This week marked twenty-five years since the Rwandan genocide took place, and author Philip Gourevitch joined NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss where things stand in Rwanda today and what the healing process has looked like. Gourevitch’s book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and chronicles what has happened in Rwanda and neighboring states since 1994, when the Rwandan government called on everyone in the Hutu majority to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority. Gourevitch frames the genesis and horror of Rwanda’s “genocidal logic” in the anguish of its aftermath: the mass displacements, the temptations of revenge and the quest for justice, the impossibly crowded prisons and refugee camps. Through intimate portraits of Rwandans in all walks of life, he focuses on the psychological and political challenges of survival, asking whether a country composed largely of perpetrators and victims can create a cohesive national society. The following is the introduction to his book.
Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech—performed largely by machete—it was carried out at dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hundred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
• • •
In the southern hill town of Gikongoro, the electricity had failed for the night; the Guest House bar was lit by a half dozen candIes, and the eyes of the three soldiers who invited me to drink glowed the color of blood oranges. A single glass of beer was passed, from which I was the last to sip—a ritual signifying that I was not to be poisoned. The soldiers were too drunk for conversation, but a civilian among their party, a man in a shiny black training suit, appeared determined to demonstrate his sobriety. He sat stiffly straight with his arms folded over his chest and his eyes fixed in a hard squint, aloof and appraising. He asked my name in stern, robotic English, each syllable precise and abrupt. I told him, “Philip.”
A single glass of beer was passed, from which I was the last to sip—a ritual signifying that I was not to be poisoned.
“Ah.” He clutched my hand. “Like in Charles Dickens.”
“That’s Pip,” I said.
“Great Expectations,” he pronounced. He dropped my hand. His lips bunched up tightly, and he considered me with his humorless stare. Then he said, “I am a pygmy from the jungle. But I learned English from an Anglican bishop.”
He didn’t say his name. The soldier beside me, who had been leaning forward, propped on the upturned barrel of his machine gun, fell suddenly into his own lap, asleep, then jerked awake and smiled and drank some more. The pygmy took no notice. “I have a principle,” he announced. “I believe in the principle of Homo sapiens. You get me?”
I took a guess. “You mean that all humanity is one?”
“That is my theory,” the pygmy said. “That is my principle. But I have a problem. I must marry a white woman.”
“Why not?” I said. Then, after a moment, I said, “But why, if we’re all the same? Who cares what color your wife is?”
“She must be a white woman,” the pygmy said. “Only a white woman can understand my universal principle of Homo sapiens. I must not marry a Negro.” The unalloyed disgust with which he spoke this last word inclined me to agree, for the future wife’s sake. “This is my problem,” he went on. “How am I to attain this goal? You have the opportunity. I have not.” He looked around the dark, nearly empty room and held out an empty hand. A sour look came over him, an atmosphere of accustomed disappointment, and he said, “How am I to meet the white woman? How do I find the white wife?”
The question was not entirely rhetorical. I had entered the bar with a Dutch woman, then lost track of her—she had gone to bed—but she had made an impression; I believe the pygmy wanted me to fix him up. “I have an idea,” he said. “The Netherlands. The bishop, my teacher, had traveled through all the world. To me, the Netherlands is just imagination. But it is real to me.”
• • •
I’m telling you this here, at the outset, because this is a book about how people imagine themselves and one another—a book about how we imagine our world. In Rwanda, a year before I met the pygmy, the government had adopted a new policy, according to which everyone in the country’s Hutu majority group was called upon to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority. The government, and an astounding number of its subjects, imagined that by exterminating the Tutsi people they could make the world a better place, and the mass killing had followed.
All at once, as it seemed, something we could have only imagined was upon us—and we could still only imagine it. This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real. During the months of killing in 1994, as I followed the news from Rwanda, and later, when I read that the United Nations had decided, for the first time in its history, that it needed to use the word “genocide” to describe what had happened, I was repeatedly reminded of the moment, near the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, when the narrator Marlow is back in Europe, and his aunt, finding him depleted, fusses over his health. “It was not my strength that needed nursing,” Marlow says, “it was my imagination that wanted soothing.”
This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.
I took Marlow’s condition on returning from Africa as my point of departure. I wanted to know how Rwandans understood what had happened in their country, and how they were getting on in the aftermath. The word “genocide” and the images of the nameless and numberless dead left too much to the imagination.
• • •
I began visiting Rwanda in May of 1995, and I hadn’t been there long before I met the pygmy in Gikongoro. I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a pygmy: he was nearly five and a half feet tall. By declaring himself, he seemed to be setting himself apart from the matter of Hutu and Tutsi, and relating to me as a fellow outsider—an observer at large. Still, although he never said a word about the genocide, I came away with the impression that that was the true subject of our exchange. It may have been possible to talk of something else in Rwanda, but I never had a conversation of substance there in which the genocide did not figure, at least quietly, as the point of reference from which all other understandings and misunderstandings stemmed.
So the pygmy spoke of Homo sapiens, and I heard a subtext. Pygmies were Rwanda’s first inhabitants, a forest people, who were generally looked down upon by Hutu and Tutsi alike as a vestigial, aboriginal lot. In the precolonial monarchy, pygmies served as court jesters, and because Rwanda’s kings were Tutsis, the memory of this ancestral role meant that during the genocide pygmies were sometimes put to death as royalist tools, while elsewhere they were enlisted by Hutu militias as rapists—to add an extra dash of tribal mockery to the violation of Tutsi women.
Quite likely, the Anglican bishop who had instructed the man I met in the Guest House bar would have regarded the education of such an original savage as a special trophy challenge to the missionary dogma that we are all God’s children. But perhaps the pygmy had learned his lessons too well. Clearly, in his experience, the oneness of humanity was not a fact but, as he kept saying, a theory, a principle—a proposition of the white priest. He had taken this proposition to heart as an invitation, only to discover that it had forbidding Iimits. In the name of universalism, he had learned to despise the people and the jungle he came from, and to love himself for disdaining that inheritance. Now he had conceived that a white wife was the missing link required to prove his theory, and the improbability of such a match was sorely testing his faith.
In the name of universalism, he had learned to despise the people and the jungle he came from, and to love himself for disdaining that inheritance.
I sought to ease the pygmy’s frustration by suggesting that even for white men surrounded by white women—even in the Netherlands—finding a sympathetic mate can prove a great challenge. “I am talking about the African,” he said. “The African is sick.” He managed, for the first time, a twisted little smile.
“There is a novel,” he went on. “The book is Wuthering Heights. You get me? This is my larger theory. It doesn’t matter if you are white or yellow or green or a black African Negro. The concept is Homo sapiens. The European is at an advanced technological stage, and the African is at a stage of technology that is more primitive. But all humanity must unite together in the struggle against nature. This is the principle of Wuthering Heights. This is the mission of Homo sapiens. Do you agree?”
I said, “I hear you.”
“Humanity’s struggle to conquer nature,” the pygmy said fondly. “It is the only hope. It is the only way for peace and reconciliation—all humanity one against nature.”
He sat back in his chair, with his arms crossed over his chest, and went silent. After a while, I said, “But humanity is part of nature, too.”
“Exactly,” the pygmy said. “That is exactly the problem.”
Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor to the Forward. He has reported from Africa, Asia, and Europe for a number of magazines, including Granta, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.