3 July, 2022


“Running the Rift” (in Rwanda) By Naomi Benaron

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr Laksiri Fernando

This is a story about a young athlete, a runner, Jean Patrick Nkuba and his family, and it is also a story about the ethnic conflict and genocide in Rwanda. The story begins in 1984, ten years before the actual genocide, in Gihundwe, not very far from the Southern tip of the picturesque Lake Kivu. The nearest town is Cyangugu which you can locate easily on the Google map. The background of the story is the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda. Hutu are the majority and Tutsi are the minority. A highly acclaimed novel, “Running the Rift” was published by Oneworld Publishers (London) early this year (2012).

A Glimpse

“Before his first day in primary school, Jean Patrick had not known what Tutsi meant. When the teacher said, ‘All Tutsi stand,’ Jean Patrick did not know that he was to rise from his seat and be counted and say his name. Roger [his brother] had to pull him up and explain. That night, Jean Patrick said to his father,

“Dadi, I am Tutsi.” His father regarded him strange and then laughed.

‘Dadi’ died in a motor accident. He was a Prefect (French) in charge of teachers in Gihundwe. They stayed for a while in official quarters but had to move to uncle Immanuel’s place in Gashirabwoba, not very far from Ginhundwe. Before leaving, one day “the window exploded in a spray of glass.” A second window splintered in few seconds later. “Tutsi snakes!” the shouts were very close. “Next time we’ll kill you!”

Uncle gave them a lesson in history unlike their farther: “Nineteen seventy-three, the year Habyarimana overthrew Kayibanda. All over the country, Hutu rose up to murder Tutsi. They burned down our house, killed your grandparents and your uncle, our younger brother. He turned to Jean Patrick. ‘You were named for him,’ No one told you?”

It was like in Sri Lanka during the war and the conflict; the difference is that the Sinhalese civilians apparently did not kill the Tamils directly after 1983. No doubt that the Rwandan conflict was more horrendous than the Sri Lankan one, but there are obvious parallels. That is one reason why this well written and inspiring novel should be read by all discerning Sri Lankans. It is inspiring for us to reflect on our own prejudices, irrationality of the conflicts and dreadful deeds that they could entail.

Why a novel without reading a human rights report or a book on the subject? The reason is that a novel is more effective and can arouse our conscience as in the present case. This novel however is not a substitute for any factual report or book available on Rwanda but supplementary.[1] In addition, one can enjoy the story running through 365 odd pages of the life of not only the main protagonist, Jean Patrick, but also of others in the family and in Rwanda; their hopes, fears, love, jealousies, generosity, cruelty and failings. It is a good read on the life and culture of this small and picturesque Central African country, similar perhaps to the natural beauty of Sri Lanka and its people, always smiling and enduring their unfortunate destinies due to political calamities.

The Story

The story is written in five sections (books) and thirty two chapters. Book One covers the period between 1984 and 1993, Ejo Hashize, meaning Yesterday.[2] This is not exactly a historical novel and the events covered are mainly about the life of the main protagonist and his family. All appears humdrum matters except on and off references to political events. The main merit of this section is for you to get familiarized with the culture, way of life and day to day living of ordinary Rwandans of different walks of life. You would get a chance of even to sense a little bit of their language, Kinyarwanda.

Jean Patrick has a natural talent for running and it is particularly encouraged by his elder brother, Roger. His ambition is to run for the Olympics. When he entered the secondary school, the Coach Rutembeza identifies him as a political gift. “How many Tutsi?” he asked welcoming the runners. Jean Patrick and Isaka raised their hands, “Good. You’ll be strong for distance.” The Coach plays a major role in Jean Patrick’s life until the end of the story.

First it was a genuine recognition of talent and he was even given a Hutu identity card to protect him from security checks. Then it was politics. The Coach is a former army man with strong connections with the government and uses Jean Patrick to show the international community how reasonable the Rwandan government is in promoting Tutsi sportsmen. It is a classic case of ‘sports and politics’ or abusing sports for politics.

Book Two is Ni Rwo Urugendo (A bird builds its nest). This is about the gathering storms of genocide and the narration is quite political. Jean Patrick enters the National University in Butare and the Coach follows him. First, Butare is relatively calm compared to Kigali. Apart from his studies, he is trained for Olympics! Jean Patrick is politically naïve unlike his brother, who has already joined the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Front). The two characters are an interesting contrast.

Jean Patrick meets Beatrice or simply Bea by accident and it develops into a steady and romantic love affair. She is Hutu, a daughter of a university professor who is in the country’s opposition politics with the Parti Social Democrate (PSD). That party wants to share power with Tutsi RPA on a democratic platform. He also becomes friendly with an American academic, Jonathan, who is a visiting scholar at his university. Jean Patrick is taken to National Olympics somewhere in 1993 in Kigali during the peace process; sounds familiar to us but a decade earlier.

