In the summer of 1991, Immaculée is stunned to learn that she has gained a scholarship to the National University in Butare. Her parents are so overjoyed that they immediately begin preparing a feast. Leonard plans a trip for Immaculée to the neighboring villages to let their extended family know that she will be the first woman in the family to attend university. He warns Immaculée that because she is a Tutsi woman, she will face prejudice, but Immaculée assures both her parents she will make them proud. She really wants to study psychology and philosophy, but has been assigned to the applied science program, which she is perfectly happy with.
As Leonard points out, Immaculée faces double discrimination as a Tutsi woman. The fact that she has achieved so much thus far in her life is credit to her talent, discipline, and the support of her family. However, it is possible that at a certain point these factors will not be enough to counter the prejudice and discrimination she encounters.
Arriving in Butare, Immaculée is thrilled to learn that six of her friends from Lycée, including Clementine, were also given scholarships. Immaculée’s friend Sarah has already been at the university for a year and she and Immaculée have agreed to be roommates. Immaculée’s scholarship gives her a monthly allowance equivalent to 30 US dollars, which seems like a “fortune” to her. She has a busy social life, hanging out with friends, attending campus dances, and performing in theatrical productions. To her delight, she gets to play the Virgin Mary.
To Immaculée, university is like paradise. Of course, she loves the educational aspect of her experience there—but she is also thrilled to experience financial independence and a rich social life. Although Immaculée is an extraordinarily bright and hard-working person, she is also like any other young person in her desires for friendship, fun, and independence.
Immaculée receives a letter from her parents that makes her realize they are struggling now that all their children have moved out. In Butare, she meets a student named John who is three years older than her and knows some of her friends from back home. John is kind and flirtatious, and the two have long conversations about religion, family, and education. Before long, they start dating. Leonard doesn’t mind that John is Hutu, but he is concerned about the fact that John is Protestant and warns Immaculée not to let him convert her. Immaculée continues to get good grades, and overall her first two years at university are so wonderful that at times she forgets about the war.
Immaculée’s ability to forget about the war does not mean she is naïve or self-centered. Rather, like everyone, she struggles to reconcile the daily reality of her life with the chaos and horror occurring on a larger scale. It is difficult for her to cognitively process the fact that, while everything in her personal life is going so well, Rwanda itself may be on the brink of implosion.
Yet the fighting continues in the north, and extremist parties are established all over the country. Unemployed young men join the youth leagues of these parties, many doing so because they offer free drugs and alcohol. The youth movement of President Habyarimana’s party is called Interahamwe, which means “those who attack together.” The movement soon becomes the “Hutu-extremist militia,” and they are recognizable by the red, yellow, and green colors they wear.
While Immaculée is paving the way for a successful and happy life through education, other young people are in a quite different position. Unemployment and lack of education lead many young men to join violent organizations simply because it gives them a sense of purpose, as well as perks like drugs and alcohol.
During Easter vacation in 1993, Immaculée sees the Interahamwe for the first time. She is with John, visiting Sarah and her family in Kigali. While she and John are on a bus they see the Interahamwe rob a middle-aged Tutsi woman and strip off her clothing, pushing her to the ground. Immaculée stands up to help, but John makes her sit back down, saying that she will get into serious trouble if she intervenes.
Another major theme in the novel is the dilemma of whether to intervene in injustice or stand back in order to save oneself. As this passage illustrates, choosing between these two choices often feels impossible.
A few months later, Immaculée and Damascene are traveling to Kigali from Mataba to attend a wedding. Suddenly, the bus stops because 300 Interahamwe are blocking the road, many of them clearly drunk or on drugs. The bus driver is terrified, and says that passengers can either choose to get out or be driven the long way around. Damascene wants to stay on the bus, but Immaculée insists they should get off and walk so they don’t miss the wedding. Immaculée is disturbed by Damascene’s look of terror, but nonetheless assures him if they pray God will protect them. Brother and sister pray on the side of the road, holding their rosaries. The Interahamwe demand to see their ID cards, but eventually let them pass.
Immaculée often displays more fierce courage than the men around her, despite the fact that—as a woman—she is actually more vulnerable. As this scene shows, Immaculée’s faith allows her to exhibit a level of strength and courage that she would not otherwise possess. Putting her life in God’s hands means that Immaculée can face almost certain death in a calm, confident manner. In turn, this calmness helps enable her survival.
Soon after, President Habyarimana signs a peace agreement with the Tutsi rebels. This at first seems positive, but the peace agreement ironically ends up provoking more violence. One of the most senior military officers in the country, Theoneste Bagosora, reacts to the peace treaty by promising that he will bring an “apocalypse” to Rwanda.
As the actions of Theoneste Bagosora reveal, it is a disturbing truth that when confronted with the possibility of peace and harmony, some people will still choose violence, chaos, and destruction.