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Graphic Literature

from Abadaringi

The Belgian graphic novelist Jeroen Janssen first traveled to Rwanda in 1990. Both he and his then-wife taught at an art school in Nyundo for four years until they were forced to flee. In 2007 he returned and revisited the school and the surrounding area. Abadaringi collects his impressions from that and subsequent visits.
WALKING
There is actually a third reason I want to return to Nyundo. Again and again.
The color green.

Less than a ten-minute walk from the school and you're immersed in it. I mean even more immersed in the color green than in the beautiful school gardens where recently another couple of jacarandas and a beautiful umuvumu were sacrificed for a pointless parking lot.
Across the lava, along the Cyanzarwe crater to Kinyanzovu near the Congolese border. Or upward to the cathedral and then down again to the Pfunda tea plantation stretched out across the valley like a fosforescent green blanket.
Over the Rumbati hill all the way to Nyabirasi. The endless climb to the Gishwati forest where there isn't a tree in sight. They've discovered that the climate is good for milk production. Now people might think themselves in the middle of an Alpine meadow.
Not a car to be heard, there. The odd passerby. Mwaramutse? Mwaramutseho. Amakuru? Ni meza.*
Apart from that just birds. Unperturbable warbling, lively chit-chat and strange cries. Sometimes I wonder whether they sang so unflappably, so cheerily during the genocide too.

* Good morning? Good morning. Any news? All fine.
'Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust.' I'd learned that from Schubert. I really get my fill of hiking here in Nyundo.

And if my shoe breaks I look for a sign saying: "HANO DUKORA INKWETO" somewhere.
Barnabé's small shop is a cubbyhole on stilts, high above a dangerous ravine. At the top, next to the road, is the front door: tightly shut. I knock, the shoemaker hesitantly welcomes me in.
When thirty children cram through the door to study this muzungu from closer by I'm scared to death the floor will collapse and we'll all tumble into the ravine.
I walk down to Cyeya in my better-than-new sandals.
Cyeya, remember that name.
Don't Google it, you'll get 200 pages of weather forecasts and satellite images. As if someone had a lot of money to waste obscuring certain facts from the past.
Cyeya... So much gossip. People always have an explanation for everything.

"The army had to eliminate enemy infiltrators."
"Women and children?"
"Those are things you mustn't ask questions about. Some people get sad."

Consolée quickly changes the subject to her footballing niece, but from the neighbour's mouth I think I hear the word "retaliation."
La Foudre
Kigali is blooming and flourishing. But the small market at Mahoko near Nyundo, 150 kilometres from the capital, is a busy center of activity today too.
Lots of shops and villas with shiny zinc roofs have risen up from the clay and lava. Even in Nyundo the old mud shops have been replaced by a stately commercial building where fortunately the same batteries, soap and amandazi (donuts) are for sale. And phone cards now, of course, from MTN and TiGO.
The landlord friend:
The government wants anyone owning a plot of land next to the main road to build a 'suitable' house on it. Anyone who can't afford to replace their mud hut with a shop or villa with a pitched, corrugated roof can scram, with compensation. At least... if they own the land. We almost had to demolish our own house with the Sebeya River chewing off a chunk of our back garden each year. But in the end we got away with just adding a new roof.
The school buildings that were once the pride of Nyundo are being eaten away, little by little, by the excess water of the narrow Sebeya and the dampness after the daily downpours. It has always rained a lot in Nyundo, people say, but what we're experiencing now is different.

Global warming, the disappearance of the rain forests in the mountains and the building boom in the river basin. Anyone can lay a finger on the problems, but nobody thinks of a solution.

A friend: If there's ever another war, it won't be about ethnic problems. It will be about land. Which it was in 1994 already, actually. In Rwanda, just like in Europe, the fears and insecurities of ordinary people are abused by both sides to conquer and divide.
Us against them.
And when it comes down to it, there are too many of them.
MPYISI
I visit Damascene, de beeldhouwer Van Nyundo. As usual, I take a bag of bistre with me, which he uses to color his figures. Even though I prefer them natural. But they are green with mold now: the house is very damp. Damascene patiently polishes his sculptures with a tooth brush, a shard of glass and some sandpaper. And then I discover a series of new figures: hyenas. Are they Mpyisis?*

Damascene: Mpyisi symbolizes the worst in mankind. Hyenas are scavengers. They will even eat lambs. They are evil through and through.

I summarize the contents of my graphic novel "De wraak van Bakamé" (Bakamé's revenge) in which the professional cheat Mpyisi is foiled in every possible way and is hoodwinked by a cunning hare called Bakamé. It makes Damascene laugh.

Me: Are you thinking about certain people when you made the hyena?

* Kinyarwanda for hyena and the name of a traditional Rwandan mythical figure.
Damascene: It's there in all history, man's evil. It's always lying in wait to repress good.
Me: Such as...?
Damascene: The events. The hyena in man came to the surface and began to eat the lambs. But luckily the lambs were able to defend themselves this time.
Me: Are you thinking about the current government?
Damascene: There are laws that must be respected. That's the way the hyena in some people is kept down.
Me: Are you thinking about the president?
Damascene: He is a lamb.
Me: Or more like the hare? Who isn't that strong but still beats the hyena?

Damascene: Hares are intelligent.
After the difficult situation in 1994, a lot of intelligence was necessary to beat the hyena. There wasn't anything left after the war. Libraries, schools, trade and the economy: everything has been rebuilt from scratch.

Me: Paul Kagame is a kind of Bakamé, isn't he?
Damascene: Yes, the cunning hare.
I also made some hare heads.
I buy three of them. And a hyena.

 

From Abadaringi. Published 2016 by Oogachtend. © 2016 by Jeroen Janssen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Michele Hutchison. All rights reserved.

English

 

From Abadaringi. Published 2016 by Oogachtend. © 2016 by Jeroen Janssen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Michele Hutchison. All rights reserved.

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