I told someone I was going to hear Will Ferguson talk about his new book Road Trip Rwanda. “How can he be funny about Rwanda?” was the question.
By Charles Gordon
Good question. Without having read the book, I knew the answer, as anyone who has ever written humour should. He would be respectful of Rwanda — especially Rwanda — and he would make jokes about himself.
Indeed, it turned out that way. In Road Trip Rwanda, Ferguson, a multiple Leacock Award winner, portrays himself as a well-meaning goof, eager to learn but not always getting it, friendly but bumbling. The Rwandan people, on the other hand, get a sympathetic portrayal.
It’s the only way to do it. Even Bill Bryson, who can be much more acidic, tends to give the locals the benefit of the doubt. Occasionally a writer doesn’t do that — I think of some stuff Dave Barry wrote about China, where the main joke seemed to be that China wasn’t like America, and therefore weird — and it’s a mistake.
I confess to a friendship with Ferguson. I have interviewed him and he included some of my writing in his Penguin Anthology of Canadian Humour. I also have a relationship with Rwanda, having spent two months there teaching journalism in 2007, as part of the Rwanda Initiative, a program sponsored by Carleton University. The day after Ferguson’s talk in Ottawa we spent an enjoyable couple of hours yacking about the country, which both of us find incredibly beautiful and moving.
Ferguson is a quick study. His novel 419, which won the Giller Prize in 2012, was largely set in modern-day Nigeria. Nigeria hands I know praised its accuracy in presenting the country. Yet Ferguson had never set foot in it.
Road Trip Rwanda
He did set foot in Rwanda, but only for three weeks. But he did considerable research beforehand, reading all the important books on the country’s history, and he had a knowledgeable guide in Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a friend from Calgary who escaped from Rwanda just before the 1994 genocide.
In reading Road Trip Rwanda, you sense that Ferguson is eager to get on with the jokes, but he is wise enough to know that the genocide has to dealt with, so he takes care in the early chapters of the book to present the genocide and the history leading up to it in considerable detail. His view is the consensus one, the one that most visitors to the country come away with. Ferguson’s account places culpability on the Hutu government of the day and the militias it supported. The role of colonial powers in setting the stage for the strife is not neglected, with Belgium and France coming in for considerable criticism.
Lately, some revisionist interpretation of the genocide has emerged, put forward by overseas critics of Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. Ferguson isn’t buying that, although he takes note of Kagame’s autocratic ways, bemoans the lack of press freedom and expresses concern for the future of democracy in the country.
This is familiar ground to those who have spent any time there. Teaching journalism in Rwanda was a thrill because the students were so eager to use the tools of the profession to improve the lot of their countrymen. That kind of idealism was refreshing to those more accustomed to the more practical outlook of North American students in a dismal job market.
At the same time, the exhilaration of teaching was tempered with the knowledge that the uninhibited practice of journalism was not going to be easy, might in fact be dangerous. I was teaching opinion writing and trying to figure out avenues to point them down that would not get them in trouble.
The students told me, as they later told Ferguson, that we are all Rwandans now, that Hutu and Tutsi do not matter. They believed it and we wanted to believe it. If there was reason for optimism it was in the students themselves but also in the miracles that had been accomplished in the country, then only 13 years after the genocide. Rwanda then was as Ferguson found the country seven years later: a safe and peaceful place, with a rapidly growing economy, stable institutions and a noticeable lack of corruption. It is these things, arising from chaos and bloodshed that took a million lives and destroyed the country’s infrastructure, that give today’s Rwandan government a kind of free pass among those who follow the country.
Ferguson and his friend Jean-Claude drive around the country, spend time in Kigali and Lake Kivu. They see the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains and the source of the Nile in the Nyungwe Forest. They see churches where people thought they were safe during the genocide and weren’t. They talk to villagers and school children. Ferguson bumps into things so that we can laugh every now and again.
There is some fine writing about a landscape that captivates all who visit it:
“Rwanda was all curve and corner, swerve and slide, with sudden heart-catching panoramas revealed on a magician’s flourish. In Rwanda, even the plains are hilly. In Rwanda, there is no vanishing point.”
There is also some fine writing about the genocide. At Murambi, a technical school where hundreds died and is now a genocide memorial, Ferguson writes of seeing the bodies, preserved in lime. One that haunted him was that of a child, perhaps two or three, with his hands held over his face:
“When you’re little, you believe that if you can’t see something bad, it can’t see you either. This child had died with his eyes tightly shut, hands covering his face. It’s the desperate strategy of children confronting monsters, but it only works when the monsters are imaginary.”
Ferguson comes away from Rwanda with his own theory about the genocide and the amazing feats of reconstruction that followed it: they are two sides of the same coin, he thinks, “rooted in the same deeply ingrained national traits.” He sees a single-minded efficiency in both.
Who knows? I believe, as I think others do, that Rwandans are no different from us. Who knows what any of us would do in the grip of an intense fear, the choice of kill or be killed. This idea is powerfully explored in a novel called Murambi: The Book of Bones, by Boubacar Boris Diop, published by Indiana University Press.
Ferguson wisely lets the most of the important thoughts in the book come from the Rwandans themselves, not the least of which is Jean-Claude. One of the biggest thoughts is forgiveness. Near the end of the book, Ferguson and Jean-Claude watch a group of school children happily playing soccer with equipment the two men had brought from Canada.
Ferguson writes: “I looked at the children crowding in around us, and I turned to Jean-Claude. ‘You know, a lot of these kids will be the children of murderers.’
“He nodded: ‘That’s true. Many of the parents killed people in the genocide. But their children did not.’”
Road Trip Rwanda begins and ends at a bridge leading from Rwanda into Tanzania. It was on this bridge that Jean-Claude made his escape, a 19-year-old hidden in the back of a truck. It is only at the end of the book, after we have got to know Jean-Claude, got to know Rwanda, its past and its present, that we learn the details of that escape. That’s a good decision by Ferguson. It makes the escape, and the return, all the more powerful.
THE EX-PRESS, November 26, 2015