So here I am, even today, feeling as though I am watching my life from outside myself, the main actor in a bizarre movie that begins in Rwanda and, by some strange twist of fate, finds me in Canada as I leave this trail of words, ideas, and feelings for you to follow.
It was a long time before I asked anyone else about my father. Almost two decades later, my mother tells me:
Son, your father would be proud of you. He would have loved to see you and see what you have become today. He seemed to be in his early 20’s when I met him. We were both in our 4th Year of secondary school at Groupe Scholaire de Bicumbi in Kigali, pursuing a career in l’Éducation et Développement de la Petite Enfance. He was quiet and reserved talking to strangers. But when he opened his mouth to speak, he spoke with pride and confidence. Hardworking! He was highly ambitious and curious, just like you. I had no intentions of getting into a relationship at that time, but I fell in love. He was charming. Young and naive to grasp what love really meant for us—we found ourselves playing all sorts of games young lovers do. As the semester was coming to an end, I learned I was pregnant. This truth was too hard to bear. I wasn’t sure how to break the “news” to my parents, my elder brother, and members of my extended family.
The clock was ticking. My time was running out before figuring out what to do with life forming inside me. I was terrified at the thought of being noticed. I ran away from long conversations and long stares from my female teachers and friends to the best of my ability. When I couldn’t handle the guilt and shame any longer, I broke the news to my boyfriend, your father. He advised me to remain calm and collected. I followed his advice and we were able to sit for our final exams without any suspicions from anyone in the school. It was time to go home for our Grande Vacances but before we parted ways, we promised to keep in touch. At the time, there was no access to “telecommunications,” thanks to des lettres postalles we were able to communicate—for a little while. When I arrived home, I talked to my parents—they were all understanding and supportive.
The following academic year began in September, and I was three months pregnant. I could not return to my old school in Kigali. Mom and Dad were able to enroll me back in school. I was enrolled in a private secondary school in my hometown. I studied harder despite my condition and finished my first semester with an outstanding performance. Your father kept his promise and occasionally sent me letters. I had love, care, and support all around me. I had all that I needed to make it through happy, safe, and healthy! The second semester of my 5th year of secondary school opened in January 1994. I was a month away from my due date. I could not go back to school, but nitially, I had made arrangements with the school’s administration to resume my studies six months after delivery. On 15th February 1994, you came into this world. Your uncles, Alex and Silvestor, named you Rukara (as in Rukara Rwa Bishingwe). I prefered, Liven Ndayishimiye (both a combination of your father’s first name, and my last name), but as the Rwandan say: Izina ni irikujije (a really name is that which grows you into an understanding faithful man.
About two months later we heard the announcement on the radio that the president’s plane was shot down. At home, no one knew what was coming. We were waiting in fear, and then for a moment, I thought about your father where he was at school. That was it! It was over. People started turning against each other, and gruesome killings began. Students who made it home safely were lucky. Many of my classmates were targeted and killed. And your father? I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to him even today. I never knew anyone from his family. I have tried to trace him and failed many, many times. What happened was so acute, and nobody was allowed to scream.
We fled the country in June to seek refuge in Burundi, an identical-twin-nation to Rwanda, a nation with very similar people, language, and past but divided with artificial borders and ethnic boundaries—to promote and secure the interests of colonial powers, of course. We lived in Burundi for about three months, and then extended conflicts in Burundi and Rwanda forced us out. We mixed with Burundian refugees and walked our way out of the country to reach the Tanzanian border after four days of starvation, sleepless nights, thirst, and swollen feet. We were led to Benaco, a refugee camp near the border of Rwanda. The geographical location of Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania were said to cause political tensions between the new Rwandan government and the government of Tanzania. The new government in Kigali urged Tanzania to close down these refugee camps, claiming that they harbored Génocidaires, individuals guilty of the mass killings of the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi population.
In November 1996, Sergio de Mello, the Deputy officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in collaboration with the government of Tanzania, announced that the security situation in Rwanda had recovered. Ironically, the announcement encouraged refugees to return home voluntarily, with the expectation of having vacated the camp’s premises by 31st December 1996. Refugees perceived this as a hardly subtle program of forced repatriation. By nightfall, a hundred thousands of refugees had emptied out. Only the sick, starving, wounded, disabled, old, and otherwise weak—those who could not physically go any further—remained behind. Those who had money in their pockets boarded minibus taxis and trains to Kenya and Malawi. No one in my family had money for such conveniences—least of all transport to a safer, more distant place where we could apply for asylum. We joined other refugees and stayed hidden in Tanzanian forests, sometimes moving from one refugee camp to another (between Musuhura and Rumasi), back and forth until the witchhunt stopped. In 1997 we joined Lukole, a refugee camp that was intentionally designated to accommodate refugees from Burundi. In 1997, I got married to Salvatore, your step-father. In 1998 your brother was born—the same year you were baptized in the Catholic Church, and were named “Gabriel” (your uncle, Alexis suggested the name). In 1999 I enrolled you in nursery, and finally, in September 1999, you began your first year of primary school at E.P. AKAZOZA.
My mother’s voice faded away and I was immediately enveloped in a blinding rage over the loss of a father I never knew. What struck me most was the fact that when my mother lost contact with him, she had so little knowledge of his family or relatives that it’s been virtually impossible to trace him. To make matters worse, she told me she never kept a single photo of him. She blames herself for all the mysteries of my life and for what her life turned out to be. I have learned to acknowledge these moments when they happen so I can offer assurance that all is forgiven. I am grown now, alive and well. There’s no sense in blame and guilt. Life is what it is. We have to carry on and live, to escape the shadowy clouds of our past into an always evolving future.
Though my words sound assuring at times, they are rarely enough to calm her down or convince her that things have turned out well for me. She is overjoyed by my academic successes, by all the comfort and hope I have found in Canada, achievements that are not mine alone.