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by Scholastique Mukasonga

Is the best birthday!book I've read so far, and I might as well begin with saying I recommend it.

Ms Mukasonga is a Tutsi; she and her family were deported to one of the least hospitable parts of Rwanda in 1960; after the first pogroms in 1972 she and one of her brothers managed to escape to Burundi. She's been living in exile ever since. She wrote the book after having gone back to Rwanda in 2004, ten years after the genocide that killed 37 members of her family. The reason she gives for writing is to make "a tombstone of paper" for the victims, who don't have a sepulture and whose deaths are not being acknowledged on an individual basis. When she travelled back to her parents' house, there was no sign of a dwelling, no trace of their existence left, and the Hutu neighbours denied ever having known them.

The book contains a lot more than that. It's been written for a French audience and thus follows a very linear, chronological structure. It underlines how Tutsis were portrayed within the Rwandan society, first as second-class citizens, then as non-citizens, then as parasites to be exterminated - leading to the mass murders. "Inyenzi" means cockroach and was first an insult, then the generic term for Tutsis, to the point where it was acknowledged by the Tutsis themselves. When the atrocities started, some of them did not try to flee - death was perceived to be ineluctable, inescapable, and had been hanging on the community for so long it "came as a relief" when it burst out at last.

The parallel to Primo Levi's If This Is A Man comes to mind, but is IMHO not entirely relevant. Levi tries to show how de-humanisation can be possible even in a society and with individuals that all see fit to call themselves civilised. Mukasonga's approach is very different in that she takes Tutsis (or perhaps Africans in general, see above how the book was written for a French audience) being perceived as sub-human as a given and then shows the contrary. This makes the book, paradoxically, a far more optimist read than Levi's: in speaking of her childhood, she re-creates a world and protagonists that are all now dead, but whose existence were nonetheless worth reading and writing about.

The first person narrative and autobiographic genre also make it possible for her to cast light on points that don't always make it to the official accounts. I noted two that stroke a resounding chord: the systematic will, that permeates every line of her writing, to further one's education no matter how adverse the circumstances, and the no less systematic hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy and, through it, the deep-rooted seeds of horror left colonisation. That there would have been no such antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis - indeed, no specific ethnies - without the influence of the colons is never said, but always present. That the uprooting of ancestral beliefs and customs, in agricultural choices more than everything, played in role in depriving a people of its cultural framework is a more present theme, and one that would perhaps deserve more development. I'll be watching her blog for potential further publications.

This makes for some salutary reading matter in the light of Mr. Sarkozy's tone when addressing Africa, "en la tutoyant". I would rather not part with my own copy of the book, but you could do a lot worse than asking you local library to purchase it.

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