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Excerpt: 'God Sleeps in Rwanda'

Chapter 1: The Drum Beat And We Were Saved

The most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Bertrand Russell

I'm not a storyteller. In Rwanda, it's too dangerous to tell stories. There are thousands of stories to tellabout birth and life, and far too many stories about death. Stories that wrap around the hills and skip like stones across the abundant lakes and rivers. Stories that whisper through the banana and coffee plantations and eucalyptus groves. Stories that are carried on the heads of women walking barefoot to market, or swaddled on their backs with their children. Stories that run through the sweat of men as they cultivate the land, rhythmically turning the rich soil with their hoes. Stories that sing with voices raised at church.

But you don't tell stories. You listen. You listen to your parents. You listen to your teachers. You listen to the drumbeat that echoes from hilltop to hilltop before an official announcement is made. But above all else, you listen to your leaders. In the United States, a presidential address gets less attention than a football game. Unless there is a crisis, most people don't really care what the president has to say. In Rwanda, when the president speaks, everyone listens. In rural areas where radios are scarce, people gather at neighbors' houses to hear what he says. And you listen closely, for what he says could mean the difference between life and death. When you hear him, you don't form opinions. You nod your head in agreement.

So you listen. You don't tell stories. You don't need to. Everyone knows you. Everyone knows your family. Everyone knows if you are sick. Everyone knows if you need help. And they will help. They will take turns carrying you on a stretcher for the two-hour walk to the hospital. They will give you milk from their cow if yours is dry. They will share their cassava if you are hungry. They will share their beer, brewed from bananas, to celebrate a wedding. They will work side by side with you in your fields. They will give you shelter. But the very thread that knits Rwandans so closely together is the same one that can so quickly unravel the country.

I first learned what Hutu and Tutsi meant when I was not yet a teenager, sitting on the floor of our cooking house with six of my brothers and sisters while my mother prepared our evening meal of beans and cassava. The glow of the fire and the oil lamp cast long shadows on the walls. My father sang his evening hymns next door at the main house, his voice traveling the short distance between the two mud-and-brick buildings. We could hear our cows breathing quietly in the paddock in front of our house, where they were enclosed for the night. Outside, a blanket of stars spread from horizon to horizon.

It was March 1973 and this night was like any other, except it wasn't. Something was wrong. My mother and older siblings were unusually quiet. As my mother worked, she focused entirely on her chores, rarely looking up. The light in the cooking house was dim, so I couldn't see her face very well, but I could tell she was worried.

As my sister Beatrice and I joked with each other, my mother pointed a stern finger at us. "Keep quiet!" she snapped.

We stopped talking and looked at one another, wondering what we had done wrong. My mother was rarely strict with us. It was my father who was the disciplinarian of the family. For her to snap at us when we had done nothing wrong was unlike her. Our older brother and sisters kept their eyes down.

Then my mother looked at me, her eyes wide with warning. "Did you know that I spent nights hiding in the bush with you when you were a baby?"

This seemed ridiculous to me. We had a nice homeI couldn't imagine why we would sleep in the bush, where poisonous snakes hid in the tall grasses. "In the bush?" I asked. "Why?"

My mother looked down at her cooking and said simply, "Because if we stayed at home, we would have been killed."

I had never heard anything like this before. I was shocked. "Killed?" I asked. "Why would we be killed, Mama?"

My mother's voice became small. Her eyes did not meet mine. "Because we are Tutsi," she almost whispered, as if she wanted no one around to hear, not even herself.

"Because we are Tutsi?" I had heard the word before but didn't know what it meant, and could see no reason someone would want to kill us because of it. "Why?"

My mother said nothing.

"Who?" I asked. "Who would kill us?"

Again, my mother's voice was low. "Hutu."

"Who are Hutu?" This was another word I had heard, but I had no idea of its meaning.

My mother paused. "Abraham and his family are Hutu," she said.

This did nothing to clear my confusion. The Abrahams were close family friends. Before I was born, my father gave Abraham a cowa strong symbol of friendship in Rwanda. Cows in Rwanda were not used to work the land. They were not bred for meat or even milk (although we do drink it), but for beauty. And giving someone a cow as a gift was cause for great celebration. Abraham called my father Rutabeshya, meaning "truthful," in admiration of their friendship. My younger brother played with Abraham's grandchildren. I couldn't begin to understand why they would want to kill us.

"The Eliackims, the Nyakanas, and the Ngarambes are also Hutu," she said.

These were also good family friends. It didn't make any sense. "So the Abrahams and the Ngarambes want to kill us?" I asked.

Beatrice jumped in, "Oh, Mama, the Abrahams are very good, I don't think they would kill us."

"No, I don't mean that they will kill you," my mother said. "Not all Hutu are bad. When I hid with you in the bush, the Abrahams hid our things for us so they wouldn't be stolen. They're good people. But some Hutu may try to kill us because we are Tutsi."

I couldn't understand what she was saying. We had always lived peacefully with our Hutu neighbors. We shared drinks with them. We worked our fields together. We celebrated weddings and births together. Hutu would come to our aid and we would come to theirs. We felt welcome in each other's homes. What she was saying didn't make any sense. Again I asked, "Mama, why? Why would they want to kill us? Because we are Tutsi? What did we do?"

My mother took a slow, deep breath and waved her hand as if she was shooing a fly. "Oh, this child, asking so many questions. Eat your dinner and then go to bed."

With that, my mother stopped talking. She didn't tell me more about how she hid in the bush with me as a baby in the early 1960s, while tens of thousands of Tutsi were killed and hundreds of thousands were driven into exile. She didn't tell me how she watched as homes were burned and Tutsi neighbors were beaten. She didn't tell me how loved onesincluding my father's brotherfled with their families to neighboring Congo. She didn't tell me about Tutsi men, women, and children being killed with machetes. She didn't tell me that it was about to happen again; that word of violence was spreading through the country; that it was only a matter of time. She didn't tell me how afraid she was there in the cooking house, preparing the evening meal with her small children around her. She told me none of this. Perhaps she didn't need to. I would soon learn it all myself.

Excerpted from God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation by Joseph Sebarenzi. Copyright 2009 by Joseph Sebarenzi. Excerpted by permission of Atria. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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