by Will Ferguson
I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.
Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.
So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.
Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?
“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”
Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.
The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.
“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”
Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)
The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.
James Orbinski: $22.00 trade paperback,
978-0-385-66070-9, 448 pp.,
Anchor Canada, 2009
“How am I to be, how are we to be, in relation to the suffering of others?”
The question haunts James Orbinski, as it haunts many of us who look out on a world in need of humanitarian action.
In 1994, Dr. Orbinski went to Rwanda to serve as Chef de Mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/ MSF). He and his team stitched wounds and stemmed the flow of blood for thousands of victims during the dark months of genocide that saw millions of Rwandans heartlessly murdered, injured or displaced. Orbinski had worked in times of famine, war, and cholera, but the relentless brutality and cruelty of Rwanda overwhelmed him. He struggled with faith, politics and his personal sense of mission. How to be human in the face of such inhumanity?
In An Imperfect Offering, Orbinski finds the balance between dark truth and hope—a difficult challenge with subject matter that might make some readers want to turn away. We learn the bald details of his story but never want to disengage, and in fact, would find it difficult to disengage. Page after page we stay with him as he shares how it was and how he wishes it could be. “Why would I want to see the world any other way than the way it is,” he asks, and he compels his audience to do the same. The reader must share the journey through human darkness that we need to accept but don’t like to accept. But, ultimately, there is hope. “It is about a way of seeing that requires humility, so that one can recognize the sameness of self in the other. It is about the mutuality that can exist between us, if we so choose,” he says.
An Imperfect Offering is Orbinski’s deeply personal tale of the struggle between self-preservation and outreach, and how he manages to find both. His story spurs us to find our courage and let it live.
She was slightly older than middle-aged and had been attacked with machetes, her entire body rationally and systematically mutilated. Her face had been so carefully disfigured that a pattern was obvious in the slashes. I could do little more for her at that moment than stop the bleeding with a few sutures. We were completely overwhelmed. She knew and I knew that there were so many others. She said to me in the clearest voice I have ever heard, “Allez, allez. Ummera, ummera-sha”—‘Go, go. Courage, courage, my friend—find your courage and let it live.’
At best we can make an imperfect offering, but an offering nonetheless. Orbinski says, “. . . no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”