Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book 75, Rwanda: "An Ordinary Man" by Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner

This is a good book. Seriously, I’d been prepared for it to be a mound of Heal-the-World blather: it’s by a hotel manager/genocide survivor made famous by a Hollywood adaptation of history, co-writing (or ghostwritten?) by a freelance journalist and writer, who has worked as a reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. Have you read movie spin-off novels? They’re consistently bleah, and that’s when they’re written by writer-writers, too.

But this book… remember how I said I was exhausted from reading too many books about genocide? This book somehow woke me up.

Rusesabagina gives you an inside perspective of the genocide with a difference: a personal view of the village and urban culture it grew out of, the sheer fascination with the hateful radio stations which broadcast street gossip like, vernacular as no-one had ever been before on the airwaves. The intimacy and cleverness required to be an adult navigating one’s way through the hierarchies of the Rwandan hospitality industry: black/white, Hutu/Tutsi, Northern Hutu/Southern Hutu; the culture of the Rwandan no, hemming and hawing and making excuses instead of flat-out refusing to do what is asked.

Above all, his belief in humanity:his conviction that his success in saving 1,268 lives in the Hôtel des Mille Collines was nothing more than the work of an ordinary man, one who was able to negotiate with the generals poised to murder him by looking them in the eye and negotiating, not as victim versus monster but as human versus human. There is no good and evil in such cases, he says, only hard and soft. And if only you can find the soft part of a man, then you can appeal to his humanity.

(Furthermore, the fundamental human condition is peace, not savagery, he insists in his closing chapter. When chaos reins, we say the veneer of civilization is lifted off: why do we insist on seeing our day-to-day courtesies as the aberration, and not the norm?)

If you haven’t realised it by now, our hotel manager is either far more intelligent and philosophically gifted than most hotel managers, or else Zoellner is a ghostwriter with great gifts of sleight-of-hand. Bravo.

Also provocative to me personally is Rusesabagina’s feud with Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s former Tutsi rebel chief and now its autocratic, technocratic President, who has been responsible for the harmony, stability and growing prosperity of the nation over the last 15 years. We Singaporeans love Kagame because he apes the economy-driven strongmen of Asia: Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohammed, Deng Xiaopeng. Sure, he gets unlikely results in elections (95%???) and hushes up the papers a bit, and he’s got this consistently top-down mindset that allows for no disagreement whatsoever, but the continent of Africa needs a success story, especially one like Rwanda’s, in which a downtrodden gutted nation rises from its own carnage to become first world, dammit.

(More about Kagame can be gleaned from his biography, A Thousand Hills, which I peeked at in the library, and about Rwanda’s digital aspirations here.)

But our dear hotel manager will have none of this. He says that power and benefits are being channeled only to a small coterie of Tutsi elites: the same conditions that gave rise to Hutu resentment in the first place. He has great scorn for the current system of justice on the grass – gacaca, they call it – where village councils decide the punishments for the genocidaires. Ridiculous: “like taking a rapist to a traffic magistrate”. Too open to abuse. Oddly enough, he’s fine with Kagame’s ban on classifications of people as either Hutu or Tutsi. I’m not so sure. Burundi tried this before, according to Strength in What Remains, and a fat lot of good this did them.

So yeah, thanks to the two guys who voted me to read this over Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell and Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist (gah, I wanna read that last one! I have a thing for primatology, doncha know?). This is one of the really good ones.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: I remember reading this in the Bible when I was a young man: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Our time here on the earth is short, and our chance to make a difference is tiny. For me the grinding blocks of history came together in such a way that I was able to take what fragile defense I had and hold it in place for seventy-six days. If I was able to give much it was only because I had some useful things in my life to give. I am a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and provide shelter for those who need it. My job never changed, even in a sea of fire.

Next book: Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, from Uganda.

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