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An Ordinary Man

An Autobiography

by Paul Rusesabagina

Hardcover, 207 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $23.95 |


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An Autobiography
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NPR Summary

The author describes how he utilized his position as a hotel manager in violence-stricken Rwanda to offer shelter to more a thousand members of the Tutsi clan and Hutu moderates, an act that inspired an Academy Award-nominated film. (Note: An earlier version of this summary mistakenly said the author had sheltered more than 12,000 people.)

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: An Ordinary Man


My name is Paul Rusesabagina. I am a hotel manager. In April 1994, when a wave of mass murder broke out in my country, I was able to hide 1,268 people inside the hotel where I worked.

When the militia and the Army came with orders to kill my guests, I took them into my office, treated them like friends, offered them beer and cognac, and then persuaded them to neglect their task that day. And when they came back, I poured more drinks and kept telling them they should leave in peace once again. It went on like this for seventy-six days. I was not particularly eloquent in these conversations. They were no different from the words I would have used in saner times to order a shipment of pillowcases, for example, or tell the shuttle van driver to pick up a guest at the airport. I still donít understand why those men in the militias didnít just put a bullet in my head and execute every last person in the rooms upstairs but they didnít. None of the refugees in my hotel were killed. Nobody was beaten. Nobody was taken away and made to disappear. People were being hacked to death with machetes all over Rwanda, but that five-story building became a refuge for anyone who could make it to our doors. The hotel could offer only an illusion of safety, but for whatever reason, the illusion prevailed and I survived to tell the story, along with those I sheltered. There was nothing particularly heroic about it. My only pride in the matter is that I stayed at my post and continued to do my job as manager when all other aspects of decent life vanished. I kept the Hotel Mille Collines open, even as the nation descended into chaos and eight hundred thousand people were butchered by their friends, neighbors, and countrymen.

It happened because of racial hatred. Most of the people hiding in my hotel were Tutsis, descendants of what had once been the ruling class of Rwanda. The people who wanted to kill them were mostly Hutus, who were traditionally farmers. The usual stereotype is that Tutsis are tall and thin with delicate noses, and Hutus are short and stocky with wider noses, but most people in Rwanda fit neither description. This divide is mostly artificial, a leftover from history, but people take it very seriously, and the two groups have been living uneasily alongside each other for more than five hundred years.

You might say the divide also lives inside me. I am the son of a Hutu farmer and his Tutsi wife. My family cared not the least bit about this when I was growing up, but since bloodlines are passed through the father in Rwanda, I am technically a Hutu. I married a Tutsi woman, whom I love with a fierce passion, and we had a child of mixed descent together. This type of blended family is typical in Rwanda, even with our long history of racial prejudice. Very often we canít tell each other apart just by looking at one another. But the difference between Hutu and Tutsi means everything in Rwanda. In the late spring and early summer of 1994 it meant the difference between life and death.

Between April 6, when the plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down with a missile, and July 4, when the Tutsi rebel army captured the capital of Kigali, approximately eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. This is a number that cannot be grasped with the rational mind. It is like tryingóall at onceóto understand that the earth is surrounded by billions of balls of gas just like our sun across a vast blackness. You cannot understand the magnitude. Just try! Eight hundred thousand lives snuffed out in one hundred days. Thatís eight thousand lives a day. More than five lives per minute. Each one of those lives was like a little world in itself. Some person who laughed and cried and ate and thought and felt and hurt just like any other person, just like you and me. A motherís child, every one irreplaceable.

And the way they died...I canít bear to think about it for long. Many went slowly from slash wounds, watching their own blood gather in pools in the dirt, perhaps looking at their own severed limbs, oftentimes with the screams of their parents or their children or their husbands in their ears. Their bodies were cast aside like garbage, left to rot in the sun, shoveled into mass graves with bulldozers when it was all over. It was not the largest genocide in the history of the world, but it was the fastest and most efficient.

At the end, the best you can say is that my hotel saved about four hoursí worth of people. Take four hours away from one hundred days and you have an idea of just how little I was able to accomplish against the grand design.

