African Library: Small country by Gaël Faye

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Gaël Faye – Small country (2016)

“Genocide is an oil slick: those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life” (154), states the child narrator of Faye’s novel after his ravaged Rwandan-born mother has returned from that “small country” to their own, Burundi: the country actually referred to in the title. With the book having been first published in French in 2016, the English translation by Sarah Ardizzone became available in 2018. It is a prize-winning text available in thirty countries. The reader is drawn into the narrative by the initially artless voice of Gaby (from Gabriel), as the pre-adolescent boy confidingly relates how his French father (owner of a lucrative construction company in Bujumbura) – who wants Gaby and his younger sister, Ana, to “stay out of” politics – attempts to explain Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions in Burundi (as in Rwanda) as neutrally as possible to the two children: “In Burundi, you see, it’s like in Rwanda. There are three different ethnic groups. The Hutu form the biggest group, and they’re short with wide noses,” their father tells them. He adds: “There are also the Twa pygmies. But … there are so few they hardly count. And then there are the Tutsi, like your mother.” Concerning them, “a much smaller group than the Hutu”, he says that they are “tall and skinny with long noses and you can never tell what’s going on in their heads. Take you, Gabriel,” he said, “you’re a proper Tutsi: we can never tell what you’re thinking.” To which the boy charmingly responds with the thought, “I had no idea what I was thinking, either” (1). He is especially confused when his father’s answers to further questions reveal that the Hutus and the Tutsis share territory, language and religion. Nevertheless, they make war against one another, and even though the boy and his sister discover how utterly unreliable the supposed “markers” of body height and nose shape are to distinguish Hutus from Tutsis, at their French primary school, “[s]omething in the air had changed” as ethnic tensions manifest in schoolyard fights and name-calling: “And you could smell it, no matter what kind of nose you had,” Gaby adds (2). With most of the narrative set in Burundi immediately prior to the 1993 elections and recounting how the overturning of the results by military coup resulted in an unmistakably ethnically tinged and bloody civil war that would last until 2005, readers may need some contextualising information. It can be safely said that globally, earlier periods of ethnic enmities of near-genocidal proportions that had occurred in Burundi (in 1965, 1972 and 1988) are seldom mentioned. Yet, the hatred and fear generated by the events on both “sides” simmered on within the new nation.

We soon gather that most of Gaby’s tale rests on the vivid recollections of the young adult Gaby, “haunted by the idea of returning” to Burundi (where their mother had “disappeared” just before – and their father was murdered soon after – the children were sent off to the safety of France as the civil war intensified). Ana, his sister, warns him bitterly that he “won’t find anything there, apart from ghosts and a pile of ruins” (3). But his life in France, which seems comfortable and pleasant enough in its circumstances, is just “one long meandering” (3). Nothing in Europe can compare to the vivid intensity and close companionships of his childhood years in Bujumbura – specifically, in the impasse (as Gaby and his four close friends call the cul-de-sac in the leafy, well-to-do suburb where they live). While Papa and Maman and the marital tensions within their relationship form his most immediate emotional context, his four friends and the little “tribe” constituted by their alliance give Gaby the social sustenance that he needs. The wreck of an old Combi in an overgrown plot is the “clubhouse” where the boys gather to plan their initially carefree afternoons and weekends – but even this haven will slowly be contaminated by the ineluctable political forces of the time, and the ethnic passions swirling around them.

In the earlier chapters of the novel, the boy makes us aware of the sources of his parents’ marital tensions, as the breakdown in their relationship – which culminates in his mother’s departure from their home to live on her own elsewhere in the city, where she runs a shop – is the first breach in the wall of his early childhood sense of happiness and security. Apart from what the boy senses was the initial disenchantment – when the couple’s children arrived, with all the mundane demands young kids make of their parents – Yvonne wants to leave Burundi for France. As a Tutsi (albeit from Rwanda), Yvonne is hyper-aware of “the threats that are all around” them (17), whereas her husband, like his older friend, Jacques – a Zairean of Belgian origin – relishes the lushness, the business opportunities and the economic and social privileges he enjoys as a European in Burundi. The first Christmas after the marital breakup, the feuding parents eventually agree that while Gaby will remain in Bujumbura with his father, Ana will accompany Maman on her first visit to Rwanda since she left the country at the age of four – nearly thirty years earlier. They will be staying with Yvonne’s sister, Eusébie, who still lives in Kigali (the capital). The mother- and sisterless Christmas is, to an extent, compensated for (in the ten-year-old Gaby’s view) by his father’s gift of a red BMX bike “with multi-coloured tassels on the handles” (23), even though his father punishes him with a slap in full view of his friends – the twins who live nearby – for having left the house before breakfast to show off his gift to them. For New Year’s, Gaby’s father takes him for a camping weekend among the pygmy potters – a people whom the father admires for having maintained their ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle – in the Kibira forest. His father takes a souvenir photograph of Gaby standing between the two trunks of a bifurcating tree. This photo will become one of his few treasured childhood mementoes; the forest trip is the last happy memory that he shares with his father. They come back home to be told that Calixte, a staff member who has been with them for a long time, has decamped with a lot of the father’s gear – and also with Gaby’s Christmas gift BMX.

