A moving novel exploring the Rwanda tragedy

Review of Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

Gil Courtemanche, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, ISBN: 1400041074, Canongate Books Ltd., 2003, Patricia Claxton (trans.).

Gil Courtemanche, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, Edition du Boreal, Montreal, 2000.

This novel, which was first published three years ago in France, has recently been translated into English. Its author, Canadian Gil Courtemanche, has worked as a journalist for 40 years, spending three years in Rwanda before the genocide that took place in 1994. He explains that the book was written as a memorial to his friends who died there, as well as the “unsung heroes” who survived.

In 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu Power government declared its policy was that all those in the Hutu majority had to kill all those in the Tutsi minority. Over the following 100 days, at least 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu oppositionists were slaughtered in the most barbaric way imaginable. Some say 1 million people died out of a population of 7.5 million. People were butchered at a faster rate than in the Nazi death camps, and the rivers were choked with bodies.

It is against this background that the narrative unfolds, a tender love story between the young shy beauty Gentille, a waitress at the Hotel de Mille-Collines in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, and middle-aged journalist and filmmaker Bernard Valcourt. As their love grows, so the tension mounts as the preparations for the genocide gather pace.

The title of the book refers to the wedding of Gentille and Valcourt at the swimming pool of the hotel on a Sunday afternoon crowded with a thousand well-wishers. Courtemanche contrasts this beautiful day of days with the dark storm that is brewing. Indeed, this is a book of contrasts.

The wedding scene contrasts sharply with the beginning of the novel. The first chapter opens with a vivid description of an array of unsavoury characters to be found around the same swimming pool, including cynical aid workers, members of the Habyarimana government, French paratroopers lusting after the prostitutes, and the United Nations commander from Canada. A small UN force was present in Rwanda to support the Arusha peace accord signed in 1993 between the Ugandan-based and mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which currently rules Rwanda, and the Hutu government. On the eve of the genocide, which the imperialist powers had known was going to happen, most of the UN troops were pulled out.

In the immediate environs of the Hotel de Mille-Collines, explains Courtemanche, is that “part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you”. And then comes the other world, the world of the majority, the poor Rwandans who are dying of malaria and AIDS.

There are three main strands to the novel. Firstly, there is the rich tapestry of characters Courtemanche lovingly and convincingly paints—real people with real names who were his friends. For example, there is the larger-than-life, female taxi driver Emerita. Courtemanche explains in the preface that because his book is a work of fiction, the actions of his characters do not correspond with what they actually did, but rather symbolise their essential nature. Emerita scornfully challenges the backward prejudices of the drunken militia loitering threateningly on street corners, who take their revenge. Then there is restaurant owner Victor, better off than most, who uses his money to bribe the militia and smuggle Tutsis through the roadblocks to the sanctuary of the Hotel de Mille-Collines.

The book is also a “chronicle and an eyewitness report,” says Courtemanche. The second strand of the book bears witness to the AIDS epidemic in Rwanda and how this impinges on everyday life. His central character, Valcourt, is making a film about AIDS, moved by the fact that a third of the adult population in Kigali is HIV-positive. He films the last days of his friend Methode, who is dying of a disease the government said did not exist.

Like the majority of people in Africa with AIDS, Methode is denied the life-saving drugs available in the Western countries. His brother Raphael cannot on his meagre income afford to buy them. A week’s course of the antibiotic Nizoral is equivalent to his wages for a week as a bank employee. Valcourt observes bitterly that Raphael’s nest egg, his motorbike, soon disappeared, because when Methode was in hospital, “to comply with the dictates of the International Monetary Fund,” food and nursing as well as the drugs had to be paid for by the patient and his family.

Later on in the narrative, Valcourt accompanies a young Canadian diplomat to the main hospital in Kigali to identify the body of a murdered priest, Francois Cardinal. While the diplomat tries to justify the dictates of the IMF, Valcourt tells him that “a structural adjustment hospital is a place where one pays for one’s death.”

The hospital is filthy, without drugs, and women who used to be nurses sit in the corner doing embroidery while patients suffer agonies without pain relief.

Valcourt has great respect for his friends who are HIV-positive. Though living in the shadow of death, he discovers in them an intransigence of spirit that compels them to live life to the full as best they can.

The third strand in the novel, and not least in importance, is Valcourt’s growing awareness of what is about to take place in Rwanda and his struggle to understand the reasons behind what has been called Africa’s holocaust.

