Children born in 1994 are in their third decade of life on earth. They are leaving their youth lives behind and entering adulthood. Some are actually parents, if not grandparents if they live in a normal society.
If they were born and have been raised in a troubled community, as many have in parts of East Africa, then their memories are hardly worth cherishing. What memories do those who were children or were born during the Rwanda genocide carry?
What lives do they live or wish they could live? What histories and stories do they tell or not tell? What heritage do they wish to leave behind when they exit this world one day?
These are questions that run through one’s mind after reading Do Not Accept to Die by Dimitrie Sissi Mukanyiligira (2023). Sissi witnessed the Rwanda genocide against the Tutsis as it unfolded, lost family and friends, lived through the horror of seeing neighbours and people one trusted turn against her and her family, endured the humiliation of being among the hunted, survived the horrors of near-death experiences through what she describes as the grace of God, witnessed the rebirth of Rwanda, went back to school, married her fiancé, started a family, graduated from university and is now a career woman.
Although stories of the Rwanda genocide have now been written for just about three decades, not one of those stories can be said to be similar to the other. Even where the language, tone, content and setting appear alike, each one of the stories carries its own emotions and cannot repeat the individual experience.
Just to highlight the distinctiveness of each genocide story, Sissi quotes Speciose Mukayiranga, a survivor of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi, “For a survivor, words are poor and powerless to describe the genocide.
My testimony is just a whisper, a clarification brought to what we already know, but it is unique and singular. Each survivor contains within him/her a part of the history of the genocide. You cannot tell everything. A lot of things remain silent. I write for the survivors who remain voiceless, speechless and unspoken.”
This is why although Do Not Accept to Die reminds us that nearly 30 years on, the ordeal of the genocide is yet to be properly described, or it may never actually be defined. Why? Because the experience of the genocide and its memorialisation will always raise new questions, which, though, can hardly have reasonable answers.
For instance, Sissi writes about a fairly tranquil childhood, being raised by industrious farming parents, in a home where the children loved and cared for each other. Yet, she notes that being a Tutsi always meant being disadvantaged as the government of the day deliberately restricted access to education, higher training and job opportunities for members of her community.
Still, Sissi put her faith in God and worked hard at school. Her schooling would, unfortunately, be cut short when she fell pregnant. Her situation would soon get worse when ‘hell broke loose’ in Rwanda on April 6, 1994, and she became a hunted person.
The story that she tells from that apocalyptic day is a story of resilience and unbreakable faith in God. She would be separated from her child, Nina, her siblings, relatives and friends. She hid in a bush for four days, with only a towel as clothing. She would be saved from the marauding interahamwe by a Hutu young man.
Eventually, she would end up at the national hospital in Kigali with her two sisters – one admitted to deliver and the other a nurse. But the hospital would turn out to be just as dangerous as the world out there that she had just escaped from. She was still the enemy. The hospital is where the wounded and the dead from the raging war between government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Army soldiers were brought.
Still, the hospital was managed by Hutu administrators and medical staff. Sissi was instructed to “sit on a chair at the entrance to the maternity ward, on display for everyone to see what Tutsis looked like and remind them who the enemy was”.
It is this kind of vivid description of the life of the hunted Tutsis during the genocide that makes each one of the ‘survivors’ stories quite horrifying.
The retelling of the non-ending ordeal of witnessing suffering, living through the terror of impending death and living among the dead, as Sissi had to do, isn’t just a reminder of the capacity for evil by humans, it is a tracing of the evil itself. What did it feel like to hear a doctor, someone whose declared lifelong duty is to preserve human life, instruct a soldier to take Sissi to the mortuary where her ‘relatives’ were so that she could die ‘in their company’?
How exactly does one begin to process the words of a priest who said mass every Sunday at one’s church, preached God’s love in the parish, knew one’s family well and often shared a meal with them, wishing death upon one? Yet, Sissi declares that she retained her hope in God, seeking salvation for her life.
It is easier to conclude that stories such as Do Not Accept to Die are testimonies on behalf of those who remain ‘voiceless, speechless and unspoken’ as Mukayiranga suggests in the quotation above. But can the unspoken really ever be known?
Can those who were not present or living at the time of the genocide ever truly imagine and understand the evil that the living who have kept their mouths shut saw, felt and lived? What does speechlessness tell us about the limits of language to express that which cannot be comprehended because it is completely outside the boundaries of the imaginable?
What does a story such as Sissi’s in Do Not Accept to Die leave the reader with? The horror of what human beings can do or not do to each other? A warning of the precarity of human life? A lesson on the fragility of socio-cultural arrangements we live by every day? Or just a record of a moment of madness in the story of mankind? Maybe all of these. Maybe more. But such stories need to be told and retold even if it is just to remind humanity of where the road to annihilation can lead to.
Do Not Accept to Die can be found at Nuria and other bookstores in Nairobi.
Dr Odhiambo teaches literature, performing arts and media at the university of Nairobi. [email protected]