Immaculée is 10 years old and in her elementary school classroom when her teacher, Buhoro, tells all the Hutus to stand up. He then tells the Tutsis to stand up, and after, asks Immaculée why she didn’t stand for either. Immaculée admits that she doesn’t know to which tribe she belongs. Furious, Buhoro sends her out of the class and tells her to only come back when she knows. Immaculée hides behind some bushes, sobbing, and waits for Damascene to get out of class. She wants to ask her best friend, Janet, who identified herself as Hutu, to explain what happened.
This is the beginning of a “paradise lost” moment in which Immaculée’s childhood innocence starts to crumble. While she was raised without an understanding of the difference between Tutsis and Hutus, in the world beyond her immediate family this difference is treated as gravely important.
When Immaculée tells Damascene what happened, Damascene says that Buhoro is “not nice” but that she shouldn’t worry, and should just stand up when Janet does. He suggests that they are the same as “what our friends are.” Immaculée would later realize that Damascene also knew practically nothing about the ethnic divide.
Immaculée looks up to Damascene as a source of wisdom and authority. Yet when it comes to the tribal divide in Rwanda, both are blinded by their innocence and inability to comprehend prejudice.
Immaculée explains that there are three tribes in Rwanda: the majority of the population is Hutu, a minority is Tutsi, and an even smaller minority is Twa, a pygmy tribe who live in the forest. In the precolonial era, Rwanda was a peaceful monarchy run by a Tutsi king. When Belgian colonists arrived, they conferred advantages onto the Tutsi elite and mandated the use of identity cards in order to make it easier to immediately determine everyone’s tribe. In the 20th century, Tutsis demanded greater independence, and as a result the Belgians supported the Hutus in violently overthrowing the Tutsi monarchy in 1959. Over 100,000 Tutsis were killed. By the time of independence in 1962, there was a Hutu government and Tutsis had become “second-class citizens.”
Immaculée’s account of the ethnic divide shows how preexisting issues can be stoked and distorted by the presence of colonialism. The Belgian colonizers were able to warp the relationship between Tutsis and Hutus because of their control of wealth, opportunity, and authority. Whichever tribe was favored by the colonizers had an immediate advantage over the other, and this led to resentment. Of course, this resentment was somewhat misplaced, considering that it was the colonizers themselves who were committing the greatest injustice.
Immaculée’s parents made no distinction between people of different races, religions, or tribes. Yet they themselves had suffered at the hands of Hutu extremists. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Immaculée lived through the 1973 coup in which Tutsis were driven out of their homes and killed in the streets. Her family escaped to the home of a Hutu friend named Rutakamize, where they hid until the violence subsided. The family’s house had been torched and Immaculée’s parents had to rebuild it. Even so, they never said a bad word about Hutus and didn’t teach their children about the ethnic divide in order to make sure the children never felt embarrassed about being Tutsi.
This passage establishes an important precedent of forgiveness and love. When Immaculée’s parents are persecuted by Hutu extremists, they do not react with anger or vengeance—in fact, they do not even mention the injustice. Instead, they rise above prejudice and impart a worldview to their children in which ethnic divisions do not matter. This is important, as Immaculée will follow their example later in the book.
That night at dinner Immaculée tells Leonard about what happened at school. Leonard looks angry and says he will talk to Buhoro tomorrow; when Immaculée asks what tribe she is, Leonard refuses to say. After Leonard speaks to him, Buhoro is much kinder to Immaculée, gently telling her to stand when he calls out “Tutsi.” Immaculée doesn’t know what it means to be Tutsi, but she is happy to be one anyway—especially because there aren’t many in her class, and thus she feels special.
Buhoro’s change in attitude after speaking with Leonard demonstrates the respect and authority that Leonard has within the community. For now, the story of the rollcall has a happy ending, as Immaculée’s childish innocence makes her happy to be Tutsi. Unfortunately, this innocence will not be able to last much longer.
Twa are very short and thus easy to recognize, but the physical distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis are more subtle. Tutsis are supposedly taller and lighter-skinned, whereas Hutus are shorter, with wide noses. However, years of intermarriage means that these distinctions have somewhat faded away. Furthermore, both tribes speak the same language (Kinyarwanda), live in the same villages, work together, attend church together, and so on.
In many ways, the division between Hutus and Tutsis is meaningless. Considering that the tribes share language, culture, religion, and even family members, the distinction between them is blurred. Believing that there is an important difference between them thus arguably requires a certain level of prejudice.