The genocide was not some working out of ancient tribal rivalry but a more modern phenomenon, with its roots in Rwanda’s domination by imperialism. Courtemanche is well aware that before the Second World War, when Rwanda was a Belgian colony, the Belgians sowed the first divisions between the pastoral Tutsis and agricultural Hutus. He describes this graphically when dealing with the history of his character Gentille, whose Hutu forebears reinvented themselves as Tutsis to get on in life.

The Belgians cultivated a Tutsi elite through which they ruled. The idea of Tutsi superiority was justified on the basis of the Hamitic myth, derived from the biblical story of Ham, which was employed in this context to hold up Tutsis as a master race. After the war, in the face of rising Hutu nationalism, the Hutus then became the favoured elite. The imperialist policy of divide-and-rule stands behind the massacres and inter-ethnic violence that have characterised Rwanda’s history in modern times.

In conversation with his friend Father Louis, during which he learns that Colonel Theoneste confessed to the priest that he was preparing the final massacre of the Tutsis, Valcourt declares that “the members of the government, and half the international experts from the IMF and the World Bank” should be imprisoned for what is happening in Rwanda.

The intervention of the International Monetary Fund was indeed a prime factor in creating the conditions for the genocide. The dire economic situation in Rwanda was greatly aggravated by the IMF’s imposition of the most punitive austerity measures, which caused great impoverishment.

Like all the countries in Africa, independence, which took place in 1962 in Rwanda, brought not industrial development but the export of commodities in exchange for manufactured goods from the West. Coffee was Rwanda’s chief export, providing 80 percent of Rwanda’s foreign exchange earnings.

In 1987, world commodity prices plummeted including coffee, and the coffee stabilisation fund, which enabled the purchase of coffee from Rwandan farmers at a fixed rate, began to accumulate a sizeable debt. Between 1987 and 1991, export earnings declined by half and the government faced bankruptcy.

A visit by IMF representatives to Rwanda in 1988 further intensified this crisis. Under the structural readjustment program, trade liberalisation was introduced, as well as the lifting of subsidies to agriculture, privatisation and a 50 percent currency devaluation, which led to a big rise in fuel prices and essential consumer items. Public services such as health and education collapsed, and unemployment rose massively. Cases of severe malnutrition in children began to appear, and the lack of drugs lead to a 20 percent increase in malaria cases.

Armed with his information from Father Louis, including a list of names and places where the Hutu militia were hiding arms, Valcourt visits the UN major general who merely passes him onto a liaison officer, a known Hutu extremist. He then sends off articles to various publications, but only a minor one accepts—a small Catholic weekly in Belgium. Valcourt concludes it is useless appealing either to the UN or to governments. Though aware of French backing for the Rwandan government, his general attitude is that in relation to the genocide the UN and all the governments of the West were culpable, but that their crime was one of indifference. French and US imperialism were both much more directly implicated, however, in a power struggle for influence in this part of the world.

While the French armed the Hutu Power both before and during the genocide, as well as sending in French troops to escort them safely out of Rwanda as they retreated before the onslaught of the Tutsi RPF, the RPF were trained and armed by the US. There is now evidence that US imperialism was more deeply involved than had previously been thought, being the power behind the shooting down of the Rwandan president’s plane, which signalled the beginning of the genocide. The military victory of the RPF was a blow to French interests.

This book is both shocking in its depiction of the cruelty and barbarity of the genocide and at the same time beautifully evocative. An example of the latter:

“Night fell as always here, by surprise, an enfolding wave of darkness that melted over the red earth.”

At the end of the novel, we find Valcourt still in Rwanda working with a group that defends the rights of people accused of genocide. He has adopted a little Hutu girl. He is none too popular with the new RPF government.

Courtemanche has avoided falling into the trap of portraying the RPF as liberators.

He shows men at their bestial worst and at their most tender. School teacher Marie, who manages to survive the genocide alongside her seven children because she is hidden by a Hutu friend, kisses Valcourt on the forehead and it “felt to him like a warm, gentle breath or the touch of a passing swallow.”

If the book does not end on a sour or pessimistic note, it is because the author, through his character Valcourt, looks to history to make sense of the genocide. The book has attracted a great deal of interest, so much so that it has been translated into 14 languages and is being made into a film. Despite Courtemanche’s own political limitations, this topical and award-winning book is well worth reading.