An Extract from A Thousand Hills
In Belgium, I learned how I should behave in Belgium. I mean, how they would like me to behave. For example, if you don't know the way, you should act as if you're exceptionally helpless. They like that. Only then will they help you. I liked that play-acting. In Luxembourg, I found I'd run out of money. Apparently in Luxembourgish my name - Kagame - means ‘no money left’, keigei meh.
The Europeans thought that was so funny when I told them. I repeated it as often as they wanted to hear it. In 1953, in the Royal Belgian Colonial Institute, I was the only black member of the assembly. This made me proud and angry at the same time. I, the Ruandan historian, was allowed to address the gentlemen. I wasn't just anybody, I realised. I told them how our cultures were kindling each other. A spark that landed in a pile of dry grass. There were bound to be flames. Yes, these were recent, modern times and I, Rwandese, bore a Belgian stamp. We were Belgian Africa. This history, this now, had to be recorded too. Suddenly I had to live more carefully, I thought, and continue carefully to write our new history. From now on, there were thousands of witnesses, Belgian and Ruandan. There were no omniscient old men any more, I was just one of the spectators of the events.
The events. Les évènements.
We Ruandans believe the man who says he's seen it. I've seen a lot. In the 1950s, political parties started to emerge in Ruanda, Hutus against Tutsis. Aprosoma, Parmehutu, Rader, Unar. Our King was not happy about this. Since the Hutus, Gitera in particular, were so angry about the Karinga, the ancient drums were hidden.
By whom? I shan't say.
In July 1959, King Mutara went to see a film in Usumbura, Les Seigneurs de la Forêt. Mutara III had been drinking with friends, heavily according to some. Some said he was addicted to alcohol, but I'm not saying that.
Others claim his own mother said he was mad, that he was suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. Or something to do with syphilis. I don't think so.
Did I hear his confession before he departed?
I'm saying nothing. Of course not, I'm a priest.
In Usumbura, our King went to see Doctor Vinck, who gave him an injection of megacillin, after which he collapsed. Brain haemorrhage, dead on the pavement. Some say he poisoned himself to invoke the shadow of revenge. Most said the Belgians had murdered him.
But I'm saying nothing.
Just like our country, I was shocked, saddened. Our earth shook. I mourned. The King had always supported me, we talked to each other like colleagues, and our King had no heir.
We say: ‘The days pass, but they don't resemble each other.’
We say: ‘No-one knows which way the ram's horns will grow.’
We say: ‘The things of tomorrow are told by the people of tomorrow.’
Every country needs a leader, to know where evil lurks, solve problems, protect the weak. I pulled my curtains shut, considered and reflected on everything the King had said to me. I had to retrieve every royal word, and I did so. The King isn't just any dead person. The Hutus were in favour of democracy. That was fine by me, but I wanted a king to realise this democracy. History prescribed it, I was a historian and did what I had to do. I knew the ancient secret texts that dictated how the transfer of power should take place after the king's death. I knew the Ubwiru and therefore I felt responsible.
On 27 July 1959, I was in my room working on old war poems. All of a sudden I smelt burning wood, charcoal from the hills. I was informed of the death of the King. Then I heard the sound of bones breaking in the poems on my desk, they were crying out to me. ‘Shout away, old poems,’ I said, ‘set fire to each other’, and sure enough the poems, with their embellishments and frills, caught fire, as blue flames shot up and burned my fingers. I doused the flames.
I had to do something. In any case, the King had given me an order before. Perhaps I was also curious about my authority.
I doused the flames of the poems. I made telephone calls, paid visits, I had my contacts. That night, we decided on a successor. The abiru and I. I wrote a confidential letter to Monseigneur Perraudin. I reminded the Bishop that the ceremony of the Ubwiru, for which I possessed the secret texts, had to be followed, even though we were burying a Christian king. The childless Mutara had told me personally who was to be his successor. I was the umwiruw'ljambo.
It was his young half-brother Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, also a son of Musinga. The young man was only twenty-one years old. I said that the new King should bear the name Kigeli V, as custom - la coutume - prescribed, and be designated before the funeral of his predecessor.
Bishop Perraudin did not answer me.
My house was being watched by men working for the Belgian Colonel Logiest. In those days, he had already quite clearly chosen the side of the Hutus. The Belgians: first they used the Tutsis to govern the country, then they used the Hutus to block our independence.
At the funeral on 28 July, on Mwima Hill near Nyanza, many people were gathered with spears. There was shouting. A lot of whites discreetly carried revolvers. Deputy Governor Harroy read out condolences from the Belgian King Baudouin. Around the coffin people began jostling and pushing, clapping wildly, and Francis Rukeba, his inside pocket full of banknotes, stirred the people up.
He shouted out that they must know the name of the new King immediately.
Or was it Kayihura, from the family of the guardians of the Karinga, who shouted that out?
Kayumba was there too, the grandson of Gashamuza, though not a true umwiru himself, because he didn't know the whole code. In the commotion, Kayumba said the name I had told him.
Or was it Kayihura, after all, who said the name of the successor in a doubtful voice, because he was made to by Bideri? In any case, it was in either case the name I had said. The name the King had told me.
Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa gave a start. I was standing right beside him, whispered to him that he would do well. The Belgians knew nothing about it. They were stunned. They had no choice but to accept the new King. Harroy nodded uncomfortably, nodded and nodded again. He said he was ready for the official inauguration of the new King.
We say: ‘Drink the white man's milk while it's still fresh. If you wait until it curdles, it will be spilled.’
We say: ‘A mouth that is not used murders its owner.’
We say: ‘I wear my pagne inside out, not my heart.’
Under my breath, I said: ‘We must show the successor to the crowd now’, and Musinga's son was lifted onto the shoulders of four men. He was carried around in celebration. He was a half-brother of Mutara, Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, and he was given the royal name Kigeli V. Some people called it a coup, but it wasn't. The old, dead King was buried, long live the new King. He would make our country independent. Or not.
Translated by Rebekah Wilson
From A Thousand Hills (Duizend heuvels. Antwerpen: De Bezige Bij, 2012)