A Seething Below Rwanda's Surface

God Sleeps In Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi

There's a saying in Rwanda: "God spends the day elsewhere, but he sleeps in Rwanda." It alludes to Rwanda's physical beauty, but also to the brutality that has sometimes haunted the country.

Both of those traits are captured in Joseph Sebarenzi's new memoir, God Sleeps in Rwanda. The book begins with him as a child, living near Lake Kivu in western Rwanda.

God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation
By Joseph Sebarenzi
Hardcover, 272 pages
Atria
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt.

"On weekends, I would bring our cows [to the lake] to graze on its banks and drink from its waters," Sebarenzi writes. "While the cows rested, I would dive into the lake and feel its cool wash over me. I would turn over and float on my back, stare up at the vast expanse of blue sky spread above me and listen to the waves lap against the shore."

But even then, in the early '70s, violence marred the landscape. His family, ethnic Tutsis, had to hide from a Hutu mob that destroyed their home. After attending college in Burundi, Sebarenzi went back and forth between Rwanda and other countries. Each time, he was fleeing from violence, and each time, he felt compelled to return.

By 1994, Sebarenzi had found refuge in Canada. Thousands of miles away from his family in Rwanda, he watched the horrors of genocide unfold on the evening news. When his brother Emmanuel returned to their village after the violence had ended, Sebarenzi's worst fear was confirmed. His mother, father, seven of his siblings and several other relatives had been killed.

Less than a year later, he made the difficult decision to move back to Rwanda. The horrors had ended, but the country was in shambles. "It was a very difficult decision," Sebarenzi tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "But I felt that I had survived for a reason. I felt I had to go back to Rwanda and help with reconstruction."

He became a leading politician. Although he was reluctant at first to enter into politics, his rise in the post-war government was astronomical. By 1997, he was appointed speaker of parliament, making him the third most powerful man in the country.

Sebarenzi describes what it was like trying to lead in a country so severely shaken: "It was so hard, because people were still angry; there [was] revenge going on. We were under basically a military regime."

At the time, the country was largely controlled by Vice President Paul Kagame. In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front in its takeover of the government after the genocide. Now president of Rwanda, Kagame is regarded internationally as a reformer who has done valuable reconstruction work for the country.

But Sebarenzi has a very different view. He argues that Kagame is an autocrat who refuses to tolerate dissent in government or in the media. Although he says his political relationship with Kagame was amicable at first, it eventually deteriorated until Sebarenzi was pressured to resign as speaker, which he did.

"A few days after I resigned, I learned from many sources that there was a plan to kill me, and I decided to leave," he says. His book recounts how he hid in the bed of a truck filled with furniture to escape his bodyguards, who he suspected were Kagame's spies. He drove north until he reached the river at the border to Uganda and waded across to safety. There, he came under the protection of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and was allowed to move with his wife and children to the United States.

Since his exile, Sebarenzi has been unable to return to Rwanda. But he remains passionate about the politics and reconstruction of the country.

"If you look at Rwanda today, people live in peace with each other, but underneath, it's boiling. You cannot have reconciliation if you don't have justice on both sides," he says. "We need to come up with a formula that will make Hutu and Tutsi part of the system. That way, we can have a hope to have a lasting peace and reconciliation in Rwanda."

Excerpt: 'God Sleeps in Rwanda'

God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation
By Joseph Sebarenzi
Hardcover, 272 pages
Atria
List Price: $25

Chapter 1: The Drum Beat And We Were Saved

The most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Bertrand Russell

I'm not a storyteller. In Rwanda, it's too dangerous to tell stories. There are thousands of stories to tellabout birth and life, and far too many stories about death. Stories that wrap around the hills and skip like stones across the abundant lakes and rivers. Stories that whisper through the banana and coffee plantations and eucalyptus groves. Stories that are carried on the heads of women walking barefoot to market, or swaddled on their backs with their children. Stories that run through the sweat of men as they cultivate the land, rhythmically turning the rich soil with their hoes. Stories that sing with voices raised at church.

But you don't tell stories. You listen. You listen to your parents. You listen to your teachers. You listen to the drumbeat that echoes from hilltop to hilltop before an official announcement is made. But above all else, you listen to your leaders. In the United States, a presidential address gets less attention than a football game. Unless there is a crisis, most people don't really care what the president has to say. In Rwanda, when the president speaks, everyone listens. In rural areas where radios are scarce, people gather at neighbors' houses to hear what he says. And you listen closely, for what he says could mean the difference between life and death. When you hear him, you don't form opinions. You nod your head in agreement.

