Novelist and playwright Koulsy Lamko came to Rwanda in 1998 as part of a project entitled “Writing by Duty of Memory,” which brought a dozen African writers to Rwanda and provided each with a commission to write a text. The authors interviewed survivors, met with perpetrators, and visited many memorial sites. Most of these sites were churches where Tutsi had fled, hoping to find protection and refuge. During the genocide in 1994, however, there were no sacred places. Four years after the genocide, Lamko and his fellow writers visited the church of Nyamata, where, on April 14, 1994, killers had murdered three thousand Tutsi. When Lamko visited, the bodies of the dead were still on display, thanks to a controversial decision by the Rwandan government that victims’ remains would bear silent witness to the crimes committed against them. Lamko’s novel, The Butterfly of the Hills, attempts to give voice to one of the victims, Thérèse Mukandori, who was brutally raped and murdered. In the following excerpt, Thérèse, who has been reborn as a butterfly, observes a group touring the grisly scene, then recounts the events of that day.
Up and away I fly. Down below, lines of women are hunched over, laying bricks. They’re putting in the gutter on the road that’s being paved . . . to drain off the rains. They are builders, these women are; they know how to climb deftly up the shaky eucalyptus branch scaffolding. They’re lugging baskets filled with baked clay bricks, and ideas . . . basketfuls of ideas. But their thoughts never intrude between the trowels and their hands. It has always been that way; and it continued to be that way when dizzying chaos overwhelmed the minds of men. I am now a butterfly, an enormous scorched-earth–colored butterfly, begot by neither man nor woman, but by anger. I emerged from the void of a ghost and from the desiccated body of an anonymous woman lying among the cadavers piled inside one of the church/genocide-museums. Before the chaos came, the whole world knew me; I was the object of adulation. I inhabited the body of a real queen: “The Queen of the Middleworld.”
A salvo of flashes illuminated my body, dissipating the penumbra in which it lay. The musungu with the opulent jowls was posing, framed within the viewfinder of Pelouse’s camera. She sidled over for another set of shots and stumbled into the guide, Védaste. The reaction was immediate: disrupted and thoroughly flustered, my faithful companion in misfortune began bumbling and entangling himself in a series of repetitive apologies, as he lost his way among the mannered circumlocutions of political correctness and social propriety.
“Quiet! Keep still,” he eventually said, far more for himself than for the two visitors who couldn’t figure out why he was asking “Quiet” to keep still. “Here upon this large table lies a mummified body powdered with talc. Observe the vagina! The shaft of wood that you see planted there, where the pulsing begins, in the myth of the cave, at the entrance to the lair where mankind is fashioned, where all originates, in that matrix, that source of life… that piece of wood is a stake. This was no ordinary woman. She was a…”
I lifted the guide off the ground and threw him off to the side. His face smashed against a large wooden crate of bones. He began frothing at the mouth. I left him there in an epileptic seizure that had him shaking convulsively. […]
I had decided to take back the Word and to print it directly on the consciences of these two unusual visitors in its unabridged, unexpurgated, original form. I couldn’t take any more of these altered, doctored speeches, any more of these insipid solos that reeked of smuggled goods and requiems. As far back as Lyangombe’s reign, the old adage has decreed: each of us is lone witness to his life’s tale, the sole true reflection of his face, for he alone has known the weariness that drew the rings beneath his eyes. The story of my life is mine and mine alone. It is the story of a queen and, above all, the story of a vagina: a vagina with a tree thrust up into it.
Gikongoro, April 1994, noon. Five years ago to the day from this wild plum season morning. My nerves were completely frayed after having made my way over and around the barriers and barricades crawling with hordes of vociferating interahamwe. I couldn’t even believe that my driver and I had somehow been able to get through. A miracle, surely, a safety net woven by the thousand invisible hands of a hundred bazimu. Father Théoneste greeted me at the door and led me into the sacristy. My driver waited outside in the car. The huge hall was already teeming with refugees. I shouted: “Father, I have to see the bishop. He has to stop the killing!”
“Queen, you know well that we welcome all who seek shelter under Imana’s protective wing. What more can we do?”
“You can talk to them! You know how much influence you have over these people. There is not enough room in your churches to take in all the people in this land.”
“I’ll go see if the Bishop can receive you.”
Ten minutes later he was back.
“The Bishop is deep in prayer and won’t be able to grant you an audience for another half an hour.”
He handed me a goblet of wine. As I drank, I looked up over the rim, into his eyes. I could see them rolling, and sensed the pulsing within him. The holy man began flattering me with the kind of honeyed phrases all women have heard:
“Queen, even at sixty you are just as attractive as ever . . . you’ve lost nothing of your beauty.”
Wary, I parried his impudence by launching into a heated plea. I was just stalling for time. I could see how useless it was to talk about slaughter with a man more concerned with my beauty than with the madness of the killers.