Along with its allusions to the ethnic enclaves in Burundi, Faye’s novel reveals the less blatant, but perhaps deeper, class fissures in the society – between wealthy European settlers and the generally poorer indigenes, between urbanites and country dwellers, and between the modernised and the more traditional citizens of this “small country”. The anecdote related by Gaby’s friends, “the twins” (never individually named), relating how they were unexpectedly circumcised at their grandmother’s place in the deep countryside, despite having (like Gaby) a French father who disapproves of this practice, is one illustration of class and cultural difference. Then, there is Gaby’s narrative of the expedition undertaken to retrieve his stolen BMX, which the twins tell him they’ve spotted being used by a strange boy in their grandmother’s village at the other end of the country (which Gaby, in the company of a cocky Burundian member of their household staff and his father’s Zairean foreman, can reach in less than half a day). When the family’s Hutu cook, Prothé, returns to work after a serious bout of cerebral malaria, he profusely thanks Gaby’s father for his payment of both his medical bills and his sessions with a traditional healer, only to be told that the money will be docked from his next month’s wages. In a “pen pal” exchange organised by Gaby’s teacher, we catch a glimpse of how similar and how different the life of the French girl of the same age, who is Gaby’s correspondent, is to his own in Burundi – where the first ever democratic elections are about to be held.

Despite his privileged life in a Kigali suburb, Gaby is sufficiently Burundian to provide the following empathetic evocation of life in the countryside:

Up in the hills, even when you think you’re alone, there are always hundreds of pairs of eyes watching you, and your presence is announced for kilometres around by voices that ricochet from one hut – or rugo – to another. So, by the time we [Gaby, along with his father’s foreman, on the BMX retrieving mission] reached the old woman [here, the twins’ grandmother] she was already waiting for us and holding two glasses of milk curds. Donatien and I couldn’t speak much Kirundi …. (40)

The linguistic gap is, however, not only because in the suburbs French is the going language and for the Zairean the shared tongue, but because Kirundi spoken in the countryside is far more formal and proverb-rich than the urban lingo. Tracing the various people to whom the BMX has been “sold on”, the three from the city eventually track down “the beekeeper from Gitaba” (42), the most recent buyer of the BMX, to a “small clay house with a roof covered in banana-tree leaves” (43) at the top of a hill. Despite the occupants’ evident poverty, they courteously welcome the three. Soon, the son of the beekeeper scoots up on the BMX, which Gaby immediately grabs – to the boy’s dismay and that of his father. The older man explains that he saved and scraped to get his son the legitimately bought bike, but – despite Donatien’s plea that they return to Kigali as if they could not find the BMX – Gaby, with the misnamed Innocent’s insistent backing, leaves the dismayed family deprived, to try to recover the money from the previous buyer in a no doubt futile attempt. Gaby’s feeble response to his sense of guilt is to declare, as they reach home, that he won’t ever ride the bike again. Innocent now denounces him as a “[s]poilt brat”, while Donatien (who told Gaby that his father would simply buy him a replacement) “with an icy anger” slowly states: “The damage is done, kid” (46).