So you listen. You don't tell stories. You don't need to. Everyone knows you. Everyone knows your family. Everyone knows if you are sick. Everyone knows if you need help. And they will help. They will take turns carrying you on a stretcher for the two-hour walk to the hospital. They will give you milk from their cow if yours is dry. They will share their cassava if you are hungry. They will share their beer, brewed from bananas, to celebrate a wedding. They will work side by side with you in your fields. They will give you shelter. But the very thread that knits Rwandans so closely together is the same one that can so quickly unravel the country.

I first learned what Hutu and Tutsi meant when I was not yet a teenager, sitting on the floor of our cooking house with six of my brothers and sisters while my mother prepared our evening meal of beans and cassava. The glow of the fire and the oil lamp cast long shadows on the walls. My father sang his evening hymns next door at the main house, his voice traveling the short distance between the two mud-and-brick buildings. We could hear our cows breathing quietly in the paddock in front of our house, where they were enclosed for the night. Outside, a blanket of stars spread from horizon to horizon.

It was March 1973 and this night was like any other, except it wasn't. Something was wrong. My mother and older siblings were unusually quiet. As my mother worked, she focused entirely on her chores, rarely looking up. The light in the cooking house was dim, so I couldn't see her face very well, but I could tell she was worried.

As my sister Beatrice and I joked with each other, my mother pointed a stern finger at us. "Keep quiet!" she snapped.

We stopped talking and looked at one another, wondering what we had done wrong. My mother was rarely strict with us. It was my father who was the disciplinarian of the family. For her to snap at us when we had done nothing wrong was unlike her. Our older brother and sisters kept their eyes down.

Then my mother looked at me, her eyes wide with warning. "Did you know that I spent nights hiding in the bush with you when you were a baby?"

This seemed ridiculous to me. We had a nice homeI couldn't imagine why we would sleep in the bush, where poisonous snakes hid in the tall grasses. "In the bush?" I asked. "Why?"

My mother looked down at her cooking and said simply, "Because if we stayed at home, we would have been killed."

I had never heard anything like this before. I was shocked. "Killed?" I asked. "Why would we be killed, Mama?"

My mother's voice became small. Her eyes did not meet mine. "Because we are Tutsi," she almost whispered, as if she wanted no one around to hear, not even herself.

"Because we are Tutsi?" I had heard the word before but didn't know what it meant, and could see no reason someone would want to kill us because of it. "Why?"

My mother said nothing.

"Who?" I asked. "Who would kill us?"

Again, my mother's voice was low. "Hutu."

"Who are Hutu?" This was another word I had heard, but I had no idea of its meaning.

My mother paused. "Abraham and his family are Hutu," she said.

This did nothing to clear my confusion. The Abrahams were close family friends. Before I was born, my father gave Abraham a cowa strong symbol of friendship in Rwanda. Cows in Rwanda were not used to work the land. They were not bred for meat or even milk (although we do drink it), but for beauty. And giving someone a cow as a gift was cause for great celebration. Abraham called my father Rutabeshya, meaning "truthful," in admiration of their friendship. My younger brother played with Abraham's grandchildren. I couldn't begin to understand why they would want to kill us.

"The Eliackims, the Nyakanas, and the Ngarambes are also Hutu," she said.

These were also good family friends. It didn't make any sense. "So the Abrahams and the Ngarambes want to kill us?" I asked.

Beatrice jumped in, "Oh, Mama, the Abrahams are very good, I don't think they would kill us."

"No, I don't mean that they will kill you," my mother said. "Not all Hutu are bad. When I hid with you in the bush, the Abrahams hid our things for us so they wouldn't be stolen. They're good people. But some Hutu may try to kill us because we are Tutsi."

I couldn't understand what she was saying. We had always lived peacefully with our Hutu neighbors. We shared drinks with them. We worked our fields together. We celebrated weddings and births together. Hutu would come to our aid and we would come to theirs. We felt welcome in each other's homes. What she was saying didn't make any sense. Again I asked, "Mama, why? Why would they want to kill us? Because we are Tutsi? What did we do?"

My mother took a slow, deep breath and waved her hand as if she was shooing a fly. "Oh, this child, asking so many questions. Eat your dinner and then go to bed."

With that, my mother stopped talking. She didn't tell me more about how she hid in the bush with me as a baby in the early 1960s, while tens of thousands of Tutsi were killed and hundreds of thousands were driven into exile. She didn't tell me how she watched as homes were burned and Tutsi neighbors were beaten. She didn't tell me how loved onesincluding my father's brotherfled with their families to neighboring Congo. She didn't tell me about Tutsi men, women, and children being killed with machetes. She didn't tell me that it was about to happen again; that word of violence was spreading through the country; that it was only a matter of time. She didn't tell me how afraid she was there in the cooking house, preparing the evening meal with her small children around her. She told me none of this. Perhaps she didn't need to. I would soon learn it all myself.

Excerpted from God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation by Joseph Sebarenzi. Copyright 2009 by Joseph Sebarenzi. Excerpted by permission of Atria. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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