What did I have to work with? I had a five-story building. I had a cooler full of drinks. I had a small stack of cash in the safe. And I had a working telephone and I had my tongue. It wasnít much. Anybody with a gun or a machete could have taken these things away from me quite easily. My disappearanceóand that of my familyówould have barely been noticed in the torrents of blood coursing through Rwanda in those months. Our bodies would have joined the thousands in the east-running rivers floating toward Lake Victoria, their skins turning white with water rot.

I wonder today what exactly it was that allowed me to stop the killing clock for four hours.

There were a few things in my favor, but they do not explain everything. I was a Hutu because my father was Hutu, and this gave me a certain amount of protection against immediate execution. But it was not only Tutsis who were slaughtered in the genocide; it was also the thousands of moderate Hutus who were suspected of sympathizing with or even helping the Tutsi ìcockroaches.î I was certainly one of these cockroach-lovers. Under the standards of mad extremism at work then I was a prime candidate for a beheading.

Another surface advantage: I had control of a luxury hotel, which was one of the few places during the genocide that had the image of being protected by soldiers. But the important word in that sentence is image. In the opening days of the slaughter, the United Nations had left four unarmed soldiers staying at the hotel as guests. This was a symbolic gesture. I was also able to bargain for the service of five Kigali policemen. But I knew these men were like a wall of tissue paper standing between us and a flash flood.

I remembered all too well what had happened at a place called Official Technical School in a suburb called Kicukiro, where nearly two thousand terrified refugees had gathered because there was a small detachment of United Nations soldiers staying there. The refugees thoughtóand I donít blame themóthat the blue helmets of the UN would save them from the mobs and their machetes. But after all the foreign nationals at the school were put onto airplanes safely, the Belgians themselves left the country, leaving behind a huge crowd of refugees begging for protection, even begging to be shot in the head so they wouldnít have to face the machetes. The killing and dismemberment started just minutes later. It would have been better if the soldiers had never been there to offer the illusion of safety. Even the vaguest rumor of rescue had been fatal to those on the wrong side of the racial divide. They had clustered in one spot and made it easy for their executioners to find them. And I knew my hotel could become an abattoir just like that school.

Yet another of my advantages was a very strange one. I knew many of the architects of the genocide and had been friendly with them. It was, in a way, part of my job. I was the general manager of a hotel called the Diplomates, but I was eventually asked to take charge of a sister property, the nearby Hotel Mille Collines, where most of the events described in this book took place. The Mille Collines was the place in Kigali where the power classes of Rwanda came to meet Western businessmen and dignitaries. Before the killing started I had shared drinks with most of these men, served them complimentary plates of lobster, lit their cigarettes. I knew the names of their wives and their children. I had stored up a large bank of favors. I cashed them all inóand then borrowed heavilyóduring the genocide. My preexisting friendship with General Augustin Bizimungu in particular helped save the Mille Collines from being raided many times over. But alliances always shift, particularly in the chaos of war, and I knew my supply of liquor and favors would run dry in some crucial quarters. Before the hundred days were over a squad of soldiers was dispatched to kill me. I survived only after a desperate half hour during which I called in even more favors.

All these things helped me during the genocide. But they donít explain everything.

ï ï ï

Let me tell you what I think was the most important thing of all.

I will never forget walking out of my house the first day of the killings. There were people in the streets who I had known for seven years, neighbors of mine who had come over to our place for our regular Sunday cookouts. These people were wearing military uniforms that had been handed out by the militia. They were holding machetes and were trying to get inside the houses of those they knew to be Tutsi, those who had Tutsi relatives, or those who refused to go along with the murders.

There was one man in particular whom I will call Peter, though that is not his real name. He was a truck driver, about thirty years old, with a young wife. The best word I can use to describe him is an American word: cool. Peter was just a cool guy; so nice to children, very gentle, kind of a kidder, but never mean with his humor. I saw him that morning wearing a military uniform and holding a machete dripping in blood. Watching this happen in my own neighborhood was like looking up at a blue summer sky and seeing it suddenly turning to purple. The entire world had gone mad around me.