A particular achievement of this novel is that, despite being a “hindsight narrative” of childhood experiences, the author gets the ten-year-old boy narrator’s tone just right in a combination of jauntiness and matter-of-factness that nevertheless allows the youngster’s vulnerabilities and insecurities to filter through to the reader. He is also precociously aware of the somewhat peripheral existence – in Bujumbura and Burundi – of Rwandan refugees, such as his maternal grandmother and her ancient mother, as well as his admired uncle, Pacifique. Rosalie, the great-grandmother, does not speak French, and she wants to return to and die in Rwanda, whereas her grandson, Pacifique, decides to join the Rwandan Patriotic Front – a military group of mainly Tutsi Rwandans who would much later gain victory over the genocidal Hutu-dominated Rwandan government of the time. Pacifique’s and Maman’s brilliant older brother, Alphonse, a chemical engineer and graduate of top universities, has already been killed (two years earlier) fighting for the same RPF. How much the family misses this charming man is beautifully conveyed in Gaby’s image describing how, when Alphonse teased and laughed, “happiness washed over the walls of Mami’s small living room like a fresh lick of paint” (48). Now, they are facing the next sacrifice with Pacifique’s imminent departure for the battlefront.

Gaby’s narrative shifts to his and his friends’ adventures and expeditions. They are a deft group of mango thieves, regularly raiding the neighbourhood gardens for the luscious fruit. They even steal from the trees in their Greek neighbour Madame Economopoulos’s yard, only to await her return from town at her gate and sell her some of her own mangoes – to the fury of her “houseboy”. Only one member of the gang of five friends is a full-blooded Burundian: Armand, the son of a diplomat, is bullied by his frequently absent father, so his happy-go-lucky persona is, at his home, replaced by a very subdued boy. Gino, by far the oldest member of their group, is the son of a Belgian political scientist. He lives with this father, who treats the boy almost like his intellectual equal, but none of the others has met Gino’s Rwandan (presumably Tutsi) mother, who is always said to be “away” on business trips to different countries. The twins (as has been said) have a French father and a Rwandan mother, like Gaby. The group’s main “enemy” is a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy named Francis, something of a bully and stronger than all five of them combined. Although he lives in their neighbourhood, Gino detests him as an interloper whom they (he, especially) must fight. Francis, who lives in a nearby “gloomy house covered in lichen” with an elderly uncle, heartily detests the group in his turn, calling them “rich kids and spoilt brats with afternoon tea at four o’ clock” – ie with “colonial” habits. He, by contrast, is much more streetwise, “with first-hand knowledge of the gangs from Ngagara and Bwiza” (62). Gaby hides his fear of Francis from the others, but they are more than likely all afraid of this much tougher boy. Yet, Gino is constantly urging fights with him. Gaby greatly prefers the more innocent and peaceful pursuits of playing in the river and among the trees, but things are changing inexorably also among the boys of the impasse. As the fortress mentality takes hold, the boy wonders “when it was that our little band began to feel scared” (63).

Gino is Gaby’s dearest friend, and the younger boy is dismayed at what an adult would term the increasingly politicised and ideologically coloured language of his buddy. He even insists that Gaby needs to acquire “what he called an ‘identity’” (65) as a Tutsi affiliated to those of their ethnicity being blatantly persecuted in Rwanda. Gino is able to pretend to be old enough to buy the local beer at one of the dark drinking spots in their neighbourhood, where the boys go to listen in on the locals discussing the coming elections. Party rivalries manifest among Hutu “versus” Tutsi employees also in Gaby’s home, and these tensions intensify until the day of the elections, won by the majority (Hutu) party. Gaby’s father or one of his friends comments drily that “[t]his isn’t a democratic victory, it’s an ethnic reflex …” (77). Gaby’s father grimly forecasts trouble to come, because the party that won does not have the support of the army. Gaby’s version of this (in a letter to his French pen pal) is the comment that “[m]ilitary presidents always suffer from migraines. It’s like they’ve got two brains. They never know whether to make peace or wage war” (79, original italics).

A high point of happiness in Gaby’s life is the lavish celebration of his eleventh birthday, to which the entire neighbourhood (including both adults and children) has been invited. An added attraction is that guests will be served grilled crocodile meat from the huge creature shot by their family friend, Jacques, who was summoned from Zaire a few days earlier for his hunting prowess, as the crocodile had killed a tourist and had to be put down. Jacques’s triumphant retelling of the hunt attracts quite an audience, with Madame Economopoulos especially impressed by the dashing Belgian. The party is a gathering of all and sundry, but Gaby’s friends – and mainly Gino – are dismayed when they spot Francis in the hubbub. Gino orders him to leave, but Francis (insisting validly that the party is open to all in the neighbourhood) refuses to leave, so Gino attacks Francis, despite Gaby’s demurral. While the two boys battle, Gaby runs to his father and other adults to separate them, and they send Francis away when Gino claims that Francis initiated the fight. Soon after, Jacques’s treasured lighter goes missing, and this, too, is blamed on Francis – a convenient scapegoat. Much, much later, Gaby will find out that their “Man Friday”, Innocent, was the lighter thief. The final straw that triggered Gino’s assault was the taunt by Francis that no one ever sees Gino’s mother. But, after the drama of the fight, partying resumes with gusto. When the electricity fails and the music cuts out, a few men who can play musical instruments are quickly gathered so that the energetic and joyous dancing can continue. In the early hours, a huge electric storm sends everyone scuttling for cover and leaving for home, thus naturally ending the party – “dissolving in a cloudburst”, as Gaby says. Yet, the boy continues to “savour” the moment “before the rain came down in earnest, that taste of suspended happiness as music joined our hearts and filled the space between us, celebrating life, this moment in time, the eternity of my eleven years. Here, beneath the cathedral that was the rubber fig tree of my childhood” (89).

