Maverick Life


Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase’s new book – recounting the Rwandan genocide

Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase’s new book – recounting the Rwandan genocide
‘Witnessing: From the Rwandan Tragedy to Healing in South Africa’ by Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase book cover. Image: Supplied / The Reading List

As a boy in Rwanda, Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase survived the atrocities of war, but he had to leave home if he wanted to stay alive and safe. In ‘Witnessing: From the Rwandan Tragedy to Healing in South Africa’, Pie-Pacifique recounts his childhood and his experience of the genocide, being forced to flee his country and ending up in South Africa.

Pie-Pacifique worked as a car guard in Durban, but never stopped dreaming of a better life. Despite obstacles, he finally enrolled at university, receiving a prestigious Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship in the process. Here is an extract of his book, Witnessing: From the Rwandan Tragedy to Healing in South Africa.


First Casualty of War

I enjoyed my primary school years, liked my teachers, and relished the fierce but friendly academic rivalry I had with a learner named Esperance Uwayo, who regularly came top of her class. We would compare our marks to see who had achieved more. 

Unfortunately, the memory that overrides these positive ones is far from happy. One ordinary morning, I ran to school barefoot as usual, and arrived early to play football. Our laughter was abruptly silenced by a loud explosion that sounded very close. Some children ran toward their classrooms. I looked around and saw dust, smoke and pieces of paper fluttering about in the air. I knew that’s where the explosion had taken place. Without thinking, I ran down the path of the hill we called Bigogwe, because of its steep incline. It was one of several paths connected to the school and the main playground. 

While I ran towards the blast, my school mates were running away from the scene, eyes wide, some screaming, clearly in shock. A small group of people was already congregated at the scene, which was along my path. They were gathered around a boy who sat on the ground. 

‘Mamayi wee . . . Mamayi wee . . .’ he called out for his mother, revealing his terror and agony. Then he looked up at all the people looking on. A woman next to me cried. The boy, in his khaki shirt and shorts, sat down on the dirt right next to the path, one hand on the ground to balance himself, the other holding what remained of his leg. The foot had been blown off, blood was pouring out of the wound and pieces of flesh were hanging loose. The boy stared at his wounded leg, murmuring and breathing heavily. 

‘Mamayi wee . . . Mamayi wee . . .’ A chill ran down my spine and a lump formed in my throat. I was trembling with terror, imagining my leg being blown off. I knew the boy had stepped on a landmine. Adults around him scrambled to help, exchanging opinions fast, arguing what to do. The boy kept calling for his mother, holding his bleeding limb, still staring at where his foot had been. More onlookers arrived, adults and children in school uniform. 

That was one of the paths that I used, like hundreds of other children, several times a week. That mine could have taken the leg of any of the boys or girls going to school. That boy could have been Hutu or Tutsi. His parents could have come from any or neither of the political groups polarising the country. Yet, someone placed that mine there. Someone who knew well that it was most likely going to be a child, one of the hundreds of school children in khaki or blue, who would step on it. 

It was a few weeks later that the boy returned to school. He was easily distinguishable from the rest of us because he wore long khaki trousers to cover his prosthetic leg. I often spotted him on the main ground playing with other boys from his class. They made every effort to include him, deliberately letting him limp and kick the ball. He had been injured, but he was back. 

That day, it was also all of us who were injured. The military sent soldiers to speak at the assembly, telling us to be careful what we played with, and that we must always pay attention while we walked. Walking to school had become a thing to fear. 

I looked forward to getting away from the neighbourhood when I started high school. I knew my mother and my uncle were very proud of my achievements, and of me being assigned to a prestigious public school, although they knew I had wanted to go to a seminary. One of the reasons was to follow in my uncle’s footsteps. He had been a seminarian, but after spending time in Rome and in Germany, he had chosen not to continue on the path toward priesthood. 

Despite this, I wanted to grow up and do everything he had done. Seminary. Studying abroad. My own business. A car. Another car. A nice house. And helping everyone else in my family, like my uncle did. But I was not granted a place in seminary. So, when I embarked on my journey to high school at GSOB, my goals were high. 

My mother helped me to buy what I needed, but I only remember my maroon pyjamas. They were soft and fitted me well. To me, sleeping in pyjamas was a sign that I was grown up. After all, I was embarking on a life alone, away from my family. My mother travelled to Butare with me, where we completed my registration. Then we were given directions to my new residence for boys, Ryoha. 

Ryoha, which mean ‘be delicious’ was a building erected during the colonial era. It had the feel of an old convent. From the outside, it looked like a fortress with tall, unscalable walls. It was a collection of long halls and offices, joined to form a rectangular shape. In the middle were basketball and volleyball courts, a lawn, a garden and a smaller structure where our lockers were. Some of the halls were dormitories with hundreds of beds and bunk beds. There was a study and exam hall, with hundreds of chairs, each with an extended armrest that acted as a study table. There was a large playroom with facilities for table tennis, and a big screen for movies and, on occasion, Rwandan television. There was a room where the balls for the various games, including basketball, volleyball and football, were locked up. That was also where other games and toys were stored: Rubik’s cubes, board games such as Stratego and chess, puzzles, and even roller skates. We had to queue at a large window, waiting our turn to exchange our student card for whatever we wanted to borrow, one at a time. I had never played most of the games. On the rare occasions that I had seen the games, they were being played by white children in movies. Ryoha had what I imagined was a flavour of European life. It was another world. 

Ryoha had just two exits. We used to joke that it could serve well as a prison. One exit was to the main entrance of the school. The other led to two important places. On the left was a full-size football pitch, with a well-marked multilane Olympic track around it, with stands for spectators. It was the school’s own stadium that was known as Kamena Stadium. On the right was the restaurant with a large, full-scale kitchen. That’s where we got our meals. On Thursday and Sunday mornings, there was extra excitement because the regular sorghum porridge was served with two freshly baked rolls. There was a tradition of creating a sandwich we called a gauzette: we hollowed out a roll and filled it with meat samoosas that were sold by mobile vendors outside. Gauzette was one of the few things that showed those who came from well-off families because they had money to buy samosas every Thursday and Sunday. Another feature of Ryoha was avocados. Butare prefecture was known for its supply of massive and delicious avocados, and the vendors knew we had a weakness for them. 

The rest of the school was so vast that it would take months for a pupil to explore every aspect of it. But among the many facilities was our own chapel, and a theatre, with benches to seat hundreds, and a sophisticated stage and backstage. There was also a semi-Olympic size swimming pool, which is where I could be found most Saturdays, swallowing plenty of water as I taught myself to swim. Past the pool, the road bent down to the Kabutare hospital, serving the school and nearby communities. 

Beyond the school grounds was a swathe of greenery, and a wide area in which farming and agricultural research activities took place. There was also a small forest that seamlessly merged with the arboretum of the University of Rwanda, and the buildings of the university could be seen just beyond the greenery. 

The school was widely respected and its learners were generally referred to as those who studied at Groupe. Established in 1929, it was one of the first secondary schools in Rwanda. In my class, hanging above the windows, were hand-painted portraits by graduates of the school. DM/ ML

Witnessing: From the Rwandan Tragedy to Healing in South Africa by Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase is published by Kwela (R295). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

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