“Welcome to Rwanda, Roland!”
“Welcome home, would be more like it,” replies the 27 year old author, with a look in his bespectacled eyes of one who is, indeed, at home.
Exiled in Rwanda during the 1993 war in Burundi, Roland Rugero was forced to move on to Tanzania when things here turned out no better. What better time to return than on 30th January at Ishyo Arts Center for the launching of a new project for the promotion of literature from Africa and the Caribbean – LITTAFCAR a European Union supported project bringing together four partners in a transnational network of four Cultural centers; Ishyo Arts Center (Rwanda) for Central and East Africa, Artisttik Africa (Benin) West Africa, FOKAL (Haiti) for the Caribbean and CEC (Belgium) for Northern Africa and African Diaspora.
Easily one of the youngest writer in east and central Africa with two novels under his belt, the Burundian journalist and founder of the Café litteraire (Samandari) in Bujumbura honored the launch with his second novel Baho!, a story that is heavily influenced by the turbulent past and present of his country.
Set in a village still reeling from the violence of a recent war, it tells the story of Nyamuragi, a mute orphaned by the war. One morning by the riverside, his bowels suddenly and urgently demand emptying. The only other person around is a young teenage girl who misinterprets his insistent gestures for directions to the nearest latrine as a prelude to sexual assault (The crossed legs, the pained scowl, earnest gaze, etc.) She heard about the symptoms from a friend who was raped in the war. She screams for help and the whole village comes running to the rescue. Nyamuragi runs away, to meet his immediate need for relief, and realizes too late how guilty that makes him look, and how difficult it is going to be to reclaim his innocence without any audible words.
Baho! did not disappoint the medley of artists (writers, poets, singers, dramatists), journalists and cultural advocates who graced the occasion with their presence and were obliged to ponder questions about the function of art, space and time (why do Rwandans and Burundians use one word, Ejo, for today and yesterday?). Rugero juxtaposes the past with the present by conjuring a world where “there was plenty for everyone (neighbors, visitors and even thieves); where men did not get drunk off beer but rather drank to their satisfaction,” and various crops alternately blossomed in the villagers’ gardens season after dependable season. “It was a time when people were certain about the future…and to run meant that either you were running from or after something.”
“In Burundi people still have that mentality of taking their time about everything. In Rwanda when a problem appears people say ‘let’s stand up to it’ while in Burundi they say ‘let’s sit down on it’ (ponder it). Well, times have changed now. If you don’t run, like Nyamuragi, then you’re finished,” says the soft spoken writer who then modestly denies having any philosophical muscle.
“I am much too young to be a philosopher”, says the man who wrote that “Life is water flowing along the ground and which we cannot collect.”
The terrible experiences of Nyamuragi’s village mates have so warped their community’s sense of justice that “his silence condemns him more than his actions” as the novel delves into tricky territories of communication (or the absence of it) vis-à-vis justice.
It had to be asked of the journalist in him; is ‘the silence which condemns’ a metaphorical reference to the absence of freedom of expression?
“Speech has the power to save but people may choose not to say anything claiming they don’t want to be meddlers. Well every society has its own peculiar forms of expression…for instance what matters most to a Burundian is not what is said but what is left unsaid and as the saying goes, precious words are kept inside…” pointed out Rugero.
With every chapter preceded by a Burundian proverb and a folktale sandwiched within the novel Baho! has a first class ticket to LITTAFCAR’s library which will be online in the near future to give writers access to a wider audience, ease research in the region and generally place their work within easy reach of their readers.
Accompanied by the acoustic sound of Rwandese guitarist and singer Cubaka, the homely glow of lamps and the soft musical humming of one of the readers, the atmosphere in the Ishyo rotunda was in perfect sync with LITTAFCAR’s objectives of promoting cultural diversity through a better understanding of the regions’ literature and the encouragement of cultural dialogue in our increasingly multi-cultural communities.
“I really had no intentions of philosophizing. All I meant to do was tell the story of Nyamuragi, despite his misfortunes…we live in the space of our parents and ancestors albeit by memory and simultaneously, in the space of our present world…it is important that we tell the story of all the spaces we are a part of.”
Well, watch this space for updates on the LITTAFCAR project and the itinerary of exciting cultural destinations Ishyo Arts Center has in store for you this year.

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