At school, now in intermediary school after the interminable summer holidays, Gaby again notices class differences, mentioning how “groups were formed according to new criteria: those with desirable possessions [such as Nike shoes and ‘American’ clothes] kept to themselves” (91). Gino is resentful of the fact that only Armand out of their gang of five is accepted into the “elite” group and enjoys it; they like his clowning. When Gaby bemoans their lack of flashy possessions, Gino insists that “one day they’ll see us for who we are”, and adds, “and then everybody’ll be afraid of us” (92). When Gaby expresses his amazement at Gino wanting to be feared, the older boy states that that is the only way to earn what he calls respect. Gaby is also increasingly aware that Gino, like Gaby’s Tutsi relatives, dreams of a Rwanda reconquered for their group. The author juxtaposes this conversation and Gaby’s subsequent thoughts with an earth tremor that makes a wide crack in the wall of Gino’s family’s garage, reading the damage as symbolically indicative of the “dark underground forces” that he sees as intermittently “fomenting violence and destruction” in this seemingly peaceful society. In language that only initially appears hyperbolically horrifying, we can discern the adult Gaby’s view of the “poisonous lava, the thick flow of blood” that is getting “ready to rise to the surface once more”. He ends the chapter with the following portentous words: “We didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash its cackle of hyenas and wild dogs” (93).

A few nights later, when Gaby and Ana’s father is away from home (according to Innocent, he has a “girlfriend” with whom he spends some nights), they hear gunshots. The sounds indicate the military coup that will overthrow the new democracy and kill the elected president. Others among the ruling group are also shot, while some escape into hiding or go into exile. Gino secretly visits Gaby (everyone is supposed to stay indoors for their own safety) to talk about the coup. He also sneers at the old German woman who, among the human carnage, is frantically concerned for the safety of her horse, which has run off in a panic. For a number of nights, the family sleeps in the hallway, on the floor, where they are least likely to get hit by stray shots. After about a week, however, their French school reopens. As Gaby says, “for privileged children like us, who lived in the city centre and in residential neighbourhoods, war was just a word. We heard things, but hadn’t seen anything” (99). Gaby’s family’s household staff return to work. Their cook, Prothé, who had been a passionate supporter of the party that won the election, laments that the military men “have murdered hope” (100), as he repeatedly says. But it is in the city’s poorer areas that the effects of the popular uprising against the coup are felt, and particularly in the countryside. As “villages were ravaged and set alight, schools suffered grenade attacks and the students inside were burned alive”, while “hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing towards Rwanda, Zaire and Tanzania”. But, “from the womb-like safety of our house,” Gaby acknowledges, “all of this seemed unreal” (101).