What had caused this to happen? Very simple: words.

The parents of these people had been told over and over again that they were uglier and stupider than the Tutsis. They were told they would never be as physically attractive or as capable of running the affairs of the country. It was a poisonous stream of rhetoric designed to reinforce the power of the elite. When the Hutus came to power they spoke evil words of their own, fanning the old resentments, exciting the hysterical dark places in the heart.

The words put out by radio station announcers were a major cause of the violence. There were explicit exhortations for ordinary citizens to break into the homes of their neighbors and kill them where they stood. Those commands that werenít direct were phrased in code language that everybody understood: ìCut the tall trees. Clean your neighborhood. Do your duty.î The names and addresses of targets were read over the air. If a person was able to run away his position and direction of travel were broadcast and the crowd followed the chase over the radio like a sports event.

The avalanche of words celebrating racial supremacy and encouraging people to do their duty created an alternate reality in Rwanda for those three months. It was an atmosphere where the insane was made to seem normal and disagreement with the mob was fatal.

Rwanda was a failure on so many levels. It started as a failure of the European colonists who exploited trivial differences for the sake of a divide-and-rule strategy. It was the failure of Africa to get beyond its ethnic divisions and form true coalition governments. It was a failure of Western democracies to step in and avert the catastrophe when abundant evidence was available. It was a failure of the United States for not calling a genocide by its right name. It was the failure of the United Nations to live up to its commitments as a peacemaking body.

All of these come down to a failure of words. And this is what I want to tell you: Words are the most effective weapons of death in manís arsenal. But they can also be powerful tools of life. They may be the only ones.

Today I am convinced that the only thing that saved those 1,268 people in my hotel was words. Not the liquor, not money, not the UN. Just ordinary words directed against the darkness. They are so important. I used words in many ways during the genocideóto plead, intimidate, coax, cajole, and negotiate. I was slippery and evasive when I needed to be. I acted friendly toward despicable people. I put cartons of champagne into their car trunks. I flattered them shamelessly. I said whatever I thought it would take to keep the people in my hotel from being killed. I had no cause to advance, no ideology to promote beyond that one simple goal. Those words were my connection to a saner world, to life as it ought to be lived.

I am not a politician or a poet. I built my career on words that are plain and ordinary and concerned with everyday details. I am nothing more or less than a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and charged to give shelter to those who need it. My job did not change in the genocide, even though I was thrust into a sea of fire. I only spoke the words that seemed normal and sane to me. I did what I believed to be the ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.


I WAS BORN on the side of a steep hill in the summer of 1954. My father was a farmer, my mother his helper. Our house was made of mud and sticks. We were about a mile away from the nearest village. The first world I can remember was green and bright, full of cooking fires and sisters murmuring and drying sorghum and corn leaves in the wind and the warm arms of my mother.

Our house had three rooms. There were small windows with pieces of hinged wood to keep out the sun and rain. The house was built on an incline of terraced farms, but the small yard outside was flat. My mother kept it swept clean of seedpods and leaves with a homemade broom made out of bundled twigs. When I grew old enough she would let me help her. I still remember the happiness I felt on the day when she trusted me to do it by myself.

From the courtyard you could look south across the winding Ruvayaga Valley to the opposite hill. It seemed an awesome distance, like looking into another country. The hill was laced, as ours was, with houses made out of mud and stucco and baked red tiles, dots of cattle grazing, the groves of avocado plants, and the paddlewide leaves of the banana trees that practically sparkled in the sun. On a perfect day you could lie in the grass near our home and see people at work in the fields on the next hill. They looked like ants. Every now and then somebodyís machete would catch the angle of the sun and youíd see the winking of metal across the valley. And far, far in the distance you could make out the clustered roofs of the village called Gitwe, where my parents told me I would one day learn how to read and write, which neither of them could do.

