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Words of Exiles Photograph by Ashit Desai.

Words of Exiles

Looking for Rwandan poetry reveals a story not yet finished.

Kigali comes as a surprise after hours of winding, broken roads. In the capital of Rwanda, new buildings are rising. ATMs and sleek banks fill the city centre, the grass of roundabouts is groomed and luxury cars are parked—well, yes—on the sidewalks. Plastic bags are outlawed here, cloth and paper only. There is the smell of burning trash in the afternoons, and aggressive beggars and hucksters roam the streets, but this is the only country I’ve visited where motorcycle-taxi drivers not only wear helmets but carry an extra for their passengers. I had a few unanticipated days in the city and wanted to find some poetry by Rwandan writers. Given the country’s colonial past under the Belgians, I thought I might come across some volumes in French. 

Not far from my hotel was a bookstore. It seemed to specialize in Christian literature, but there was a shelf of novels and another with books on the genocide. I asked the woman at the counter if she carried poetry written by Rwandans. She didn’t answer, just stared, her eyes bulging a little, as if I’d insulted her. A greying man at a shelf turned and told me that there were only two major bookstores in the city.  

The first, Librairie Caritas, I found quickly, but most of the shelves were empty. Again, there were numerous books on the genocide. I explained what I was seeking to the three people who worked there, but they just glanced at each other, as if waiting for someone else to speak.

“Poésie,” I said, then, “Poetry.” Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has replaced French with English in the schools, so I thought I’d give it a shot. The man shrugged and said, very softly, in French, that he had never heard of any poetry by Rwandans.

In the street, I hailed a motorcycle taxi, which raced through two red lights, almost getting broadsided by an SUV. The second bookstore, Librairie Ikirezi, was in the embassy district, significantly larger, with racks of Western books. But when I asked the clerk about poetry she also looked dismayed. We spent half an hour at the shelf, going through one analysis of the Rwandan genocide after another, before she found a slim volume for 6,000 Rwandan Francs, or about $10. The author was Kalisa Rugano; the title, Idées en stalactites, ou, Paroles d’exils (Ideas in Stalactites, or, Words of Exiles); self-published in 2010. The text on the back said that Rugano was born in the Rutongo region of Rwanda in 1946, then lived as a refugee between Burundi and the Congo due to the incessant wars in the area. Through schooling, he found literature and became the founder of the Ballet Théâtre Mutabaruka. I opened the cover and read the first verse:

I hear but a languorous music
Of a very old song
Tired of pleasing
Its arpeggios lack harmony
To charm the ear
With a new melody.

I gazed at the shelves. There was one other book that, from the looks of it, might be poetry written in Kinyarwanda, one of the country’s official languages. The rest were about the genocide. The clerk had told me this was the section on Rwanda, and, staring at it, I had the impression that there was no history here before, or after, the horrific events of 1994.

Having bought Rugano’s collection of poems, I took another motorcycle, this time to the national library. I’d found a reference to it online—a picture of a modern metal-and-glass building and information about the donors, as well as requests for volunteers and more donations. The site said it was Rwanda’s first public library, and, with Google Maps, I pinpointed its location across from the American embassy. After the motorcycle dropped me off, I walked in. I stopped and stared at the high, ornate wooden ceilings, the metal walkway above the main chamber, the glass walls, suspended stairs and one empty bookcase. The library was still being built, almost finished, and briefly I wondered how many small libraries filled with books the country could have established for the same cost. But cities and governments need their symbols, and I imagined that, years from now, the library would own copies of Rugano’s book, a symbol itself by then, maybe a photograph of him on the wall, or a room named in his honour.

I made one more attempt at finding poetry that afternoon. A motorcycle taxi took me to a private university, but the guards at the gate said it was closed, that there was no one to let me in and—after I insisted—no library.

“Are there books inside?” I asked in French, and they glanced at each other and shook their heads.

“Pas de livres ici,” one of them said, and gestured for me to leave.

Kigali sprawls over hilltops and across the valleys in between, and Rwanda is aptly named the Land of a Thousand Hills. A hard wind was blowing now, carrying mist and dust into the air, a haze above the city as I rode back along the freshly paved streets. Youths on sidewalks spoke into cell phones, or laughed and shouted, dressed to go out, and I recalled the words of a friend who said that Africa was skipping industrialization and going straight to consumer culture. The city seemed wedged between a past that ended in bloodshed and the aggressive desire for an affluent future. And yet, beyond this, I could imagine an inevitable softening, the taking stock of values by new generations, the need to reclaim and integrate what they’d lost.

Hundreds of dark birds circled in the sky, calling out, wheeling and rising and dropping as the wind gained strength and mist blew out of the mountains, obscuring the terra cotta rooftops of the houses below. A few drops of rain fell, gritty on my face, but the downpour didn’t come. The wind blew the clouds clear of the city, and, by the time I reached the hotel, the sun was setting, the sky dark blue and empty again.