One afternoon, as the five boys in their “gang” loll in the old VW Combi, Gino suggests a mango raid, and they end up outside the yard of Francis, with whom Gino fought at Gaby’s party. Gino dares the others to go into the yard for mangoes. Gaby is especially fearful, and, entirely predictably, soon Francis detects their illicit presence. He storms at them and, as they run to try and make their getaway, Francis knocks down first Gaby and then Gino, inches from the river that runs past the bottom of the property. Furiously grasping both younger boys behind their necks, the sinewy Francis not only pins them down, but forces their heads underwater. In the moments when the older boy, who seems intent on drowning them both, allows them to resurface for a few mouthfuls of air, he yells threats and insults at them: “Bunch of spoilt brats, I’ll teach you manners” and “Your mothers are white men’s bitches” (103). Gaby resigns himself to being drowned, but Gino resists fiercely and shouts back at Francis: “Nobody has the right to insult my mother!” to which Francis replies with the shouted sneer: “Where is she, your bitch of a mother?” (105). Francis has by this time let go of Gaby to concentrate on keeping his hold on Gino, but Gaby is too exhausted to come to his friend’s aid until he hears a weeping Gino admit to Francis: “[M]y mother’s dead” (105). Of course, Francis’s mother is presumably dead, too – and, in all likelihood, he wanted to force the cocky younger boy to admit to this shared deprivation, and expose the secret he had been keeping so carefully. As a defeated, finally released Gino sits sobbing by the edge of the river, Gaby, now somewhat recovered from his own ordeal, goes towards his friend to comfort him, but Gino rebuffs him and walks away. Gaby feels “an icy anger” at his friend’s cruel humiliation, and this gives him the strength to conquer his fear of Francis. He walks over to the much older boy and, although he says nothing, he looks at him with defiance and contempt. Gino’s tears are the one thing that matters to him now.

But Gino avoids Gaby for a long time after the Francis episode. The city is now under the control of urban militias and real gangs of youths who mount roadblocks and conduct raids. At Gaby’s home, a violent quarrel – no doubt the result of ethnicised enmity – erupts between Prothé and Innocent, the swaggering “general assistant”, resulting in the latter’s dismissal. At school, Gaby sees children splitting into their ethnic groups as insults are traded and schoolyard fights erupt. Gaby says that he “began to decipher people’s body language and glances” and their “words left unspoken”. It is no longer possible to remain aloof from the ethnic conflict. As he comments, “war always takes upon itself, unsolicited, to find us an enemy”; even though he has been determined to “remain neutral”, it proves impossible, because “I was born with this story. It ran in my blood. I belonged to it” (109). And, in Rwanda, which Gaby visits with his mother and sister to attend his uncle Pacifique’s wedding to a Rwandan (Tutsi) bride, they soon discover “an even more violent reality” (110). The wedding is preceded by dreadful words of warning from Pacifique, who is still with the RPF, the opposition army to the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government. He tells Gaby’s mother: “The situation is graver than it appears. Our intelligence has intercepted messages that … lead us to believe that something horrific is about to happen here” (113). They’ve heard, he says, that the government is about to overturn the previously concluded peace agreements with the RPF, and to eliminate all opposition leaders, as well as all the moderate Hutu civil society figures, before they start attacking the Tutsis. Despite the Arusha peace agreements, machetes are being distributed to “loyal” Hutus all across the country in preparation for the mass killings. The family agrees that, although Aunt Eusébie is firm about remaining in Kigali to work, her four children will be sent to Bujumbura to stay with Yvonne (Gaby’s mother) after her return to Burundi, as if merely going on an Easter holiday visit.

The next day, the two families undertake an early morning drive to Gitarama, fifty kilometres away, where Pacifique will join them, his wife-to-be and her family at their homestead for the wedding to be held. On the way, they run into a roadblock manned by hostile government soldiers, who threaten and insult them as Inyenzi [the Kinyarwanda word for cockroaches – the insult coined by Hutu extremists for Tutsis in order to foment genocidal hatred]. As they are at last allowed to travel onward, one of the soldiers smashes the car’s rear window with the butt of his rifle. Despite their panic, they get away safely, and Aunt Eusébie instructs them not to mention this horrible experience and spoil the festive wedding atmosphere. Arrived and welcomed at Gitarama, they meet the lovely bride, who is already expecting a baby – although her conservative and staunchly Catholic parents are not to be informed of this detail. The ceremony over, they spend some time with the bride’s family, but before too long, have to leave so as to return safely to the city.

A while after Gaby and his sister’s return to Bujumbura with their mother, he decides to go visit his friends, whom he has not seen since the Rwandan trip. After watching a film with the twins and Armand at their home, the four decide to go to their old Combi hideout. Gaby is dumbstruck when they find Gino inside, sharing a cigarette with Francis. With infuriating calm, Gino responds to Gaby’s outrage by stating that he has invited Francis to join their crew, explaining curtly: “We’re going to need him to protect the street” (124). Feeling betrayed, Gaby slams the Combi door and runs off, but Gino comes after him, explaining haltingly that he and Francis “talked” after the latter came to Gino’s home to apologise. Losing a mother as a boy, he tells Gaby, is something they share; he now believes that Francis is someone who’s had a lot to contend with. When Gaby conveys his sympathy to Gino about his mother’s death, he nevertheless asks Gino why he never told him about this. She isn’t really dead to him, Gino says; he feels her still with him, and can even sometimes hear her voice. On being anxiously asked whether he is still his “best friend”, Gino – who, to Gaby, is his “brother”, “friend”, “better twin” and the person who possesses the “strength and courage” that he thinks he himself lacks – responds wordlessly. He picks a thorn from a nearby plant, then pricks first his own and then Gaby’s finger, to press the fingers together in a blood brother pact, declaring that he loves Gaby “more than anyone” (125). This moment is perhaps both the culmination and the beginning of the end of Gaby’s innocence and his bond with Gino.

