Immaculée thinks of her birthplace as “paradise.” Rwanda’s natural landscape and climate are so beautiful that German colonizers called it “the land of eternal spring.” As a child, Immaculée is surrounded by love and doesn’t know that racism or prejudice exist. She doesn’t hear the words Tutsi or Hutu until starting school. Immaculée’s village, Mataba, is extremely safe, and she has a very happy childhood. Mataba is in Kibuye, a province in western Rwanda. Immaculée has fond memories of going swimming with her father, Leonard, near their house. When they get home, her mother, Rose, always has breakfast ready.
Immaculée’s description of her childhood in Mataba recalls the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Eden is a peaceful, bountiful, and uncorrupted landscape that is destroyed by Adam and Eve’s original sin. In a similar sense, the beautiful and calm land of Rwanda will be spoiled by the evil of the genocide.
Rose is a very energetic woman, who tends to the family fields alongside her full-time job as a primary school teacher. Leonard is a teacher too, and both parents emphasize the importance of education to their children. Like his wife, Leonard was the first person in his family to graduate high school, but through hard work he was eventually appointed chief administrator for all the Catholic schools in the district. Leonard and Rose met in 1963 while travelling to the wedding of a mutual friend and married soon after.
Immaculée’s parents serve as examples of the transformative power of love, faith, and education. Neither grew up with much privilege or opportunity, yet through hard work, kindness, and religious devotion, they build an exemplary life filled with happiness and service to others.
Immaculée’s family home is considered “luxurious” within her village, and the family has two cars, which is “practically unheard of in our part of Rwanda.” They also have a motorcycle. People in the village nickname Leonard “Muzungu,” which means both “rich person” and “white man.” Immaculée’s family are Catholic, and like the rest of her family Immaculée is deeply religious. She loves praying and going to church, and especially loves the Virgin Mary. At age ten, she visits a priest named Father Clement along with her friend Jeanette. The girls tell him they have decided to become nuns. Father Clement blesses them and tells them to come back when they are 18.
Religious faith has always come easily to Immaculée. Her desire to be a nun shows that, even as a child, she had a deep connection with God and a desire to place religion at the center of her life. At the same time, it is clear that at this point, nothing has seriously challenged Immaculée’s faith. Growing up in a family that was both devoutly religious and blessed with prosperity meant that her relationship with religion was natural and easy.
Immaculée explains that her parents are “Christians in the broadest sense”: they treat everyone kindly and spend their free time doing volunteer work. Leonard established a coffee cooperative that serves as a scholarship fund for poor children, and he eventually raises enough money to build a community center, a soccer pitch, and new roof for the school. Rose, meanwhile, often invites families in need to live in her own home. She also tutors students for free and sews uniforms for local children. She once used her own money to buy fabric to make a wedding dress for the daughter of a woman too poor to buy one herself.
Both Leonard and Rose are exemplary Christians, parents, and neighbors. They clearly find joy in dedicating their time and effort to helping those in need. As a result, serving others is not something Immaculée is brought up to see as a chore, but rather a source of happiness. Again, this makes leading a good, Christian life come easily to her.
Rose and Leonard treat the village like an “extended family” and people travel significant distances to seek Leonard’s advice. People turn to Rose for advice, too, and because she has taught so many of the villagers, most of them still call her “Teacher.” Sometimes when Leonard comes home from drinking with friends, he wakes the children so they can sit and eat together. They then pray together before going back to sleep. Immaculée thinks of these evenings as “magical.”
Not only are Rose and Leonard schoolteachers, but they also serve as “teachers” in a broader sense, since they are pillars in the community to whom others turn for advice. This passage thus illustrates the different ways in which teaching and learning take place. Sometimes they occur in a traditional classroom environment, but at other times education is a more spiritual, informal practice.
Immaculée has three brothers. The oldest, Aimable, was born in 1965 and is wise beyond his years. When Aimable goes to boarding school at age 12, Immaculée writes him a letter that just says “I love you” and “I miss you” over and over. Immaculée’s next brother, Damascene, is two years younger than Aimable. Damascene is charismatic, intelligent, and funny. Once, having taught himself to drive at the age of 12, Damascene drives Rose to the hospital when she has an asthma attack while Leonard is away. Damascene almost crashes the car, but ends up saving his mother’s life. Damascene is also an excellent student, and he becomes the youngest person in the region to earn a master’s degree.
All of Immaculée’s family members are extraordinary in one way or another, and it is clear that this is not just Immaculée’s (perhaps biased) opinion. Each family member excels in both a personal and academic context, which once again reiterates how, in Immaculée’s family, moral goodness and educational discipline are seen to go hand-in-hand.
The youngest member of the family is Vianney, whom Immaculée calls “lovable but pesky.” Even when Vianney grew up to be a tall and handsome young man, Immaculée always thought of him as a baby. As the only girl, Immaculée faced pressure to have a “spotless reputation.” Her parents were strict with her, and in society more broadly she was expected to be “seen and not heard.” It is therefore ironic that she was the only member of her family left to tell their story.
This is the first moment at which readers see Immaculée encountering prejudice. As a girl, she faces challenging and unfair expectations, forced to preserve her family name through her own reputation. At the same time, Immaculée hints at how these gendered expectations will be disrupted by the extraordinary horror of the genocide.