We spoke the beautiful language of Kinyarwanda, in which I first learned the names of the worldís many things in rich deep vowels made in the back of the mouth. Bird, inyoni. Mud, urwoondo. Stones, amabuye. Milk, amata.

To enter our house through the front door you had to step up on a stoop made of gray rocks. It couldnít have been more than two feet off the courtyard, but it seemed like a towering height. I used to climb in on my hands and knees. To the side of the door was a flat stone used for sharpening machetes. There was a shallow depression in the middle where rainwater would collect. After a storm I would splash my hands around in the cool water, putting it on my face and letting it dribble down my cheeks. It was the best part of the rain. When those storms came in September the lightning and thunder scared me. My three younger brothers and I would sometimes huddle together during the worst ones. And then we would laugh at each other for our cowardice. Thunder, inkuba.

My parents raised nine children altogether, and I was an island in timeís river, separated by six years from my older sister and five years from my younger brother. I got a lot of attention from my mother as a result, and trailed her around the house hoping she would reward me with a chore. The firmament of our relationship was work; we expressed love to one another in the thousands of little daily actions that kept a rural African family together. She showed me how to take care of the baby goats and cows, and how to grind cassava into flour. Even when I came back to visit my parents when I was grown it would be only minutes before I would find myself holding an empty jerrican and going to fetch well water for my mother.

There was a narrow path from the main road that twisted up the side of the ridge and passed through groves of banana trees. I had learned how to walk on this path. It was our connection with a small village called Nkomero, which occupies the top of one of the hundreds of thousands of hills in Rwanda. The nickname for my country is ìthe land of thousands of hills,î or le pays des mille collines, but this signifies a gross undercount. There are at least half a million hills, maybe more. If geography creates culture, then the Rwandan mind is shaped like solid green waves. We are the children of the hills, the grassy slopes, the valley roads, the spider patterns of rivers, and the millions of rivulets and crevasses and buckles of earth that ripple across this part of Central Africa like the lines on the tired face of an elder. If you ironed Rwanda flat, goes the joke, it would be ten times as big. In this country we donít talk about coming from a particular village, but a particular hill. We had to learn the hard way how to arrange our plots of corn and cabbage into flat terraces on the sloping ground so as not to turn a farm into an avalanche. Every inch of arable land is used this way. The daily walk up to a family grove can be an exercise in calf-straining misery going up, and in thigh-wracking caution going down. I think our legs must be the most muscular on the African continent.

There is a story about the conqueror of Mexico, Hern·n CortÈs, who was asked by the king of Spain to describe the topography of the rugged new nation. CortÈs reached for the map on the table and crumpled it up into a ball. ìThat,î he said, ìis what Mexico looks like.î He could just as easily have been talking about Rwanda. If you didnít grow up here you would be likely to get very, very lost among those seductive hills and valleys.

Our family had rows of sorghum and bananas planted on the slopes of two hills, which made us solidly middle class by the standards of rural Africa in the 1950s. We would have been considered quite poor, of course, when viewed through the lens of a European nation, but it was all we knew and there was always plenty to eat. We worked hard and I grew up without shoes. But we laughed a lot. And I knew there was love in my family before I knew the word for it.

I think the greatest hero in my life was my father, Thomas Rupfure. He was already an old man, well into his sixties, when I was a child, and he seemed impossibly tall and strong. I could not comprehend that I could one day be his age, or that he was once mine. I assumed he had always been old.

I never once heard him raise his voice. He didnít need to. He always spoke without apology or flourish and with a calm self-possession. If he and my mother ever fought I never knew it. On special days he would fold my hand into his and take me up the winding path to the top of the hill, and then down the rutted road that led to the village, where we would go to buy sweet potatoes or bags of corn. We walked past the houses of our neighbors, and he would greet each one with a gentle nod. Anyone who engaged my father in conversation was likely in for a long story. He loved to talk in proverbs. It was the way he understood the world and his favorite way of dispensing wisdom. Hereís an example: Somebody might tell him a story about being taxed at too high a rate by the mayor, and he would start talking about a lamb and a dog drinking out of the same river. The dog accused the lamb of dirtying his water, but the lamb pointed out that that was impossible, since the dog was upstream. The dog then said that the lamb must have dirtied the water yesterday, and the lamb pointed out that that was also impossible, because he had not been in the meadows yesterday. Then it must have been your brother!, said the dog, and he proceeded to devour the lamb. The moral of the story was that any excuse will serve a tyrant. I would have cause to remember that tale much later in life.

