But after watching how these men mixed cement with nothing but hoes and made bricks in a back-breakingly heavy iron mould, we eventually got the courage up to take one of the few spades from the hands of the professionals, and show them how hard we could work. Every muscle in my body ached the next morning as I prised myself from my bed at 5:45am ready to catch the little bus to the construction site in Kazo. But all those aches just made me smile. They weren’t the bad back feelings I get from slouching in front of my computer all day or lounging in front of the TV. They were aches which made me feel stronger, fitter, useful. They reminded me of the bonds we were making every day with the locals who would whisper to each other, ‘Look at the strong muzungu! They work hard.’
Lama Mugabo heads Building Bridges with Rwanda, a sustainable development initiative designed to promote mutual collaboration between Rwandans and, originally, Canadians. Lama would speak to the locals in their own language, Kinyrwanda, explaining to them why we were there; that we were helping to build and indeed contributing to the cost of the health centre they had said their community needed; and that we were doing it for nothing but pride and good will. In his inimitable way, Lama would tell locals not to stand around and stare (lest they become the muzungu of old) but pick up a spade and get involved. And many of them did, the very young children leading the way long before Lama even spoke, the way young children do: not emotionally constipated by the experience of being adult. I felt a rush of affirmation at seeing this humbling purity in action because the notion of the child being father to the man, as Wordsworth crystallised it, is another theme central to The Go-Away Bird.
As the work progressed, the sense of community, of global community, was great between the locals and us visitors. But the sense of community was great before we white folks turned up to start building. This is the incredible thing about Rwanda today. Just sixteen years after the atrocities of the genocide, Rwanda is in a position to teach the UK, and the West in general, some things about how to run a country. Rwandans are Rwandans to each other these days, not Hutu and Tutsi. Sure, everybody knows, as they did in 1994, who has what tribal heritage, but there is a real sense of unity now, or at the very least tolerance. Young (heterosexual) men walk down the street hand in hand, which symbolises this unity to me.
Peter, who was five years old when his Hutu family fled for Burundi from the advancing RPF (the Tutsi rebel army), was one of those young men who had been helping us out with gusto on the construction site, desperate to practise the English he had learnt on his little battery powered radio. After a couple of days he introduced me proudly to his best friend, a teenager whose Tutsi father was killed by Hutus in the same area. Their bond was the epitome of the way many ordinary Rwandans are moving on: paragons of forgiveness. And many of the people I met were strong supporters of their government (significantly the only one on the planet which has a majority of female parliamentarians), which is driving hard to eradicate poverty- no doubt a factor which the genocidaires used to entice the majority to kill their generally wealthier neighbours.
And the cycle continues; the giver gains a further sense of power, so they continue to give, the receiver further develops a sense of diminished power, so they continue to be dependent. What gets sustained is the power/dependence relationship. Service, on the other hand, is based in equality and interdependence, the goal of which is to provide mutual benefit to everybody involved in the relationship. All of the world’s great spiritual teachings, though they may not always practice it, hold service to others as a founding and sustaining principle. It is understood that in this relationship, when one unselfishly serves another, the benefit, though it may not be in the same form, is at least mutual. The service undertaken, usually more appropriate and considered than aid, provides more mutually beneficial, sustainable futures."
I was sure that this was the kind of ethic I wanted to be associated with, but it was a big commitment to make with an organisation on the other side of the world since I knew no third party to recommend it. But my hesitation was short lived. When I started writing The Go-Away Bird I wanted my Rwandan protagonists to be living in a rural area and be relatively poor characters. Not the middle class urbanites of the film Hotel Rwanda, for example, who could buy their way out of trouble with the genocidaires. That was too easy for the story I wanted to tell and I was sure that for the majority of Tutsis and their families this just wasn’t possible. So without much more sophistication than sticking a pin in a map, I chose the village of Kibungo in the south-east of Rwanda as the setting for my story. My hesitation about joining DWC in Rwanda evaporated when I read that the health centre we would be building would be in the village of Kazo and we would be staying just a few miles down the road in Kibungo. Overwhelmed by the incredible coincidence, and not worrying too much about the fact that I would be working on a construction site when I had never so much as put up a shelf in my life, I signed up for the DWC experience.
When I arrived at Heathrow airport and met the fifteen Canadians that made up the rest of the team which I was to travel, bunk and work with pretty much 24/7 for the next two weeks, I was struck, not for the first time, by the fear that I could be walking into a travelling Big Brother experience and I was sure I would be the one that does the midnight breakout over the wall in the first week. But there would be no TV crew waiting on the other side to catch me and send me home in a plush car; just miles and miles of red dusty road and the ghoulish call of nocturnal African birds, I thought. In fact what I found was a bunch of people homogenized only by their nationality, ranging in age from 22 to 54 years old; men and women, all with equally fascinating stories about how they ended up ready to make bricks by hand in the burning sun on a hilltop in Rwanda; and all bonding quickly because of the positive and unifying goal we were all keen to achieve. The majority of the team had maxed out their credit cards to be there, which made me glaze over with humility and rethink what “I can’t afford it” really means. They had faith that the spiritual reward of this endeavour would far outweigh the financial debt. Perhaps all this obscene and reckless lending by the banks is good for something after all!