“Father, priest of the Holy Family, I don’t know what your intentions are, but I haven’t come here to pass the time. Up in the hills men are being massacred!”
The priest lifted his fat head and lowered it back down, like a lizard at dawn or in the weak sunlight of the rainy season. Quickly, he moved closer, groping at me.
“My child, I am not one given to violence, but equilibrium can be achieved only by movement back and forth . . .”
I pushed his hand away and started for the door. “You’re mad! Tell me, Father, would you sleep with your mother?”
His only reply was a punch to my head. I stumbled and fell to the ground. A second blow knocked me unconscious. When I came to, I was tied down, splayed like a cross, with my hands and feet bound to huge rocks. The air had been sucked out of the little sacristy. The chalices were swirling round, banging into each other upon the shelves in the armoire . . . From the large hall of the church arose a great, crescendoing hubbub, a strange offering of hymns, glorias, kyries, and sanctuses that were the fiery embers burning in the throats of the faithful, as women cut to pieces shrieked, babies crushed against walls screamed, and men with slashed throats and severed limbs moaned in agony. It had a highly cadenced rhythm, pounded out by the blows of clubs, the grunts of the knife wielders, and the sniggering of killers gone berserk. The blood refused to coagulate, refused to seep into the coldness of the great hall’s dirt floor. It streamed out and ran down the stairs to the sacristy, flooding over the statue of Jesus who began pissing red as it flowed along. His thorny crown seemed to plop onto a giant wafer as the blood dripped down off his forehead, off his eyes, his nose, his ears, his hands, his feet and his ribs, and then trickled down the walls and spread out in a scarlet puddle on the floor.
“This is rape, Father. You are raping me! I am being raped by God in a cream-colored frock. I used to think God was white-skinned and a eunuch, or at worst a hermaphrodite. It turns out he’s got a black penis and the lust of a bull! You are the Devil himself!”
“Quiet, my child. Let not vulgar words pass your lips!”
“You are the one debasing me. AIDS, Ebola, the plague, may the buboes break out in their blackness and put an end to me if I am not daughter of woman. You are putting in my mouth words that have been carved out in hatred, something tragic and monstrous that has sullied the purity of God, whom I used to love . . . Something that in its penetration and contact has cast a dark shadow over the brilliance of my memory. I am being raped by God!”
“Enough of this blasphemy! God is goodness itself, not a rapist! I am offering blessings, his seed, his love.”
With a porcine grunt the holy man ejaculated again, then sprawled on top of me. A few spasms and groans later, he swung his leg over my body, pulled up a chair, and sat down facing me, a triumphant smile radiating across his face.
“I finally had you.” […]
O God, how wrong I was to think that you would always save us if ever we were to be stabbed in the back. But this time, there’s no “I confess” flowing from my lips. Oh no, I don’t want your pity. All I am asking is that you command this abbot to kill me as quickly as he can, because if I get out of here alive, your lives won’t be worth much, neither his nor yours. I’ll deploy the troops of truth in total war against you and your frocked commanders. Every bell in the world will ring out your enormous acts of treachery. And I am the one who will kill you. [. . . ]
The Earth will hear me and will avenge my fate. Your temples and churches and altars will all come crumbling down. It will take no more than a slight breeze to lift up the enormous red bricks and soothe the consciences of the scapegoats you foster. A blast of air carrying the cruel truth we harbor in our flesh will be loosed in a mournful gust when the winds of revolt pick up and the storm gathers on the black horizon of our vanquished lives. Your statue will come tumbling down off its pedestal and shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Not even dust will remain beneath the rubble incinerated by the fiery wrath of the damned we are. So may it be!
I kept staring at him. He didn’t know that flesh loses feeling in the face of intense pain. I smiled at him like a baby with its mouth wide open, in total serenity, save a scornful smirk. And off I went, out of my shell, beyond the border that divides being and nothingness, out into the land of the unlimited, where we immediately become part of realities that cannot be seen. He was enraged. He ran and got the massive cross of solid ebony that they bring out only for high mass at Easter, and that choirboys have always hated having to carry because it is so heavy. He rushed back at me, frenziedly spread my limp legs wide, rammed the crucifix up into me, and shoved it up further still with a twisting movement powerful enough to crank up the most broken down of old-fashioned cars.
The holy man kept on grunting, kept on working over my carcass. I didn’t have a chance to tell him that his violent efforts were by now absolutely pointless, since the pain had driven me from my body several minutes before. I could hear everything, and see everything, not just in the sacristy where I lay but in the great hall where dying bodies were writhing in pain. I became keenly aware that nothing would ever escape me again. Invisibility, ubiquity, and multilocation are the great portals that open onto all the realms of both worlds.
Alexandre Dauge-Roth assisted in the preparation of this text.
© Koulsy Lamko. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Arthur Greenspan. All rights reserved.