There was not much to our village of Nkomero, then or today. There is a commune house, which is synonymous with town hall. There is a small Roman Catholic church. There are a few stores that sell bags of sugar, salt, and soft drinks. There is a tavern where men lounge and drink the potent beer made from bananas. A car or a truck coming through was a big event. Behind the wheel, very often, was a white manóa European missionary or a doctor. Muzungu! the children would call, a word that means ìwhite man,î and they would say it with relish. It was not meant as an insulting word, just a descriptive one, and the white people would smile back at us. We were always hoping for a toss of candy or a ballpoint pen, which would sometimes come and sometimes not.

The road wound past the church and the tavern and on along the ridgetop through a grove of eucalyptus trees on the other side of the Ruvayaga Valley, tracing a long horseshoe shape all the way to the next village, Gitwe. I would walk these two miles literally thousands of times while growing up, so many times that I could practically do it blindfolded, knowing where the road turned just by counting the number of steps I had taken. It was an important symbol in my life, this rutted track that connected my home with my school. It was where I first understood that in order to make progress as a man you had to take a journey. There was only so much you could learn at home before you had to get out in the world and prove what you could do.

It was my father who first took me down this road to the school at Gitwe when I was eight years old, and I still remember him handing me off to the assistant principal and saying good-bye. I suppose it should have been a troubling moment for meóit was the first time I was leaving my parentsí careóbut I was eager to begin the adventure of learning. My father had told me over and over again: ìIf you are willing to do it, you will be successful.î I was experiencing a privilege he had never had and I know now that he was sending a little piece of himself with me that day.

Perhaps it had something to do with growing up with such a large family, but I found that I could get on well with the new kids in my school. We played soccer, of course, and racing games to see who could run the fastest. Another game was a variation of capture the flag in which the idea was to venture inside enemy territory and grab one of their sticks without being caught.

One strange game I remember in particular was called igihango, which is a word loosely translated in English as ìtrust.î There were no clearly defined rules to this game, and Iím not sure you could even call it a game in the classic sense of the word. The idea was that you made a secret agreement to be friends with a particular kid, only you werenít supposed to tell anybody else about it. Other kids tried to make you confess your igihangos by holding you down and tickling you or poking you in the ribs or whatever other kind of boyish sadism they could dream up. I was always very good about keeping my igihango confidences to myself, at least verbally, but I think I always exposed them when I ran to save one or another of my secret allies from being interrogated. I probably should have been more subtle.

When I went home from school in the evenings I would help my mother cook supper. My brothers and I used hoes to carve out brick-shaped pieces of dirt and we built a kind of domed oven out of them. We stuffed a bunch of sweet potatoes inside and then lit a small fire underneath them. They came out charred and delicious. Every oven was used only once. We kicked it back into the ground, so as to bury the ashes, and then built a new one the next night.

Our suppers always came with small tastes of a bitter and delicious beer made out of the juice of bananas. Let me tell you about this drink, which we call urwagwa. Visitors to Rwanda always complain that it tastes like spoiled buttermilk, but I think it is tasty. It plays a central role in Rwandan social life, and is also an important symbol of the good-heartedness and collegiality that I think represents the best side of my country. There is a saying: ìYou never invite a man without a beer.î It is the symbol of hospitality, a way of saying without words, ìYou are my friend and I can relax in your presence.î

Brewing banana beer is like the art of friendship: simple and very complicated at once. First you dig a pit in the earth. Because Rwanda is just a few miles below the equator, the ground temperature is always warm. It acts like a very slow, gentle oven for the fermentation. You take a bunch of ripe bananas, as many as you want, and bury them about four feet deep. You make a lid for the pit out of the broad leaves of the banana tree. Come back in three days and dig them up. They should be very overripe. You transfer the mushy fruit to a basin made out of a hollowed tree trunk and then press down on them using handfuls of tough grass as your gloves. You drain out the juice into a clay pot, strain out the chunks, mix it with sorghum flour as a fermenting agent, let it sit for about a month, and then you have your banana beer.

