alone in their designs. More than a quarter century before Colette begins to flirt, that most moody of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, General Gordon, declares he wants to trade his command at Khartoum for Mombasa, the better to reach what he reckons the Nile’s true prize, our highlands. In 1884, Bismarck summons a council of Zungu cannibal chiefs. He bills it “the Conference of Berlin.” The idea is to carve up Africa without carving up each other. It works—though with each cut, the Zungu chiefs eye each other intently. After securing some prime cuts for the Reich, der Reichskanzler has “Ruanda-Urundi” for dessert. That’s nine years before a single German ever sets foot on our soil. Still, you wouldn’t want to call us a triple-canopied secret. Nor would you want to call our population scant, nor our economy aboriginal. Aboriginals, anthropology tells us, need vast tracts to feed tiny bands. It took all of aboriginal Britain to feed fewer souls than live in twenty-first-century Swansea. Yes, we can barely count. We’re lost in an Africa thick with hyenas and thin with people. Still, our lost sultanates have put themselves together so complexly and so obsessively that in our fastness, we have for centuries been feeding a population among the densest on earth, as dense as the Yangtze, as dense as the Ruhr. We are, in our inspired improbability, that thoroughly African.
Dear Constance, True to Her Name
Mama and Papa could count but they had nine children anyway; nine kids, Mama, Papa, and guests in mud-brick quarters eighteen feet by eighteen feet with no electricity, no toilet, no running water. This was 1961, the year I was born, last of the nine.
I studied. At six I minded the nuns as if stepping out of line meant breaking my mother’s spine. At sixteen I studied for my diploma as if holy salvation hung in the balance, and gaped as, late in a season of long rains, our book-struck brother Lando, eleven years my senior, suddenly sprouted wings and soared off on a thunderhead of scholarship.
One minute I saw him sitting cross-legged in the shade of ripe sorghum, reading anything and everything, dog-eared comic books, Scaramouche, Saint-Simon, Simenon. The next minute he was up and off, gone. Just like that, he jumped a puddle and turned midleap into a Tutsi-skinny stork; and not just any stork (for we have an abundance, saddle-billed, yellow-billed, open-billed, all homebound residents), but one of those long-legged, pale- arctic storks that leave us every Easter to roost in the chimney pots of strange northern places.
Right there in midair, I lost my favorite storyteller. Right there, our Lando snatched a stipend on the wing and soared off to a distant ice palace called Montreal, there to temper his African fever for words in a blue diamond realm of books and plays and music. There I resolved to join him.
We were Tutsi, but we were also Tsobe. My clan, my Tutsi father’s clan, storky brother Lando’s clan, the clan of our fathers, was the Batsobe. Our clan inheritance was the lore and ethic of illiterate scholars, abiru, who committed volumes of beauty and knowledge to memory, drawing on it as if they had a library card to the human brain.
The White Fathers couldn’t teach in our native Kinyarwanda, the tongue that most pleased me, most pleases me, a tongue we Batutsi seem to have learned centuries ago from our sister Bahutu. Instead I studied in French, and as I studied, Habyarimana and his cronies began cutting Batutsi out of the school system. With luck, I went to university anyway and studied English and English literature. I tried for one foreign grant after another until at last I turned twenty-four and luck favored me with a scholarship and full stipend to the University of Delaware.
Everything was set. My passage was paid, cash on the line, departure date three days hence. The U.S. Embassy, then famously proprietary with its visas, said mine was in hand; all I had to do was bring in my passport for stamping. Except that I didn’t have a passport. I had applied weeks earlier to the minister of education because that’s how you had to do it. You couldn’t just pay a fee, fill out a form, and wait. You had to have a proper reason, certified by a government minister, who would then okay the application for a passport. Now, three days before departure, with ticket and visa in hand, a letter finally turns up in our box at the post.
“We regret to inform you that you are not permitted to pursue your studies overseas.”
Nobody in the family was in the public eye. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the state had leaped beyond keeping us out of school. Now we couldn’t leave the country.