Over the course of Immaculée’s childhood, the ethnic roll call in class remains the only reminder of tribalism in her life. However, this changes when she turns 15 and finishes eighth grade ranked second in her class, with an average grade of 94%. The boy ranked first is also Tutsi, and everyone else remains far behind. Immaculée’s grades are enough to ensure admission and a scholarship to one of the best public high schools in the area. Immaculée is thrilled, and dreams of becoming a pilot, professor, or psychologist.
After the incident involving the roll call, Immaculée’s life returns to its happy and successful state. Once again, it is made clear that educational achievement comes easy to her, and at 15 she has any number of possibilities lying at her fingertips—or so she believes.
Unbeknown to Immaculée, however, the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana has instituted the ethnic roll call in class in order to “balance” ethnic representation in schools and the workforce by discriminating against Tutsis. A few weeks before Immaculée is due to begin high school, a neighbor informs her family that her name wasn’t on the list of scholarship recipients. Both she and the other high-achieving Tutsi boy in her class have been denied scholarships, which have all gone to Hutu students. Leonard is horrified, but eventually he assures Immaculée that they will find a way to send her to school. Rose adds that they will pray, and that Immaculée should not lose hope.
Rather than reacting to the discrimination Immaculée faces with indignation, Leonard and Rose resort to prayer, kindness, and determination. The precedent this establishes is largely positive, as it teaches Immaculée that she should not sink to the level of prejudice and resentment just because other people do so. On the other hand, Leonard and Rose’s good-natured kindness has clearly left them vulnerable to being treated badly.
Nonetheless, Immaculée locks herself away and cries. A woman without a high school education has no option but to just become a “wife.” The next day, Immaculée learns that Leonard sold two cows in order to send her to private school. Immaculée is stunned; cows are “status symbols” in Rwanda and selling two at once could bankrupt a family. A few weeks later, Immaculée leaves Mataba to begin her “new life” at high school.
Immaculée’s family is unusual in their commitment to her education. As she has indicated, gender discrimination means that girls are less likely to be educated and they face tougher consequences when they are not educated. In the face of this unfairness, Immaculée’s parents make great sacrifices in order to secure her education.
The facilities in Immaculée’s new school are rather shoddy, but she is determined to excel anyway. She takes the hardest courses—math and physics—in order to prove herself to her brothers, who tease her about “women belonging in the kitchen.” After two years, Immaculée is one of the top students at school. She passes the entrance exam and is accepted to the Lycée de Notre Dame d’Afrique, one of the best schools in the country. Her family are overjoyed and celebrate with a party. The only sad part of the situation is that the school is far away and difficult to access from Mataba, so Immaculée will not be able to see her parents often. Also, the area in which it is situated is “openly hostile” to Tutsis.
The happy news of Immaculée’s academic success and acceptance to Lycée is blighted not only by her imminent distance from her family, but also by the reemergence of prejudice as a vague but ominous presence in Immaculée’s life. Indeed, this passage foreshadows the darker times that are to come—times that are a stark contrast to the optimism and success of Immaculée’s adolescence.
Immaculée adores Lycée. Unlike her previous school, the buildings are big and beautiful. There is a high security fence surrounding the campus, and Immaculée is pleased that the whole school prays together before and after meals. One of Immaculée’s friends there is a Hutu girl called Sarah from Kigali. Sarah invites Immaculée home with her, and Immaculée is dazzled by the big city experience. Another of Immaculée’s close friends is a beautiful Tutsi student named Clementine. They agree to look out for one another among the “unfriendly” Hutus who live beyond the school gates. The school takes measures to ensure the students’ safety; students are forbidden from leaving campus without an escort.
This passage shows that, to some extent, tension between Tutsis and Hutus—and in particular, Hutu aggression toward Tutsis—has been accepted as an unfortunate fact of life in Rwanda. Immaculée’s school might take precautions to protect its Tutsi students, but the issue does not seem to be a particularly major cause for concern. However, as the book will soon reveal, this turns out to be a grave error of judgment.
Immaculée receives a letter from Vianney that makes her miss him terribly. As promised, Damascene comes to visit her once a month and encourages her to pray as often as possible. After his first visit, Immaculée’s girlfriends were all curious to know who the “handsome boy” who’d come to visit was.
Immaculée’s close relationship with Damascene is very important. Although she loves all her family members deeply, she and Damascene have a special connection—he protects, guides, cheers, and encourages her.