It is a simple recipe, but it takes years of practice to get it right. You have to feel your way around and make mistakes. This is normal. We have all tasted bad beer. Sometimes the banana juice comes out too light and you have to put it over a fire to reduce the quantity. Sometimes the juice comes out too potent and you have to add water. Almost every house in Rwanda has a yellow plastic jug of banana beer tucked somewhere on the premises. It is like a mailbox in America or a teapot in England; everyone has to have one.

The beer is not really the important part; it is the friendship that it cements. Everywhere in my country you see people talking and laughing over bottles of banana beer. It most often happens at what we call cabarets, which are an indispensable part of life in rural Africa. They are like a bar and a convenience store combined, sometimes made of nothing but a few planks of wood. You see them on the sides of roads, in the suburbs, and even in the smallest little villages. Here you can buy canned goods, soap, soft drinks, batteries, toys, and all kinds of other things. The most important part of the cabaret is the front, where the owner has set out chairs, benches, and maybe even an old, ratty couch. This is where the local people, no matter what their station in life, will come together for a round of banana beer, often sipped through the same red straw. It is very hard to hate someone with whom you have shared a beer. There is too much laughter and good feeling between you. Even people who might be predisposed to be enemies will come together over a beer.

Perhaps this simple act taps into something in our national memory. Banana beer is known as ìthe drink of reconciliation.î It plays an important role in our traditional local court system, known in the Kinyarwandan language as gacaca, or as it is loosely translated, ìjustice on the grass.î If somebody had a problem with a neighbor he would not seek revenge. He instead brought it to the attention of a group of men who we called elders. They were not elected in the classical sense of ballots, but they were put in a position of leadership by a kind of unspoken common assent. To be an elder you had to have a reputation for fairness and sober judgment, something that would only become apparent over time. It was apparent in the way you lived your life. Hard-liners and loudmouths did not get to be elders.

The elders would invite the village to come sit under the shade of a tree and hear the opposing sides tell their stories. Almost all of the disputes concerned property. A stolen goat, for instance, or somebody trying to grow crops on a hill that belonged to another family. More serious casesó such as those involving violenceówere always referred to the courts, but village elders were given wide latitude to help solve local problems.

After the two enemies had finished speaking, the elders would give their opinions, one by one, on what should be done to remedy the problem. It usually involved compensation. A typical punishment for a stolen goat would be to repay the man a goatóand then give him another as a fine. Somebody bringing a charge thought to be false would be ordered to pay the man he had slandered. Confession was always the key. The village put a high value on the act of admitting culpability, even if you were the one bringing the case. It was viewed as a necessary step in the process of absolution. A man who lied before the entire village knew that he would have to wear that lie for years to come. There was an enormous incentive to come clean, and very little penalty was meted out for being honest with the public, and with yourself.

Then came the most important part of justice on the grass: The two aggrieved men were required to share a gourd of banana beer as a sign of renewed friendship. There were usually no lasting scars because it was hard to stay angry at someone who had humbled himself before you. The adversarial system of justice practiced in the West often fails to satisfy us, I am convinced, because it does not offer warring parties the opportunity to be human with each other at the end. Whether you were the victim or the aggressor you had to strip yourself of pride and recognize the basic humanity of the fellow with whom you were now sharing a banana beer. There was public shame in this system, true, but also a display of mutual respect that closed the circle. Everyone who showed up to hear the case was invited to sip the banana beer too, as a symbol of the accused manís reconciliation with the entire people. It was like a secular communion. The lasting message for all that gathered there was that solutions could always be found insideóinside communities and inside people.

