Yolande Mukagasana

Author for the Month of August

Yolande Mukagasana is a renowned Rwandan writer, public figure, and campaigner for the remembrance of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. She has authored four books about genocide and its aftermath, performed her testimony in the iconic Rwanda 94 touring theatre production and has received numerous international prizes for her work, including the Alexander Langer Foundation Prize for Testimony and Solidarity, the American Jewish Committee Moral Courage Award and an Honourable Mention for the UNESCO Education for Peace Prize. Her first book, La Mort Ne Veut Pas de Moi, has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Hebrew, and now English.

Even if he spends his days elsewhere, Imana returns every evening to Rwanda. Or so we said. Then the Catholic missionaries arrived and told us we had to call him Mungu – God – in Kiswahili. So we called

him Mungu. But soon, at first behind closed doors, then out loud, we went back to calling him Imana. We began to worship him again at night. The Rwandan soul rebels against indoctrination. Make of that what you will.

Does Imana still come to my country every evening to sleep? And was he with us on the evening of 6 April 1994? Didn’t he abandon us, leave us face to face with the devil? Perhaps he didn’t have time to return to Rwanda on that day. The night fell so fast.

‘How did you manage to hurt yourself so badly?’

‘I didn’t hurt myself, Muganga! They wanted to kill me. I was walking past the lodgings of the Presidential guard, near the centre of Kigali. Three soldiers came out and were joined by a member of the Interahamwe militia armed with a machete. One soldier asked me for my papers, and the militia man looked at me suspiciously. “Tutsi! Tutsi!” he shouted. Before I could move, I felt a sharp pain in my leg and saw the militia man wiping his machete on the grass. That’s all I know, Muganga.’

‘What do they want, Makuza*? Surely they’re not going to kill all the Tutsis?

‘They’ll kill us until the last person is dead. You too, Muganga.’

‘You’re out of your mind. I’ll give you a sleeping pill to help you get some rest tonight. Come back the day after tomorrow for your test results.’

‘Yes, Muganga. Goodnight!’

I watch Makuza leave my clinic, dragging his leg, and then carry on working. It’s dark outside and the clinic windows mirror my white tunic but not my head, hands and legs, so I look like a puppet dangling from invisible threads. I am a black woman; the windows refuse me my reflection.

I place a few drops of Makuza’s blood on a glass slide. Given that he was bleeding anyway, he thought he’d take the chance to find out whether he had malaria. It’s routine work and my movements are automatic. I daydream. The blood is taking its own sweet time to dry so I still can’t start the analysis.

‘These Tutsi men have rebellious blood!’ I laugh at my own joke.

I will never see Makuza again.

Sixteen years of marriage. What present should I give to Joseph? In eight days it will be sixteen years of love. Love? Yes, I learned to love over the course of those sixteen years.

Our son, Christian, will soon be fifteen. Christian who dreams of being either the next Platini or a priest, and looks out for his young friends with his amateur karate. Christian, who asks himself questions about death. At his age! Christian, who thinks he knows enough to give me advice. What a kid!

He’s the complete opposite of Nadine who’s still so scatty, dancing and singing all day long. Nadine, the sunshine of our house, just turned thirteen… already! Once, out of the blue, she asked me a question that I couldn’t answer: ‘Why is my best friend Hutu?’

And Sandrine, fourteen, my adopted little sweetheart. The good fairy of the house, crazy about cooking and cleaning, meticulous and so shy it’s endearing.

As for me, I’m Muganga, doctor. I’m not actually a doctor; I’m a nurse, but I’m in charge. A nurse who manages

her own clinic. I have three children, a husband and cousins all over the place: in this country and overseas. I’m Tutsi. That’s my biggest mistake. I’m well-off. That’s my second. And I’m proud. My third mistake.

My clinic is my pride and joy. It’s even been used as a model by the Minister for Health: people come to see it so they can replicate it elsewhere. It exudes cleanliness with its white walls and blue curtains. The only problem is the thin partition that separates my consulting room from the reception area, which means that I have to talk in a low voice. One day I’ll build a proper wall.

The telephone interrupts me. Bother! At this time? I’ve had enough of treating wounded people who tell me the same story: ‘I was attacked. They wanted to kill me. They wanted to cut off my arm.’

I don’t feel like picking up. I want to think about my children, about the party we’re planning together for Joseph, for our wedding anniversary. Should I ask my cousins to come from Butare to dance the night away with us? My thoughts drift away to the sunshine that has flooded the countryside all day long. A happy day, thanks to the sun: Rwanda’s most loyal friend. What should I give Joseph? No, I won’t pick up the phone; they can call back tomorrow morning.

I pick up.

‘Yolande, Yolande! Quick, come home right now. I need to talk to you.’

‘What? Joseph! What’s going on?’

He’s hung up already. I call back but the line is busy. What does he want to tell me?

My husband sometimes plays pranks like this on me when he wants to make love. Several times in the past, when I’ve been working late at the clinic, he’s pretended he needed to see me urgently. When I arrived home, the children were in bed and he’d laid the table just for me. He sat himself down next to me, fed me spoonfuls of stew and laughed: ‘You need your strength for the long night we’re going to have together.’