At the insistence of Francis, who pays for a taxi to take them and await their return, the boys set off for an adventure to a destination known only to Francis – the swimming pool at the “collège du Saint-Esprit, which loomed like a vast ocean liner above the city” (126). Determined to consolidate his pact with Gino and not let his friend be overwhelmed by admiration for Francis, Gaby undertakes the daring feat of plunging into the pool from the top of the extremely high diving board at the pool, which none of the other boys dares to do. Terrified though he is, Gaby manages this – probably the moment that the text’s cover image attempts to depict, though none of them wears the swimming trunks shown in the cover photo. Soon, the caretaker arrives to chase them off, and the elated boys run off and tumble into the waiting taxi, to be driven back home through the rain. The exhilaration lasts until, in an eerie moment, the taxi’s headlights catch the outline of a huge black horse (this is, no doubt, the old German woman’s that ran off from its stable in the post-election mayhem). The terrified taxi driver keeps saying, “Shetani! Shetani!” seeing the animal as an omen, an incarnation of the devil.

On the morning of 7 April 1994, the telephone in Gaby’s home rings and rings. His father is not home, so he eventually picks it up. It is his mother, who tells him she is coming over immediately upon hearing that the children are alone. Although she says nothing to explain, Gaby does notice “something manic” about his mother’s gestures. The yard around their house and the streets seem unnaturally quiet. When their father returns, even though their mother initially reproaches him for staying away at night instead of minding the children, it is soon evident that some other big thing is the matter. With “eyes red from crying”, their mother tells them: “The presidents of Burundi and Rwanda were killed last night” (132) when their plane was shot down, and she is unable to reach Eusébie, Pacifique or his young wife Jeanne on the telephone. She asks her husband to help. At last, late that afternoon, her sister tells her that “Tutsis” (with no qualification or particularities) are being held responsible for the deaths. She is convinced, in view of the fact that the entire Rwandan Hutu population has been summoned to arm themselves for retaliatory violence, that “this was their signal to eliminate us [Rwandan Tutsis]” (133). Eusébie tells her sister: “We have little chance of making it, this time” (134). She says that there is gunfire all around, and that that very morning they were the terrified, secretly watching witnesses to the murders of the entire Tutsi family living next door to them. Yvonne reminds Eusébie that they survived the pogroms of 1963 and 1964 by sheltering in the churches, but her despairing sister tells her that it is better to say their farewells – she will hide her children in the false ceiling of her home and go seek help, but with the UN taking only foreign personnel, her options are minimal.

Maman stops eating and sleeping as the dreadful news of the Rwandan slaughter filters out to Burundi in the following weeks of the three interminable, genocidal months. Only at the beginning of June does Yvonne’s mother get a phone call from Pacifique that his RPF unit will reach his wife’s parents’ place within a week. In July, when the RPF forces reach Kigali, Maman, accompanied by her mother and grandmother, leaves immediately for the Rwandan capital. The Burundian fallout from the local violence and the spillover from Rwanda is that people with European links start leaving the country, among them the twins and their family. The twins’ departure makes more “space” for the new member of the group, Francis, who becomes its dominant presence in a sort of alliance with Gino, who is obsessed with “protect[ing] the ‘hood’” (138), as he puts it in wannabe gangsta-speak. Francis and Gino insist that the group must openly ally itself with the gang of street thugs manning a nearby roadblock. Gaby detests the idea of an alliance with “those murderers”; when he points out that the only “enemies” they destroy are poor “houseboys” returning from work, Gino says that those killed are Hutus and that that justifies these acts. Repelled by the sectarian violence that his old friend is espousing, Gaby withdraws temporarily from the group. By chance, he strikes up a friendship with the elderly Greek woman, Mme Economopoulos, who allows him to read books (mainly novels) from her voluminous library. Gaby feels liberated into other worlds, thus escaping the war’s horrors.