When I told the receptionist at the travel clinic I was going to Rwanda she pulled a face which made me think I had unconsciously said Iraq or Afghanistan. After receiving similar responses from many people I realised that it couldn’t possibly be some slip of the tongue on my part every time. It was, in fact, the well documented matter of there being a genocide of the minority Tutsi population by the Hutu majority in 1994. It was one of the most horrific massacres of its kind in modern history: nearly one million people killed in one hundred days. And not all of them Tutsi. Those moderate Hutus that did not condone or participate in the killing where killed themselves. Many Hutus were stuck between a rock and a very hard place. But that was 1994.
It was after seeing Shooting Dogs, one of the films of recent years to dramatise those events in Rwanda, that I became compelled to write The Go-Away Bird. Not specifically because I wanted to write a piece about the genocide, but because it had made me acutely aware that everyone I knew (and everyone I didn’t) in ‘Western’, society, myself included, was obsessed with creating problems for themselves, living as we do in a society that affords us no real problems: not the kind of life and death problems of survival, concerning subsistence or war, that many African peoples have to deal with on a daily basis, as much now as in 1994. That is why just about all of the characters in the ‘London chapters’ of my novel abuse themselves in some way, be it through cutting themselves, taking prescribed or illegal drugs, or even watching Jeremy Kyle-type TV. When it came to the ‘Rwanda chapters’ I knew I was getting into controversial territory, writing about a place I had never been to and about characters so opposite to me in their demographic, in a literary world where authenticity is, rightly, everything. But as a struggling writer there was no way I could afford to make a trip to Rwanda; I wouldn’t even know where to start if I could. Besides, what’s wrong with a bit of imagination? Ironically, it wasn’t until the book was virtually ready to print, that I could afford to go to Rwanda. But I didn’t want to just rock up to a swanky hotel in the finer part of Kigali and jump on some sterile tour of the national parks and village craft shops. I wanted to experience the rural life I wrote about in the novel; the kind of routine that involves walking an hour twice a day to collect water, seeing by candlelight when the sun goes down, staying as clean and well presented as many Rwandans do without the aid of running water and electricity. And, as syrupy as this may sound, I wanted to try to give something back to the country that had unknowingly done so much for me as a writer.
Don’t you know, you glow in the dark?
The birth of a novel, the rebirth of a country.
Rwandans call white people Muzungu. This is almost a term of endearment these days, but originally, when the Belgians first colonized Rwanda and told the Tutsi they were superior to the Hutu, giving them positions of power in their new regime to prove it, whites were thus called because it meant people that walk around and do nothing, as the colonialists were great at doing.
The brickmakers, bricklayers and other locals eyed us with a hint of suspicion when we first ambled onto the construction site, taking photos of the beautiful landscape: the land of a thousand hills, where banana groves cut swathes of brilliant green through the orange brown earth and wave bright green banana leaf flags like millions of patriots in the sun, proud of their land where nearly every inch is cultivated by hand. Perhaps we looked like we might well walk around and do nothing at first. I was paralysed with awe seeing the landscape of my novel, which until now had resided in my imagination, come to life in all it’s 3D Technicolor glory.
So I started surfing the internet and it wasn’t long before I happened on an organisation called Developing World Connections (DWC) based in British Colombia, Canada, who seemed to be doing some great work around the world offering people the chance to work voluntarily on projects in developing countries alongside the local people there. “We are not an aid agency” they state on their website. So what are they then? I looked a little deeper into the subject and discovered this astute little piece, which educated me in the difference between aid and service, which is the kind of work that DWC do: "Aid often creates dependent individuals and societies. Dependence creates ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, because the ‘giver’ holds a real or perceived position of power over the ‘receiver’. This of course diminishes the ‘receivers’ perception of their own personal value, which in turn creates the need for further aid, which of course enhances the power imbalance.
And this isn’t the only level on which Rwanda is cleaning up its act and leading the way. The streets, be it city or village, are the some of the cleanest I have seen in the world. There is no litter. Plastic bags are banned from the country and people recycle and reuse to a higher level than we do here in England. In rural areas people know what it means to be truly self sufficient; waste is not an option. Even the trees we cut down in the forest and hauled on our shoulders back to the construction site to use as scaffolding were carefully selected eucalyptus trees, chopped at just the right point so that a new trunk would shoot up in no time to replace the ones our Rwandan friends bound together with dried banana leaves and bark to make a wonderfully eco-friendly scaffolding. Hence I was quick to point out to the likes of Peter that, although, of course, I wanted to try to help him and his friends work their way out of poverty, I felt that their self-sustaining lifestyle was a thing for us in ‘the West’ to aspire to. I urged him not to hanker after our capitalist self-seeking society. The streets there, I told him earnestly, are most certainly not paved with gold.