We made love all night. In the morning he had the face of a young man again. He called me ‘a doctor of the heart as well as the body’ and left for work at the Ministry of Transport with a spring in his step.

‘Yolande, Yolande! Quick, come home right now. I need to talk to you.’

His words ring in my head. Usually I can guess Joseph’s intentions from the sound of his voice. I’ve been disappointed only once. He had called me home urgently but it wasn’t to make love; he wanted to celebrate the surprise arrival of his cousins from Tanzania.

This evening something is different, I sense it in his tone. What’s going on? Did Sandrine burn herself while cooking? Does Nadine have a fever? I leave Makuza’s blood behind. It will dry on the slide overnight and I’ll do the analysis tomorrow.

‘Bernard! I’m leaving.’

The night guard appears holding a bowl of rice he’s been eating with his fingers.

‘Have a nice evening, Muganga!’ He looks after everything, in particular, locking up the medicine stores. ‘To stop people stealing from you during the night, Muganga.’

‘That’s right, Bernard. That’s right.’

Bernard returns my smile innocently, but I know that he gives out painkillers behind my back. He pretends I’ve given him permission, as if I trust him enough to dispense medicine in my name. One night the police found him drunk. I had to pay the fine because Bernard, as usual, didn’t have any money.

Yes, this is my clinic. I bought all the equipment and medicines myself. I only rent the building. I know people steal from me, I know. But how can you object to that when people can’t afford to buy medicine? The only thing that’s truly mine is the desire to help people. Indeed, I am a doctor. What I mean is, I’m a nurse who became a doctor because there weren’t any doctors nearby. I deal with childbirth, pain relief, even minor operations which are beyond my training, but how can you abandon someone who needs an urgent operation when you know that at the hospital in Kigali he’ll wait two or three days on a stretcher before a doctor will so much as listen to his chest? Here in Cyivugiza ward, in the Kigali suburb of Nyamirambo, there is only one clinic – mine. Serving seven hundred people.

It’s a little cold. I walk quickly down the path home, five hundred metres at most. Ah look, Nicolas has finally whitewashed the front of his house. About time. I pass two men smoking cigarettes on a bench in front of a wooden house. A little way away some women chat noisily under a shelter made of dried banana leaves. Two teenagers are still out playing, clambering over a henhouse. I greet them: ‘Goodnight, my friends!’

Nobody replies. Their eyes avoid mine. They lower their heads as I pass. The two women ignore me and continue their conversation. What’s going on? This morning people spoke to me, smiled at me, came to greet me, but this evening they seem to be in on something I’m not.

A light bulb glows weakly in a shed. Four men are playing cards, surrounded by the advice of a fifth and the buzz of mosquitoes. I hear them mutter: ‘It’s Muganga.’

I feel alone. Am I in danger?

I know what people say about me – that I’m not African enough. Is it because I wear jeans, or because I’ve only had two children? They say my husband’s under my thumb and that one day I’ll leave him. Men don’t like an emancipated woman, and they like her even less when she has money, white friends, and wears Pierre Cardin glasses. They want to control her; they want to make love to her. How many potential seducers have I had to chase away? Women are wary of me too, but I’m not interested in other people’s husbands: mine is enough. The poor love me though, perhaps because they’re poor.

I stop for a moment. The opposite hill is lit up by the moon. I think of Masabo, the well-known singer who knows how to evoke the beauty of this ‘country of a thousand hills’, my country, Rwanda. I walk on, humming. Blessed Rwanda, where Imana comes to rest every evening.

I remember an even older traditional song which recounts how people long ago used to throw young Tutsi girls who fell pregnant into Lake Kivu, with its calm reflective waters surrounded by greenery. One day, Amanda, a beautiful girl from Kibuye, in the west of Rwanda, was condemned to such a death by the family elders. But her grandfather arranged for a dugout canoe to save her in secret and send her to the island of Ijwi. ‘In this way,’ he said, ‘when I look at Ijwi, I’ll think of my little Amanda.’ It is said that since that day, the Congolese on Ijwi found Tutsi girls so beautiful they went out in canoes to save, ravish and wed them.

It is also said that the Karisimbi volcano never sleeps because it must protect Rwanda. That’s just another legend because Karisimbi hasn’t erupted for thousands of years. From time to time, its summit is covered with snow. The gorillas that pace its slopes cry like humans, and their little ones, they say, understand the language of flowers.

One of Masabo’s songs tells the story of Daliya, a young woman who lives on a hill in the centre of the country. The hill is planted with cassava on successive terraces, like so many of our thousand hills. From the opposite hill, Masabo calls to her, laments her absence, despairs of ever seeing her. His tones are pained and his rhythms seductive, but Daliya remains unmoved. In Rwanda, one hill can provide you with all you need.

And what about the wild animals in the marshes and savannahs of the Akagera Park, do they know they’re celebrated by our singers and dancers? The hippopotami, zebras, impalas and topis, the lions, leopards, giraffes and elephants, do they know that Rwandans give up fertile land for them?

Sometimes it seems Masabo’s voice depicts my country: it’s sharp and nervous at first, like the slopes of the volcanoes, then sweetly undulates, caressing the slopes of the thousand hills, and finally becomes calm and serene as it disappears into the marshes of Tanzania.


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