Umwagarwa (Drums of Success, 2015) offers a novel about a young Rwandan woman in the raw years after her family members were massacred.
Karabo’s mother is Hutu; her father was a Tutsi, and by Rwandan custom, this makes her a Tutsi. Her father and siblings were murdered by Hutu militias during the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994; it was only by a miracle that Karabo managed to survive: “When some people asked me to narrate to them what happened that day, I said, ‘I remember the day they killed us—’And someone would remind me that I was still alive.” She goes to live in the home of her uncle, Kamanzi, from which she’s escorted on errands by a Tutsi soldier, Shema. Although the genocide has ended, bitter feelings still exist on both sides, and Karabo’s multiethnic identity puts her at odds with nearly everyone around her. Her Tutsi peers at school berate her for being part of a family that included a leader of one of the death squads, and Shema (who’s unaware of Karabo’s mother’s ethnicity) says that he could never be at peace with a Hutu—or even the relative of one. There are Hutus who opposed the genocide, and who are kind to Karabo: her classmate Sugira, and her mother’s brother, Gasana. Even with them, however, tensions arise as everyone remembers their own versions of the past. As Karabo goes to college and falls in love, she’s forced to confront the ongoing tragedies of her nation. Umwagarwa’s prose, as narrated by Karabo, pops with inventive turns of phrase: “Electrical chemistry bounced in my heart. It punctured my stomach and the upper level of my legs. I wondered if that was what they called love.” The author is, like her protagonist, a survivor of the 1994 genocide, and as such, she offers a complex and empathetic perspective on its difficult aftermath. She also adeptly highlights the interrelatedness of Rwanda’s warring groups over the course of the novel. Although the pace is often plodding, overall, Karabo’s story provides readers with an illuminating investigation into the ways that people can dehumanize one another.
A thoughtful, if somewhat slow-paced, story of post-genocide Rwanda.