I am proud to say that my father was a respected voice in these sessions. He was usually the elder who spoke last, and his words therefore carried a great deal of weight. One case in particular stands out in my memory. The dispute was fairly typicalóone man had planted a crop on a piece of ground that another family had claimed. A gacaca was called and the usual grievances were aired. Even a child like me could see that this was a case of a small misunderstanding that had blossomed into a full-scale war of pride. When two people dig in their heels against one another like that it takes quite a bit of mutual humbling for things to be put right again.

For whatever reason my usually imperturbable father was a bit out of patience that day. Perhaps the silliness of the case or the small-mindedness of the people concerned had finally gotten to him. When it came his turn to talk he stood up and motioned for the two warring neighbors to join him. They all walked out, with me trailing quietly behind, to the place on that particular hill where the disputed crop was planted. My father, in addition to being an elder, was also respected as a man who had a memory for land claims that went back generations. He saw at once that the crop had indeed spilled over onto the neighborís land, but also that the majority of the field was where it should have been. There was no clear villain or victim.

ìListen, you two,î he said, motioning with the blade of his hand. ìThis is where the line is. Respect it from now on, and respect each other as well. I donít want to hear about this again.î

This was a vivid lesson for me.

My father spoke with the same kind of gravitas each January, on New Yearís Day, when relatives from all over Rwanda were invited to a feast at our home on the hill. This is probably the most important day in the entire Rwandan calendar, even bigger than Christmas. Most people here identify themselves as Roman Catholic or Protestant, but we tend to emphasize New Yearís Day as the time for extended families to come together and give each other presents and wish one another bonne annÈe. It is also a holiday to reflect on the events of the past and oneís hopes for the future, a fulcrum balanced on the tip of time. The meal served is always a belly buster. We would slaughter a bull for a feast of beef, and there were side dishes of beans and corn and peas and bananas, and, of course, banana beer.

After the meal was over my father would call me and my brothers and sisters to sit around him. He would give us all a verbal report card on our progress throughout the year of becoming good men and women. ìYou need to work harder in the fields,î he would say to one. ìYou are doing well in school, but you must show more respect to your older brothers,î he might say to another. As a good helper to my mother, and a quiet kid in general, my assessment was usually a kind one. Some parents might disagree with this discussion of a childís failures and accomplishments before the entire family, and I would agree that in the wrong hands it can be hurtful. But my father showed us the same compassion on these occasions as he showed in justice on the grass. His aim was never to embarrass us but to encourage us to do the right thing. Looking back on it I can say that I grew up knowing where the lines of good behavior were drawn.

My father had a favorite saying: ìWhoever does not talk to his father never knows what his grandfather said.î He was trying to express the linear quality of wisdom. His morality was not something that he made up on his own; it had been given to him by his own father and his grandfather before that, a mixture of Hutus and Tutsis stretching back hundreds of years to the time out of memory when our people had migrated to this hilly triangle between lakes. My fatherís sense of justice and kindness did not know ethnicity.

He often told us stories to make his thoughts clear, and one of my favorites was about the Rwandan concept of hospitality. We are a nation that loves to take people into our homes. I suppose our values are very much like the Bedouin of the Middle East, for whom sheltering and defending strangers is not just a nice thing to do but a spiritual imperative. Rwanda never had a hotel until the European colonists arrived. We never needed one, because a traveler between towns could count on having a network of peopleófriends of family, family of friendsówith whom he could stay. We do this reflexively. Here is the story my father told me to illustrate the point:

A party of hunters was chasing a wounded lion through the valley. The lion tried to take shelter in a manís house and the man decided to admit the lion, even though he was putting himself at great risk. The lion recovered from his wounds and was set free. And so if a man can keep a fierce lion under his roof, why can he not shelter a fellow human being?

Rwandans are expected to offer shelter to the distressed, no matter what the circumstances. I took this lesson as gospel, and I grew up believing that everybody felt this way.