So how do they keep the country so spotless? Umuganda, literally meaning ‘contribution’, is the name given to the last Saturday of every month when there is a mandatory work fest from 7am to noon for all adults. It is an unpaid time to clean the streets, cut grass, maintain public property and attend neighbourhood meetings. It reinforces this sense of community and shared responsibility that is so refreshing in Rwanda. And it is this sense of shared responsibility that organizations like Developing World Connections are taking on to a global scale, a step towards reducing aid-dependence in the developing world. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has said that he believes aid-dependency to be one of the greatest obstacles to development in Africa. Many describe Kagame, a supremely popular president, as authoritarian, and if you avoid Umuganda without authorization you could find yourself arrested immediately. But perhaps if we had a more uncompromising attitude in England our sense of community might be improved?
Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa. It certainly felt safer and friendlier than the parts of West Africa I have since travelled to, which underlines the too often forgotten fact that Africa is not a country. It is a huge continent- the world’s second biggest- containing more than fifty separate and very distinct nations.
Having found Rwanda to be such a positive nation of gentle people, I had reservations, as I touched down on a London runway the same grey colour as the sky above it, about the publication of The Go-Away Bird. Yes, it’s not a documentary about the genocide per se, but will it help perpetuate this idea of Rwanda as a nation of machete wielding psychos and keep that dubious look forever etched on the travel clinic receptionist’s face?
Lama, of Building Bridges with Rwanda, does exactly what it says on his tin. Not only does he work tirelessly overseeing the building projects and liaising with the necessary local officials to make it happen, but he also took the time to make sure he knew why each member of the DWC team was there; what the motives were behind us coming. So having told Lama that for me my novel was the overwhelming factor originally, throughout the week I would find myself introduced to all manner of situations and people relevant to my writing: from drinking banana beer with the bricklayers to dinner with Alphonse and Prosper, two survivors of the genocide.
So there I was with the perfect research opportunity- to get it from the horses mouth what it feels like to truly run for your life. I was bursting with questions. But how do you start asking those sorts of questions to people you’ve met only a plate of rice and grilled goat ago? I didn’t want to upset anyone, bring any bad memories back to the surface. But Lama, ever the bridge builder, had primed them and they reassured me, as I verbally stumbled and fumbled around, that whatever I wanted to know was “no problem”.
Prosper went on to tell me how when he was thirteen, a couple of years older than my Rwandan protagonist Clementine, that he and his family were hacked to death in their home and all thrown into the latrine (not much more than a deep hole in the garden), with rocks piled on top to seal it. After my internal recoiling at the atrocity Prosper described, I made some gesture or sound, I forget which, to evince my perception of the paradox that Prosper, alive and well in front of me, said he himself was hacked to death. Prosper leaned forward into the candlelight that adorned each table in the hotel garden, and pointed to the huge smooth scar that stretched across his forehead, then he turned and showed me the back of his head where a chunk was clearly missing. And then it was clear to me, as it must be to everyone else that knows him or passes him in the street each day, that he was indeed hacked to death. Left for dead under a pile of bodies that used to be his family, in the bottom of a toilet, Prosper survived for many days until he managed to clamber up to the lid of rocks. When the RPF soldiers advanced through the village he made enough noise to attract their attention. They helped him from his putrid grave and took him to their hospital.
I had worried that the horrors my protagonists experience in The Go-Away Bird might be perceived as sensationalist or exaggerated. Now I couldn’t care less for that angle of criticism because I knew for a fact that the reality was even worse.
Survivors I have since met in London also felt that the Rwandan half of my novel should be told, partly because the atrocities continue; not in Rwanda, but in neighbouring Congo, where many of the Hutu militia fled to after the genocide, still raping and killing the minority there today, paranoid that if they return to Rwanda they will be killed by Kagame’s army. Also, as the memorial museum in Kigali demonstrates so powerfully, the genocide of 1994, and all genocides (from North America in 1492 to Cambodia in 1975 to Yugoslavia in 1999), should be remembered in an attempt to understand but not to judge- as indeed a good novel should do about any subject. In the case of the genocide, trying to understand it “is a painful task that we have no right to shirk- it is part of being a moral adult.” So says Susan Sontag in the preface to Jean Hatzfeld’s book A Time for Machetes, which was an invaluable research source for me in the early stages of the writing of The Go-Away Bird.
Many Rwandans, it seems, are able to remember the horrors of the past and honour the memory of the dead, but at the same time are supreme practitioners of the concept of moving on. One of those survivors now living in London told me that she received a phone call not long ago telling her that the killers of her parents had been identified in the local and traditional system of justice known as Gacaca, which was re-established in 2001 to deal with the hundred thousand people accused of genocide and war crimes in Rwanda. “And how do you feel about that?” I asked. “I want nothing to do with it,” she said without hesitation, “I forgive and I move on. What good will it do to do otherwise?” After which we parted, as she had to get to hospital to continue the course of chemotherapy for her leukaemia, and I found myself increasingly humbled by the journey my novel had taken me on.
I was told one night over dinner- by candlelight again because the electricity had failed, as it still does from time to time in Rwanda- that Rwandans would joke that white people glowed in the dark. Well there is plenty of dark if they want to test the theory in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa where Rwanda nestles. But I would say that it is you who glow, my Rwandan friends. Through all those dark times, it is surely you now who glow in the dark.