“This event, Coach said, ‘is a special occasion to celebrate the implementation of the peace process. Many Westerners will be there…I want people to know who you are – important people in the international community. So you need to stay sharp.”

Even President Habyarimana was there at the event. At the reception he declared, “Here is our hero…He paused, open mouthed, and Jean Patrick realized the President had forgotten his name. But he continued saying “This young man embodies new Rwanda. A Rwanda where anyone can succeed.”

By that time UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission) was in Rwanda; however, without much help. The conflict was not one sided, many political groups were involved. Once his friend Daniel, gave Jean Patrick a lesson in politics, describing the situation in Kigali where he comes from. “Not just RPF. Rival political parties. The MDR fights the CDR, CDR fights the PSD, everyone fighting Habyarimana’s MRDD. Aye! So many letters – who can keep them straight. And then there are crooks, blowing up shops just to steal from them. One day I almost tripped over a dead body. He was lying in the middle of the street, like he was asleep. They cut him in broad daylight.”


Book Three is about Death. Urupfu rurarya ntiruhaga (Death eats and is never full) is the title proper. It is followed by Book Four “The Far Side of the Earth.” These are the two sections that cover the genocide proper. All hell broke loose when Habyarimana was assassinated. It was on 6 April 1994. Who shot his landing plane in Kigali is disputed. Regardless who assassinated the President, anti-Tutsi militias became activated and slaughtered every Tutsi or anyone opposed to Hutu Power. But all were brewing before. All details of political events are not given in the novel.

As far as the story is concerned, Jean Patrick had to kiss Bea and leave in search of his family in Gashirabwoba. Probably she was pregnant by that time. He was planning to help his family escape to Burundi where their Aunt lived, with Roger’s help. But the death was so hungry. All were devoured except Roger who was with the rebels, RPF. In these perhaps hurriedly written short chapters most tragic stories are revealed, closer to the actual events and incidents. Most revealing is Coach’s direct involvement in the Interahamwe, paramilitary operation of Hutu’s. He has in fact stealthily trained death squads, while coaching Jean Patrick for Olympics. However he allows Jean Patrick to escape near the Rwanda-Burundi border. Later, Jonathan takes him to Boston where he reads for a PhD. All evidence reveals the demise of the whole family of Bea. Although they were Hutu, they were considered Ibytso, the traitors.

The last Book Five is Iby’ejo Bibara Ab’ejo, meaning “the things of tomorrow by the people of tomorrow” consisting of short three chapters and dated 1998.

“Uraho, Jean Patrick?” Bea called. “Muraho, Jean Patrick” he answered, but for a while he was not sure who it was.


The story is undoubtedly about one of the most senseless conflicts in the human history. Over half a million people were brutally killed. According to the “Out of Africa Theory,” Homo sapiens apparently originated somewhere near here, in the African continent over a million years ago. But humans are apparently not yet properly civilized. Rwandan genocide in 1990s reminds us the Holocaust in Europe in 1930s. It is in many ways similar to our own conflict in Sri Lanka. It should be Ejo of the past and not Ejo of the future, hopefully not.

To all information available, there is no major difference or unavoidable conflict between Hutu and Tutsi. All were generated through power politics or discriminatory economics. There is no difference in language or religion/s or the customs. They all worship similar deities apart from being different types of Christians. In the past they were thinly differentiated two large tribes; Tutsi engaged mainly in cattle breeding and Hutu in cultivation, but interchanging the vocations and the tribe very often. As the cattle were the measure of wealth, some Tutsi families were elevated to the kingship. Strict identities were attributed during the colonial period for convenience or to divide and rule. The novel says that the people perceive Tutsis to be tall and thin and Hutus short and stout; which is not often correct. The failure of democratic transformation or peaceful resolution of differences was the main cause of the conflict.

Rwanda has been relatively peaceful since the major calamity. Many of the key perpetrators and instigators of ‘war crimes and crimes against humanity’ have been tried and sentenced. Some cases are still pending; war crime investigations are not covered in the novel. However, the novel ends in an optimistic note; Jean Patrick and Bea are united – peace is dawned. Moreover the people have become resilient and enduring. The novel has a note of hope and expectation; for peace, harmony and reconciliation. Perhaps this is also the message that Sri Lankans should take from the novel.

“Yego, Amahoro.” Peace.

[1] See for example Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story, Human Rights Watch, 1999. (Available online).

[2][2] Ejo in Kenyarwanda also could mean tomorrow.

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  • 0

    Rwanda after the conflict has gone in a totally opposite direction to Sri Lanka. It is reckoned to be one of the most corruption free countries in Africa.

    Two visits there have shown a remarkably deceplined society and dedicated politicians.

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