In October 1990, during Immaculée’s third and last year at Lycée, war begins. Immaculée’s Civil Education teacher, Mr. Gagihi, arrives late to class and somberly announces that Tutsi rebels have crossed the border into Rwanda. Most of the rebels are the children of Rwandan refugees who fled to Uganda to escape persecution by Hutu extremists. Immaculée feels deeply embarrassed; she is one of only 3 Tutsis in the class, and cannot meet the eyes of the other Tutsi girls.
This passage shows the insidious and damaging nature of discrimination on the psyches of individuals. Immaculée knows there is nothing wrong with being Tutsi and that she is not personally responsible for the actions of the Tutsi rebels—however, in this moment, she nonetheless feels intense shame.
Mr. Gagihi explains that the rebels are associated with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), who Immaculée knows want to fight to make the country more equal. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis escaped from Rwanda between 1959-73, mostly to Uganda and Zaire. Mr. Gagihi doesn’t mention this, but does say that the fighting could make life hard for Tutsis. He asks the class to pray with him for a peaceful resolution. Immaculée’s shame gradually turns into anger. She resents the unjust treatment of Tutsis and prays to God to protect her family.
Throughout the book, Immaculée struggles between forgiveness and righteous anger. She knows the importance of mercy and humility, which she believes are gifts from God and manifestations of God’s love on Earth. At the same time, she is understandably angry about the injustices of prejudice and discrimination—not just on her own behalf, but on behalf of her family and all other Tutsis.
The students listen to the radio, which is broadcasting propaganda about Tutsis. The announcers claim that Tutsis are cannibals with devil horns and call them “cockroaches.” One of the girls in Immaculée’s dorm, Danida, believes all the propaganda and one night while Immaculée is going to the bathroom, Danida starts screaming that Immaculée is an RPF soldier. One of the school’s security guards holds a spear to Immaculée’s head, seconds from killing her. By this point all the girls are awake and screaming in terror, while Immaculée tries to explain what happened.
While the anti-Tutsi propaganda is clearly baseless and ridiculous, it still has a powerful effect. Indeed, Danida’s reaction to seeing Immaculée go to the bathroom shows how fear and propaganda cloud a person’s judgment. Danida’s terrified imagination overrides her reason, which—when combined with institutionalized discrimination—can have devastating consequences.
On another occasion, Immaculée is walking to a school picnic when a local Hutu man promises to kill her as vengeance for the actions of the Tutsi rebels. The next day, Clementine takes Immaculée to a room in a utility building and shows her a box containing 1,500 volts of electricity. Clementine explains that if the school is invaded by Hutu extremists, they should run to the box and electrocute themselves in order to escape being raped, tortured, and gruesomely murdered. Immaculée finds it surreal to make such an agreement at the age of 20, but nonetheless she agrees.
This passage illustrates the dark shadow cast over Immaculée’s life by the actions of Hutu extremists. At 20, she should be optimistic and carefree, full of excitement for her future. Instead, she has to plan for the possibility of committing suicide in order to save herself from a fate even worse than death by electrocution.
The students try to gain news from the radio, but they know much of it is false. They learn from the BBC that President Habyarimana has invented a false attack by Tutsis on the Presidential Palace in order to arrest thousands. The prisons are now overflowing with Tutsis, many of whom are being tortured, starved, and even killed.
Immaculée is a gifted, sharp young woman who has thus far dedicated her life to getting a good education. Yet many of the adults around her choose fear, lies, and propaganda over the truth, a contrast with Immaculée‘s own increasing intellectual maturity.
During the Christmas break, Madame Sirake, a neighborhood gossip, informs Immaculée that Leonard was among those arrested. Immaculée races home, where Rose doesn’t mention Leonard’s arrest until Immaculée says she already knows. Rose then explains that soon after the war broke out, Leonard was arrested at work. An old schoolfriend of Leonard’s, a Hutu man named Kabayi who is now a regional mayor, instructed the guards not to give Leonard food. Leonard didn’t eat until he managed to bribe a guard.
This passage drives home the point that Leonard and Rose’s ardent goodness makes them vulnerable to cruelty by others. It also suggests that they may be naïve in ignoring the depths of the prejudice around them. Rose keeps Leonard’s arrest a secret, hoping to shield Immaculée from the truth. However, the fact that Immaculée already knows suggests that it is no longer possible (or advisable) to shelter her from reality.
After two weeks, President Habyarimana was pressured into releasing thousands of Tutsi prisoners, including Leonard. At this point Kabayi apologized and pretended it was all a misunderstanding. Immaculée’s brothers insist that it is time to flee the country; Rose is worried that they are going to join the RPF, and she warns them that if they did so, it would destroy her. Back at school, Immaculée gets an excellent score on the university entrance exam, but is sure that she will be shut out of the university because of the discriminatory laws. She returns home convinced that her academic career is over.
Throughout this period in her life, Immaculée struggles to find a balance between normality and chaos. On one hand, she is just an ordinary young woman focused on school and the future. At the same time, this future is tainted not only by discrimination, but also by the imminent threats of war and even genocide. In this situation, it is difficult to know whether it is better to take extreme action, or try and keep going as if everything is normal.