Book review – A trip down Africa’s Rat Roads
If you only read one book about Rwanda and its infamous genocide, make it Jacques Pauw’s Rat Roads.
The book tells a remarkable story of a man who lived through the 1994 machete killings – the most intense and bloodiest example of genocide in modern history – only to later head out on an incredible journey on foot to find a better life here in South Africa.
Today, he’s a lawyer.
Kennedy Gihana was a rebel Tutsi soldier, part of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) that brought an end to the 100 days of madness 18 years ago.
By telling primarily this one man’s story, along with a small supporting cast, Pauw gives a face to an event that is in many ways too big and terrible to comprehend.
The mainstream version of the Rwandan genocide’s events tell a too-straightforward story of good versus evil: someone shot down the Hutu president’s jet, the Tutsis were blamed, Hutus killed Tutsis en masse and then, after more than three months, Tutsi rebel forces, led by Paul Kagame from across the border, stepped in and restored order.
Over time, they ushered in a new era of prosperity and peace for Rwanda, with those fatally flawed labels, “Hutu” and “Tutsi”, forever banned.
The truth about the country, expertly brought to light in this book, is that beneath the veneer of Kagame’s idyllic reign, lie further war crimes.
Even the shooting down of the president’s jet appears to lead back to Kagame.
Pauw, as an investigative journalist, covered the 1994 genocide and said he struggled to find words at the time to describe the atrocities that left 800 000 people dead in a mere 100 days.
In his foreword, he writes that he has always been “obsessed with the events and people” in Rwanda. He says Kennedy’s story “was one of the most inspiring but challenging endeavours in my professional life”.
It took him on an exploration of the inner life of people who live through genocide.
Left with only a matric certificate that he kept in a plastic bag strapped to his body on his more than 5 000km walk from Rwanda to South Africa, the war becomes merely a prelude to Kennedy’s real challenge: to study for four years, with nothing – no residency status, no job, no money and often no place to stay – to earn his law degree.
His long walk to education, his time as a “street child” and later as a “park dog”, along with all his numerous “hustles” to be enrolled year after year, serve as an inarguable metaphor for success against the odds and the triumph of the human spirit.
But Kennedy’s story seems far from over.
He and his comrades – which now include exiled Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa, now a client of Kennedy’s law practice – are determined to overthrow the Kagame regime.
An impossible task, perhaps.
Though you’d have to be brave to bet against Kennedy.
- Victoria Schneider and Charles Cilliers