The genocide which took place in Rwanda in 1994 was inconceivable after the horror of the Holocaust. To think that the world could allow 1,952,078 people to be massacred over 100 days will remain a deep scar in the world’s history for years to come. Yet, slowly, miraculously, the country has begun the painful task of healing. And to help the process, novelist and playwright Koulsy Lamko was invited to visit Rwanda four years after the atrocities in 1998 as part of a project entitled, “Writing by Duty of Memory”.
Koulsy was one of a dozen African writers who were invited to visit Rwanda and asked to write a text based on their findings. The authors interviewed survivors, even met with perpetrators, visited many memorial sites, churches where Tutsis had hidden, hoping to be safe. The writers visited the church of Nyamata, where, on April 14, 1994, killers had murdered over three thousand Tutsi. The bodies of these victims are still on display as the new Rwandan government – led by the Tutsi leader – decided they would be an eternal silent reminder of the horrors committed against them.
Koulsy Lamko is an award-winning playwright, poet and novelist from Chad. From 1998 to 2002, he was director of the University Centre for Arts and Drama in Butare, Rwanda, and taught creative writing and performing arts at the National University of Rwanda. He currently lives in Mexico City, where he is the Coordinator of Cultural Diffusion in the Universidad Autonoma de la Ciudad de Mexico.
Koulsy’s novel for the project, The Butterfly of the Hills, tells the story of one of the victims, Thérèse Mukandori. Thérèse was raped and murdered and left at this church. Below is the heartbreakingly beautiful first chapters in which Thérèse, who has been reborn as a butterfly, watches a tour group as they encounter the grisly scene.
Up and away I fly. Down below, lines of women are hunched over, laying bricks. They’re putting in the gutter on the road that’s being paved . . . to drain off the rains. They are builders, these women are; they know how to climb deftly up the shaky eucalyptus branch scaffolding. They’re lugging baskets filled with baked clay bricks, and ideas . . . basketfuls of ideas. But their thoughts never intrude between the trowels and their hands. It has always been that way; and, it continued to be that way when dizzying chaos overwhelmed the minds of men. I am now a butterfly, an enormous scorched-earth–coloured butterfly, begot by neither man nor woman, but by anger. I emerged from the void of a ghost and from the desiccated body of an anonymous woman lying among the cadavers piled inside one of the church/genocide-museums. Before the chaos came, the whole world knew me; I was the object of adulation. I inhabited the body of a real queen: “The Queen of the Middleworld.”
A salvo of flashes illuminated my body, dissipating the penumbra in which it lay. The musungu with the opulent jowls was posing, framed within the viewfinder of Pelouse’s camera. She sidled over for another set of shots and stumbled into the guide, Védaste. The reaction was immediate: disrupted and thoroughly flustered, my faithful companion in misfortune began bumbling and entangling himself in a series of repetitive apologies, as he lost his way among the mannered circumlocutions of political correctness and social propriety.
“Quiet! Keep still,” he eventually said, far more for himself than for the two visitors who couldn’t figure out why he was asking “Quiet” to keep still. “Here upon this large table lies a mummified body powdered with talc. Observe the vagina! The shaft of wood that you see planted there, where the pulsing begins, in the myth of the cave, at the entrance to the lair where mankind is fashioned, where all originates, in that matrix, that source of life… that piece of wood is a stake. This was no ordinary woman. She was a…”
I lifted the guide off the ground and threw him off to the side. His face smashed against a large wooden crate of bones. He began frothing at the mouth. I left him there in an epileptic seizure that had him shaking convulsively. […]
I had decided to take back the Word and to print it directly on the consciences of these two unusual visitors in its unabridged, unexpurgated, original form. I couldn’t take any more of these altered, doctored speeches, any more of these insipid solos that reeked of smuggled goods and requiems. As far back as Lyangombe’s reign, the old adage has decreed: each of us is lone witness to his life’s tale, the sole true reflection of his face, for he alone has known the weariness that drew the rings beneath his eyes. The story of my life is mine and mine alone. It is the story of a queen and, above all, the story of a vagina: a vagina with a tree thrust up into it.
photo credit: Wikimedia