In the 1990s I was lucky enough to get the job of Soap Opera Consultant for the Health Unlimited Well Women Media Project in Rwanda and the African Great Lakes.
It was a massive culture shock for me and I saw some sad and tragic images that I’d hitherto only seen on the news. In all, I spent eighteen months in Rwanda, but travelled further afield in the Great Lakes Region to collect data and pre-test the project. The aim of the project was to entertain its audience but also to inform and educate in terms of health, peace and reconciliation.
Given that the Genocide was incited via the radio airwaves, there was a natural suspicion and distrust of what the project was aiming to do, given it was to be doing it on the radio. To say that it was a bumpy ride is reductive, but I’m extremely proud that the soap opera, Urunana, got made, despite the odds, and is still successful today.
I have shared my stories of this adventure to many audiences over the past few years and I know they’ve enlightened and entertained, but here is a sample true story which I penned when I returned to my wife and children in the UK.
“The Land of a Thousand Hills”
I first saw Aline Aimee when she came to me for a job on the radio soap opera Urunana (Hand in Hand). She was tall, elegant and beautiful, with the kind of smile that only a Rwandese woman could have. She spoke Kinyarwandan, English and French. I wanted to give her a job but the vacancies were filled (I could’ve filled them 100 times over) so with a heavy heart I had to turn her away.
I saw her again in the Ramera Market and she smiled that smile. I bought her a soda, over which she told me her story – both her mother and father were lured to the Nyamata Church on the outskirts of Kigali, believing they’d find refuge, only to be slain by machete-wielding Hutu Militia (Interahamwe – we kill together). In hiding back in Kigali, Aline was left to look after her younger siblings and with the help of neighbours she made the long escape to Uganda.
After the war she made the 100-day trek back to her roots, carrying her little brother and sister and everything else she owned… a can for water and the clothes they stood up in. Taken in once again by kindly neighbours she began to eke out a living by selling cobs of corn at the roadside so she could feed her family and buy herself an education. Now, her siblings are six and eight and she wants to make sure their future would be better than hers.
Over the coming weeks Aline and I became friends and she like the team on Urunana would call me Mutijima (kind heart). It transpired she had family in America and she dreamed of travelling to see them. She also dreamed of saying her goodbyes to her dead parents, so I took her to the church near Bugesera where they rested…
Here, many hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered and their bones are piled like a skeletal monument to the dead, and their skulls are racked like hundreds of ostrich eggs, many bearing cracks where the machetes and clubs had met their target. I wanted to stand back and allow Aline to pick over the bones but she took my hand, begging me to go with her. We entered the church where layer upon layer of bones, clothes, children’s books and other worldly possessions were matted between the pews, and we had no choice but to walk on them. It felt disrespectful to trample over the dead but Aline said we must, to get to where she needed. At the altar, a bible lay open and a skull had been carefully placed on top. Beyond this, in what I supposed was the bombed-out chancel, were the skulls. I noticed nothing except stillness; no smell of death now, and no sound except for monarch birds tweeting in the karroo trees. Aline looked over the skulls, tears in her eyes, then reached out and touched one of them.
“C’est mon pere,” she said, “Et a cote de lui c’est ma mere.”
I’ll never know how she knew it was them, or even IF she knew it, but I couldn’t question. Who could? She was saying her goodbyes and that was that. She asked me to touch her parents too, and so I did, running my finger along the crack where the machete had fatally fallen. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body but it was the first I’d touched; two people I’d never known but I’d never forget.
As Aline then knelt to pray I stood back to leave her in the moment, and choking my own tears I could only write something probably insignificant in the book of condolence – what words are there to amply embrace the horror felt at the sight of such murderous meaningless?
“Merci,” she said, “Merci de m’avoir permis de les voir.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Aline would visit me in the house in Kigali, where my night-guard called Joseph lived up a tree and Gysenge my day-guard tended the garden with his machete. I hadn’t been able to give her work but I always made sure Aline had food in her belly and something to take home to her brother and sister. One night I played guitar for her and sang (something to remind her of her family in America I think) and she told me she loved me but I said I couldn’t love her back. I kissed her on the cheek and tasted her tears.
I visited her too, in her little hut in Ramera, and met her brother and sister. And one day out of the blue she said,
“Je veux voir l’homme qui a tue mes parents.” (I want to see the man who killed my parents).
So I took her to Gitarama Prison, a hell-hole where it was said that inmates stood up in their own shit, while ones more privileged for whatever reason would be tasked with making furniture, dressed in pink to tell the world who they were. As we sat outside the gates, peering in, I wanted to know if Aline was sure.
“Oui je suis sur,” she replied, “Et je suis sur qu’il est le seul.”
As she pointed to one of the prisoners in pink, again I could only take her at face value. I saw this time she didn’t cry. There was sadness in her eyes but nothing fell from them.
“How does it make you feel?” I asked.
“Rien,” she said, “Je ne sens rien. Maintenant je veux aller a la maison.” She’d seen all she wanted to see. She’d looked into the eyes of her parents’ killer, and now wanted to go home.
Soon my work in Rwanda was done and I was heading home to Manchester via Paris, eager to be reunited with my own family.
“Thank you Mutijima,” she said, in English this time, “thank you for everything you’ve done for me. And for everything you’ve done for my country.”
But on the plane I knew I’d done very little. Yes I’d done my best to create a project to help bring some sustainable stability to a troubled but beautiful country, and yes I was proud of my achievements. I still am. But what was this compared to the super-strength of a young orphan forced to mother her baby siblings, and her determination to make a better life after Genocide had taken nearly everything?
Now, more than twenty years on, when the black dog comes barking and I feel sorry for myself, I often think of Aline. I wonder if she lived? If she managed to get her siblings into school? Did she save enough to get to America and reunite with her uncles? Somehow I think she probably did all those things. She’d lived through a horror and a sadness I could only imagine, yet I never once saw her feel sorry for herself. She just got on with life. I should never forget that.
Josef is nine years old and lives in a house made of clay with his brother, two sisters and their mother. The house has only three rooms in which they huddle together, cook, eat and sleep. Because his father was killed in the Genocide, he is the man of the house. Every day he collects the eggs from the chickens, boils them hard on a camp stove, fills a bag with salt and takes them into town to sell, hoping to make enough to buy some bread and meat.
I see him every day and he says the same thing: “Bonjour Mr Mutijima, avez-vous un biscuit pour moi?”
“Bonjour Josef,” I reply, “Bien sur!”!
At night when I return from my work he has something for me – a picture of me with my own children that he has drawn from imagination. I thank him very much and tell him I will keep it forever. He’s a bright little boy and his French is good, but he wants to go to school so he can learn to speak it better.
“Un jour tu vas,” I say.
“Nous n’obtenons pas toujours ce que nous voulons,” he says.
How true is that?
If you would like to hear more fascinating and moving anecdotes about my time in Rwanda and the African Great Lakes, call 07769138890. Or you can read the full and edited short story about my African adventures in the anthology “Day Return to Cocoa Yard” published by Austin MaCauley and available here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/day-return-to-cocoa-yard/mark-bickerton/9781528990943