Maman returns from Rwanda, but in a terrible state. Jacques, by chance, found her in a crowd on the outskirts of Bukavu and has brought her back. The Zairean city is a “shambles”, Jacques says, with over two million refugees of all kinds streaming over the border from Rwanda. Asked whether she found her sister and her children in Kigali, Maman mutely shakes her head. Eventually, in a strangely “slow, calm voice” (146), she tells them that, at Eusébie’s home, where the gate was wide open, a dreadful smell led to her discovery of three children’s bodies on the floor of the living room and, later, to that of Christian (the only boy) in the hallway. He was recognisable as such only because of the football shirt on the half-decayed corpse. She buried the children in the garden, with no one to help her, but still hoping that her sister would return. She eventually went in search of Pacifique at his in-laws’ place, but at Gitarama she only arrived in time to see his body. He had been shot after a military tribunal sentenced him to death. The background is that some little time before, when he arrived at the family home, he found their corpses in their backyard; some neighbours told him of a small group of “Hutus” who had committed the murders and who were still around, in the marketplace – where Pacifique gunned them down – a capital crime under RPF martial law. Yvonne then started searching every possible refugee camp in the vain hope of finding her bereaved sister, which is why she crossed over into Zaire. Even though Gaby’s father is as gentle and tolerant as possible towards her, Yvonne is clearly irreparably damaged by her experiences. She still does not sleep and hardly eats, but drinks copiously to get herself into a drunken stupor – even though this does not allow her to escape her dreadful memories. She starts waking up little Ana in the middle of the night to talk to her (although these are really musings on Maman’s part), as if to try and share the horrifying “survivor’s guilt” from which she suffers.

Gino comes over to summon Gaby to the Combi, but this offers him no respite. His friends have bought two hand grenades, talk of acquiring a Kalashnikov rifle, and have stolen his friend Mme Economopoulos’s telescope to sell for money with which to buy weapons. At least Armand, too, mocks the grandiose warlike ambitions of the other boys. But Francis and Gino are unbudgeable, even though Gaby tells them, “You’re my friends because I love you, not because you’re from one ethnic group or another. I don’t want anything to do with all that!” (153). Gaby leaves them in disgust. But home is a place of gloom and despair; the only relief is in reading. Seeing the state to which their mother’s night-time rants have reduced his eight-year-old sister, Gaby tells their father about it. Confronting his wife in anger merely produces a horrifying fury in Maman’s response to her husband’s complaint: with “bulging” eyes, “foaming at the mouth” (158), she accuses the terrified little girl of taking the part of the “Frenchmen” (her husband and Gaby), whom she calls her “family’s murderers” (159). She clutches Ana in a vicelike grip and, when her husband pries her fingers off Ana, she lashes out by grabbing an ashtray, which she flings at her daughter’s face. As their father carries Ana to the car to rush her to hospital for stitches to the gash on her forehead, Maman rushes off into the night. They search for days, but never find her. Gaby feels horribly guilty – he has wished his disturbed and disturbing mother gone, previously. The boy admits:

I wanted to make a fortress of my happiness and a chapel of my innocence. I wanted life to leave me intact whereas Maman, risking her own life, had sought out her relatives at the gates of hell. She would have done the same for Ana and me, without a second’s hesitation. I knew that. I loved her. And now that she had disappeared with her wounds, she left us nursing ours. (159)

