Folloing is my review of God Sleeps in Rwanda , a memoir by Joseph Sebarenzi
Joseph Sebarenzi’s memoir of growing up in Rwanda, fleeing to Zaire for schooling, going back to Rwanda , but fleeing again as the situation heated up, and finally returning again after the genocide and entering politics is an engrossing tale of one man’s life. As a Tutsi he and his family felt threatened and were periodically by Hutu hardliners. Although bright, Joseph ran afoul of schooling quotas that prevented Tutsi children from higher schooling. Thus he was sent to distant relatives across the border on Idjwi Island in Zaire. There too he was not only a minority, but a foreigner to boot. He perseverd and got his education, got married, settled in Kigali, but fled again after the RPA invasion in 1990 when resident Tutsi were harassed and intimidated by the government for supposed allegiance to the invaders.
Sebarenzi was not in Rwanda during the genocide. Nonetheless, he recounts the horror of it, knowing full well that dozens of his family and friends were being killed. He returned afterward to find his worst fears realized. Employed by USAID Sebarenzi recounts meeting the mayor of his commune, the man who had led the genocide in his home area, in a prison. Despite knowing this individual was complicit in his family’s deaths, they acknowledged each other and Joseph gave him some money, “for food”. Thus begin themes of understanding, grappling with forgiveness and reconciliation.
Encouraged by fellow Tutsi survivors, Joseph agreed to enter Parliament under the Liberal Party aegis. There through an initially unfathomably series of events – most having to do with machinations by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Movement government intent to put a naïve, compliant MP from an ineffectual party in the speaker’s chair , he emerged as speaker of the house. The book chronicles Sebarenzi’s growth in the job: his conviction that Parliament ought to be a co-equal partner in government with the executive and his efforts to assert Parliamentary authority. Sebarenzi recounts efforts to communicate with President Bizimungu and Vice-President Paul Kagame and airs frustration with the ensuing futility. Ultimately he found himself hemmed in by Kagame and those around him who dealt surreptitiously with opposition such as that which Sebarenzi posed. Fearing for his life, Sebarenzi fled again through Uganda to the U.S.
Speaker Sebarenzi‘s last chapter deals with forgiveness and reconciliation; the need for acknowledgement, apology, restorative justice, empathy, reparation and forgiveness in dealing with the past, but also for openness, accountability and democracy for dealing with the present and for laying the new foundation for a society that would ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Sebarenzi’s story of growing up Tutsi in Rwanda, his experiences and losses during the genocide, is one of many, but no less interesting because of that. His memoir is unique on account of his subsequent service as speaker and the obstacles he encountered there. It is a cautionary tale, genocide is over, and the new disposition is firm on ensuring that it not reoccur, but the authoritarianism, division and exclusion the current government pursues risks, in fact, a return to volatility and unrest that will simmer for years to come.