Searing tale of Rwanda, of hope and love

Review: Vivien Horler

All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (Europa Editions)

Twenty-nine years ago this month, while the world was focused on SA’s first democratic elections, genocide broke out in Rwanda.

The United Nations had been warned by its own peacekeeping troops who pleaded for reinforcements, but the world body chose to do nothing.

Most Rwandans are either Hutu, the majority, Tutsis, or Twa. The Hutus turned on the Tutsis, and it is estimated between 500,000 and 700,000 were murdered in about 60 days. Most of the victims were Tutsis, but moderate Hutus and Twa also died.

The title of this extraordinary novel comes from the Catholic liturgy: “O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.”

Millions of Rwandans are scattered, including many in South Africa.

This novel, written by a Rwandan who survived the genocide and moved to France to study and work for humanitarian causes, was translated from the French by novelist Alison Anderson. It brings the Rwandan story home to all those who may have tried to ignore the headlines at the time and focus on the happy SA story instead. Well, kyk hoe lyk ons nou.

The novel is about three generations of one Tutsi family: Immaculata, the elderly mother, daughter Blanche and son Bosco, and Blanche’s young son Stokely.

It opens in 1997, three years after the genocide, when Blanche has come home from France to visit her mother and brother. Blanche left the country in 1994 with an evacuation column, and has been in France ever since.

Blanche is unusual in Rwanda in that she is what we in SA might call coloured; a young Immaculata, who was working at an agricultural college, met and married a French expatriate. The relationship did not last, and Immaculata ends up having a second child, Bosco, with her Rwandan childhood sweetheart.

Stokely’s father is also “coloured” – his father was a West Indian, married to a French woman. Desperate to reclaim his African heritage, he has changed his name to Samora.

Blanche’s relationship with her mother has been awkward for years; Blanche believes her mother always loved Bosco’s father more than she loved hers, and as a result loves Bosco more than she does Blanche.

On the last night of her visit Blanche and Immaculata are having a rare close conversation. But Immaculata says something irritating, and Blanche lashes out, asking how she could not have known about the approaching “extermination”.

An angry Immaculata closes up. She tells Blanche to go to bed to be rested before her trip “home”. Blanche is left musing: “I thought I’d made the trip home by coming to this house on the main street in Butare, where I’d grown up… But for you, now, I was from ‘up there’.”

Bosco, we discover, left boarding school secretly to join a Tutsi militia in the Congo. After the civil war he has returned to Butare, apparently uninjured but deeply damaged.

Slowly the story develops, in the voices of Immaculata and Blanche, and later Stokely.

There are heated discussions between Samora and Blanche about Stokely’s future. Blanche and Samora are known in their circles in Bordeaux for their love of “African” music, including that of Miriam Makeba,  and their exceptional dancing.

Blanche and Samora are conflicted about Stokely’s future; Blanche says he is a proper young Frenchman, while Samora, who also was born and grew up in France, says a mixed-race child will never be accepted as truly French. And when Stokely starts to learn the clarinet, Samora is appalled, calling it white man’s music.

But central to the story is of course Rwanda and what happens in 1994 and its aftermath. One night during her first visit Bosco tells Blanche of their mother’s experiences, hiding for weeks in the basement of a bookshop, with little to eat or drink, and close to death when it is finally safe to emerge.

Years later, Immaculata visits Bordeaux, and forges an unlikely and yet close relationship with Stokely, who begins to understand his own origins.

Halfway through this novel I needed to Google Rwanda’s history, knowing nothing of what came before 1994. It turns out the colonial influences – French and Belgian – as well as resentments and rivalries between Tutsis and Hutus had stoked much anger over the years, and there had been a number of massacres before 1994, although not on the same scale.

This is not usually the sort of novel I would pick up, yet I’m so glad I did. It is searing, touching, absorbing and deeply thought-provoking. I heartily recommend it.

  • All Your Children, Scattered is one of Exclusive Books’s top picks for April.


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