At this, big sister, solid big sister, all six feet three and thirty-two years of her, marched into the passport agency as if she had six legs with which to march. The passport agency, fittingly enough, was an adjunct of the secret police, on the ground floor of secret police headquarters. Secret police headquarters was an inconspicuous little building like a malignant little ulcer on the Rue du Marche;. Inside of me, I was frightened to death. I think that inside, big sister was frightened to death. All the same, she barreled in—and there at a scuffed metal desk in a bureau full of scuffed metal desks was Constance. Like all the other apparatchiks sitting grimly behind those desks, she was of course Hutu, but years ago and worlds ago, amid the cloisters of the Lyce;e Notre Dame de Citeaux just the next hill over, she and schoolmate Anne-Marie had lunched together most every day at a mess-hall table full of jokes, books, and bowls of mission porridge.
“Constance,” said Anne-Marie, as if there were nothing irregular about a Tutsi woman waltzing into secret police headquarters to chat.
“Anne-Marie,” said Constance, caught off guard, and thus as forgetful that nature (as official science then had it) abhors any friendship between Muhutu and Mututsi.
“Oh, I’m so lucky,” said Anne-Marie. Office work had stopped. Men in suits behind desks were broadcasting venom with their eyes. Who was this Tutsi-tall woman? Big sister dropped her voice. “You’re a lifesaver, Constance. Sister needs a passport. Now.”
“Get out of here,” said Constance. “Now.” Then, dropping her voice: “Come back tomorrow morning. Ten.” The office was dusty with years of accumulated bureaucracy. Bulging file boxes climbed to the ceiling, daring overhead fans to swat them. Vagrant memos shambled on currents of hot air. The officials here could have no idea that the education minister had blocked my passport. “Constance, sister’s problem is your problem,” said Anne-Marie. Constance smiled stiffly, and big sister alternately backed out and walked out, as I tripped awkwardly after her, forever adjusting my step to hers, so keen to get out of there.
Dear Constance, true to her name; she came through, and so off I flew, on a wing and a stipend to America before the minister of education ever knew this cockatoo had flown the coop. For two years I went to university, and for another four years I worked as a French translator in Washington, enjoying its fountains, its libraries, its toilets. But never once did I think about applying for citizenship. I already had a home. My home was in Africa. Aunties and uncles. Friends and cousins. In-laws and cherished outlaws. (“Outlaws?” says a lady at the hairdresser. “You mean, really, outlaws?” Yes, ma’am, cherished outlaws, but that’s a story for later.) Nephews. Nieces. Seven brothers and a sister, an especially big sister. Mother, her spine unbroken. And then suddenly, the very next morning after Juvenal H plummets, my life is emptied. Drained. My home is gone. My Rwanda is gone.
The Little Grass Shack
Right up to the minute Juvenal Habyarimana’s head rolls to a stop next to his pool, his mentor and model is the most powerful man in Africa, the tyrant of Zaire, our next-door neighbor, Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu doesn’t look like much. He looks like an accountant and he steals like one. But a full quarter century ago, his fortune was reckoned at more than three billion dollars, and since then his net worth hasn’t exactly been shrinking. By stealing all this from his nation he has inspired a new word, a word for our day, kleptocracy, and he’s the star Habyarimana follows.
Alas, Habyarimana is a thief of more modest means. Above all, his dictatorship is not absolute. To some limited extent he must answer to the people, whose lot began crumbling when coffee prices crashed in the eighties. To keep hungry Rwanda at bay, he’s got to keep Rwanda distracted with patriotics—and by jingo his propaganda machine can make bully work of patriotics. It can rally fresh-faced boys to murder.
