The Rwandan genocide is one of those events that looms in my mind as something that happened when I was alive but too young to really understand that there was a world outside of my country, or even my community, really. Politics was something that came via the television, an artifact of the history we were studying in school, not a daily fact of life. War and genocide was something that had happened in the past, long ago and far away. I was lucky, because I grew up in Canada, where hardship is visited upon fewer people than most places (though still far too many). I’ve always had a roof over my head, clean water and plenty of food, not to mention electricity. Oh, and I’ve never had a mob try to burn my house or kill me simply because I happened to be the unpopular ethnicity de jour. (September 11 was kind of my personal geopolitical moment of awakening. I was in Grade 7. I remember coming home for lunch and my mom telling me someone had attacked the towers in New York.
God Sleeps in Rwanda is about the genocide, and about the efforts to move past it in the late 1990s. It’s also an intensely personal tale by someone who was born and raised in Rwanda. Joseph Sebarenzi understands the terror of having one’s home and life threatened by a genocidal mob. Although he was not present for the events of 1994, he later returned to Rwanda and became Speaker of the Parliament, where he played an integral role in trying to wrest power back from the hands of the executive branch and restore rule of law. Though his attempts were largely unsuccessful, the struggle itself is moving, even haunting. Sebarenzi and his co-author, Laura Ann Mullane, create a tenuous balance between the heartbreaking recounting of each successive blow to freedom and peace in Rwanda and Sebarenzi’s relentless optimism.
I read, and loved, Shake Hands with the Devil. Yet Roméo Dallaire’s perspective is that of an outsider. He entered Rwanda with certain pre-conceptions and ideas acquired as a result of his upbringing. This isn’t a criticism of him or his book, which is an amazing chronicle of the international community’s failure to react to the Rwandan genocide. But it’s a limitation that makes books like God Sleeps in Rwanda a welcome counterpart to Shake Hands with the Devil. Sebarenzi exposes us to a viewpoint that isn’t Western or Eurocentric. He can cut through the “centuries of tribal genocide” myth or any other colonial misconceptions about life in Rwanda and tell us how it is (if we are willing to listen).
I enjoyed reading Sebarenzi’s account of the political machinations afoot following Rwanda’s supposed transition to democracy under Bizimungu and Kagame. Sebarenzi was right in the thick of it, actively working to promote rule of law. He also doesn’t conceal his own blindness, at the time, towards Kagame’s deviousness. He honestly believed Kagame was interested in instituting democratic reforms up until the point where it became clear Kagame was only interested in holding on to power. This kind of insider’s account of trying to stabilize a fledgling democracy is fascinating and valuable.
That relentless optimism of Sebarenzi’s is what makes the book worth reading. As I said in my review of Shake Hands with the Devil, genocide is depressing. Sebarenzi doesn’t go into as much detail about the genocide—in many ways, the bulk of the book focuses on the recovery efforts afterwards—but what he lacks in detail he makes up for in the personal connection to some of the victims. Moreover, the Rwandan genocide marked a kind of death of Rwanda as a unified nation … Sebarenzi has now lost his homeland twice, and it isn’t even being occupied by a foreign power.
So for him to write that he’s still hopeful, he still wants reconciliation and forgiveness and reparation … that’s kind of amazing. It reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s attitude towards China. Sebarenzi by no means sees what the perpetrators of the genocide did as justified or acceptable—but he doesn’t demonize them either. He understands their motivations. And he categorically rejects the idea that revenge is the best thing on offer right now. This kind of fairness and compassion is everything we need in a world increasingly polarized by rhetoric and radicalism … and now I sound like a movie trailer narrator.