After this, Gaby writes a moving letter to his murdered Rwandan cousin, the boy of his own age, Christian, “telling” him: “Maman never returned from visiting you. She left her spirit in your garden. Her heart is cracked. She has grown mad, like the world that took you away” (161, original italics). Ana’s colourful drawings now depict “cities on fire, armed soldiers, blood-spattered machetes, torn flags” (162). Soldiers invade the home space to threaten the family’s Hutu cook. Gaby cannot explain to his sister why their mother accused them of murdering their Rwandan family members. In the city, social life is in a state of “lockdown”, with “gangs” blocking main roads. “Hatred” is “at large” in their environment, says Gaby as “another”, a “new dark day”, dawns in the city. Gino again arrives surreptitiously to summon Gaby to the Combi. There, he finds Armand slumped over a seat, “his clothes covered in blood”. Gino tells Gaby that Armand’s father was “ambushed” and died of his wounds in hospital. The three men who did it had pretended to be vendors and had waited at the gate to their property. They were “Hutus, of course!” (168), Armand snarls in reply to Gaby’s question. The impasse is quiet as the boys march off towards a waiting taxi; Gaby has only been informed that their mission is to “protect” their neighbourhood. On their way, they pick up a Kalashnikov-carrying man. Eventually, they stop near the river, finding other children from their area there, and a “badly beaten man … writhing on the ground” (170–1). The armed adult informs them that the victim is one of the assassins. Soon after, someone whom Francis calls “the chief” (of the gang dominant in the area) has arrived. He turns out to be Innocent, Gaby’s father’s former employee, who greets Gaby with a sort of friendly sarcasm. Upon Innocent’s orders, the beaten man, who still attempts to resist, has his limbs firmly tied and is put into the taxi, while petrol is poured inside and around the vehicle. Flicking on a lighter (which Gaby recognises as the one stolen from Jacques at his birthday party), an impassive Innocent offers it to Armand, who refuses. Smirking, Innocent then orders Gaby to throw the flame that will incinerate the beaten, terrified man. Threatening to “take care” (172) of Gaby’s family if he does not light the flames, Innocent forces Gaby into the deed. In the “dust and ashes”, just before he helps the weeping Armand away, Gaby finds the identity card of the victim: “the man I had killed” (173), as he now refers to him.

In the final letter, written to the girl, Laure [his French pen pal, whom he has never met], Gaby announces that he no longer wishes to be a mechanic – the future career his late uncle, Adolphe (an engineer), inspired him to dream of. For: “There’s nothing left to fix, nothing left to save” (174, original italics), he writes. As the war in Bujumbura intensifies, Gaby’s father takes the inevitable decision to send his children to safety in France. Prothé has been murdered and his corpse left in a ditch in front of Francis’s house; Gino tells Gaby that he does not understand what he’s crying about – “Prothé was just a houseboy,” after all (176). Donatien has disappeared, they have no idea where to. Although in their later years in France Ana wants nothing to do with Burundi, which she now refers to as a “cursed country” (3, original italics), Gaby is haunted by his memories. He has a box of mementoes, which include a torn-out page with a poem by Jacques Roumain, which Madame Economopoulos gave him as a farewell gift. The poem states that the country in which one was born cannot be erased or plucked from one’s body, permeated by “the thick hair of its trees, the flesh of its soil, the bones of its stones, the blood of its rivers, its sky, its flavour, its men and women …” (179). He understands that he was not so much “exiled” from his country, as from his childhood.

We learn quite casually in the final chapter that Gaby goes back to Burundi; Mme Economopoulos, when she died, left him all her books, and he has come to crate and collect them. He finds the old neighbourhood looking bleak compared to his memories; the huge, sheltering trees have all been chopped down. He discovers that, of their group of boys, only Armand remains in Bujumbura – he lives in a “large friendly” house at the end of the old street (179), and is now a senior executive at a commercial bank. Armand tells Gaby that Francis is now “a pastor in an evangelical church”, and Gino and the twins (with whom he has no contact) are “somewhere in Europe” (180). They do not talk about Armand’s father’s assassination, nor about the death of Gaby’s dad, who was ambushed only days after Gaby and Ana’s departure for France. Gaby suddenly hears again the “strange reedy” voice (181) he noticed earlier, a voice that somehow echoes in his memory. The voice speaks of stains on a floor that won’t come out, and Gaby knows that this must be his Maman, who obsessively tried to erase the stains of his four murdered Rwandan cousins from the floor of their home, so that their mother would not have to see them. Armand admits that he deliberately brought Gaby to the dark pub, since his deranged mother has been coming here for years.

There is, thus, something left to save” (174) for Gaby in Burundi, even if it is (given his mother’s condition) only a remote possibility. He does not know how he will proceed, but for the time being, he knows he must and wants to take care of his mother and try to help her to recover, if she can be healed. The narrative ends on this uncertain note, but it is a fittingly inconclusive conclusion for this account. There are, as we know, a number of fictional and factual attempts to evoke and remind us of the terrible slaughter of this time, some of these described in earlier African Library entries. Yet, it remains a mysterious eruption of contaminating evil and horror. Nevertheless, the fact that certain authors manage, like Gaël Faye does with Small country, to create chronicles that do not seem to desecrate, cheapen or sensationalise the devastating dimensions of those events, remains admirable proof of the nuanced art and deep empathy of which some writers are capable.

  • Photo credit, Gaël Faye:
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