Habyarimana has also to answer to the Bazungu who bankroll him. Embarrassed by news reports of state-sponsored hate crimes, they’ve been leaning on him to give a little. Which isn’t easy, because there’s still another group to which he must answer—the Hutu syndicate that’s the muscle behind his presidency. As these connected Bahutu see matters, bargaining is a zero-sum game they can only lose, because right now Rwanda, as a franchise, is all theirs. Worse, this syndicate is more his wife’s crowd than his. When he married her, she was the daughter of a powerful mountain family; now some say she’s the most powerful single soul in all Rwanda, a queen upon whom her husband depends utterly for the network of fixers, informers, and enforcers that keeps him going. With coy modesty that simply underscores their wealth and their muscle, the boys who hold Habyarimana nearly captive call themselves the Akazu—“the little grass shack.”
But who’s to say a president can’t put on a nice show? Habyarimana makes his subjects wear tiny pins featuring his handsome likeness. He travels. He has his own French aircraft with three French pilots who see to it that the twin-jet Dassault is kept spotless. Right next to the airfield he’s built a splendid palace, with its own chapel (where his wife of distinguished lineage daily says her rosary) and a swimming pool.
Comes then Wednesday morning of Easter week, 1994. April 6. He climbs aboard his Dassault. His pilots plot a bearing due east for the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam (“haven of peace,” in Arabic), where a clutch of East African bosses are getting together to dutch-uncle some peace and quiet in torment-ridden Rwanda. Here he agrees without wrangling to honor a firm and final deal, the terms of which he’s wrangled with bitterly for more than a year, right up to this month. The world applauds.
Or maybe I should say that applause politely clatters from those obscure corners where an informed few notice such events. For months, the world’s iota-that-notices has been fearing massacres on a massive scale in Rwanda. Some have been fearing what they call “genocide.”
To my ear, at this moment, the word has a clinical clink. I know what it means. That’s how I make a living. But translation itself can be something of a clinical craft. I know the word as translators know it. I don’t even know much about the pogroms. In 1973, when I was eleven, I was chastened by one, and I was afraid, but even then I never heard a cross word. I’d lived all my life with Bahutu; our hill, like all the hills of Rwanda, had far more Bahutu than Batutsi. Papa never told us much about how the Bahutu hated us, nor did Mama; they didn’t even tell me much about the pogrom that ran them off their first farm in 1959, two years before I was born.
Now, in the early nineties, Habyarimana’s tyranny of the majority has been acting out a morality play much bandied about by young students of political philosophy—the one in which a nation’s citizens vote to guillotine everyone who’s, say, knock-kneed or short-limbed or short-tempered, then justify this business on the grounds that it was all done democratically, in a free and fair election. We carry pass cards identifying us as the hated Batutsi—and when things get bad, we never leave home without that card. As frightening as it is to get ID’d as a hated Mututsi, it’s worse to get caught pretending you’re not a Mututsi. When Habyarimana’s crowd needs scapegoats, the specter of pogrom whistles through Tutsi homesteads. Every day, we’re subject to petty terror. “Will our little Batutsi please stand up?” says the nun to her class. “So we can see who you are? Thank you so much.”
A focused few know also that a Tutsi gang attacked and grabbed a small corner of the north back in 1990. The renegades came from Uganda, to which pogroms had chased their parents, and in which Batutsi are unwanted. The iota that notices knows how the Habyarimanas and their syndicate answered the attack with gun battles that ended indecisively, and with a publicity campaign that has succeeded brilliantly. They know that by now the boys from the little grass shack have convinced the majority that we, the genetically malign 14 percent, are plotting to reduce them once again to the formal peonage of olden days.
The Habyarimanas’ hate-farmers plow rich soil, turned and mulched and long manured by Zungu colons. Race proud and supremely race conscious, these early Bazungu planted self-hate deep in the soul of the Bahutu, teaching them in extravagantly imagined detail how far superior were we of the minority Batutsi, we warriors and poets. Then the Axis was crushed, Fascism lost its vogue, and our colons about-faced, becoming latter-day champions of the downtrodden, priming the Bahutu with rage, teaching them in extravagantly imagined detail how we the degenerate had long ago held them in serfdom. Then they turned power over to the Bahutu.
That was 1959. The pogroms that followed came in waves. Mama and Papa had to run from one with my sister and seven brothers. The youngest was Wellars, still an infant, squalling. They lost their farm and all their cash, left behind in a bureau drawer as they bolted in panic out the front and onto the bed of a borrowed flatbed lorry. But that was before I was born, a silent picture in my head, Wellars’s infant mouth open wide in a squall that’s utterly silent. I never got caught in anything like that, and between the pogroms, there were days when a few Batutsi could do well in business or in the pay of Bazungu. We were drivers, doctors, bookkeepers.
This is not one of those days. For six months at least, the syndicate’s propaganda apparatus has been in high dudgeon. People are awash in paranoia. In 1990, the propaganda machine’s leading lights published something they called “The Ten Commandments of the Bahutu,” among which are injunctions to see every Mututsi as an enemy, to see every Muhutu who marries a Mututsi as a traitor, to avoid “contamination” with Batutsi, to “show Batutsi no pity.” Now they’re preaching those commandments from every state pulpit and from some churchly ones as well. Pogroms have been breaking out all across the country.
Silent pogroms. Silent for me as for most of the world. In their way, they do touch me. They knot my stomach. But these killings are mostly in the bush. They don’t cut me or kill mine. I’m working in Washington. What I pick up are rumbles. I get rashes.
Shadows of Crushing Collective Mass
Mme. Habyarimana’s clique—the “zero network” that runs the little grass shack—is drawn entirely from the majority Bahutu, but it’s nonetheless just that, a clique, a coterie, regularly resented by the Hutu masses. Like some yellow dog worrying a bone, the hungry Hutu peasant absently worries his sack of mealie from the Akazu larder—and every sack counts. The grass shack’s ability to dole out patronage is its ticket to survival. The bargain Habyarimana is striking will mean a grim cut in the patronage that is its lifeblood.
Regardless, today in Dar es Salaam on the palm-balmy coast of the Indian Ocean, he seals the deal, committing his syndicate-state to stop dragging its feet. As he sees matters, he has no choice. His bankers don’t like being embarrassed, and with coffee prices still wretched, Rwanda is broke. He’ll stay president, but with nearly 40 percent of the army manned by Batutsi, thus guaranteeing the pogroms will end. Most of the iota that watches is smiling—nervously.
Not Habyarimana. By some accounts, he’s been in a wired daze for the entire week. There’s no telling whether it’s the daze of a man bewildered or a man aware. It could be either. He boards his craft for home.
At about 8:15 p.m. on April 6, his Dassault begins its glide to the airstrip. It’s in clear sight of his French pilots. Just short of the runway, two Russian SAM 16 ground-to-air missiles suck skyward. Most evidence (but not all) will point to a launch site somewhere inside a security zone razor-wired and heavily patrolled by his elite Presidential Guard. A missile strikes. The plane explodes. Most of the fuselage crashes through the president’s own garden wall, tail up, nose down, just short of his swimming pool. Everyone aboard is killed.
But I’m letting events get ahead of themselves.
So far as I know, there were no pogroms the week before he crashed and burned, yet in my mind, the events of this headlong week stampede like beasts in the night. Some empty-eyed thing hidden in thorn and known only to malice spooks herds of no known species. Shadows of crushing collective mass thunder blindly, in an ultimate direction known only to providence, and in the rush, dust clogs my throat dry and I lose something, something I’m forever scrambling to find without ever knowing what it is.
Yes, you could argue that what I lose sight of is what I won’t look at, and I won’t deny that I have trouble accepting what happened. Yes, people at times ask, gingerly, whether those events are in fact too much to acknowledge. But I acknowledge them. I do. I know what happened—but as far as that goes, not everyone close to me died, and right now isn’t the time to go into all that. That’s not what gets lost in the rush of events. It’s something else.
Sometimes my skin bothers me. I itch. These days I worry those six days like some yellow dog worrying her mange. I want to start on Saturday, April 2, and follow that week for clues, follow it one day at a time.
Copyright © 2006 by Louise Mushikiwabo and Jack Kramer