Please note that this will act as spoilers for the book.
About the book
How can a writer communicate the horror of the Genocide in Rwanda? An even more pertinent question is how can a writer communicate such an atrocity to a teenage audience, who were not yet born in 1994? German author Hanna Jansen successfully achieves this in her book Over a thousand hills I will walk with you, a retelling of the experiences of her adopted daughter Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi. She recognises that teenagers can, and perhaps must, be confronted by the stark truths of genocide.
In a personal journey Jansen entwines her observations of Jeanne gradually settling into her new family in Germany with a third-person narrative covering Jeanne’s life in the period leading up to the genocide, the month of Hutu massacres of Tutsis and her eventually finding safety with the advancing Rwanda rebel forces.
This narrative structure allows Jansen to both explore her developing relationship with Jeanne but also to tell her daughter’s story based on hours of conversations. Jansen’s own upbringing in a post-war Germany ravaged by destruction, hardship and the realisation of its complicity in the Holocaust gives her particular empathy for Jeanne, enabling her to avoid the pitfalls that can be apparent when others speak for the victim. This is perhaps especially so when there are generational and cultural differences between the subject and the storyteller.
It is the honesty of both accounts which makes the book a valuable addition to our understanding of the events of that horrific Rwandan April in 1994. Through the details of Jeanne’s life in a small town in eastern Rwanda the reader, whether teenage or adult, is able to recognise the universal aspects of a child’s life: daily routines, sibling rivalries, school, hopes, fears and boredoms.
Tensions begin to become apparent whether in the overt separation of Hutu and Tutsi students at school or the popular song repeated on the radio with the chilling refrain ‘cockroaches must be exterminated’. With the assassination of the country’s President Habyarimana simmering jealousy is transformed into brutality: Hutus murder their Tutsi neighbours. The genocide has begun.
Part II proves that it is possible to write of such visceral horror and yet maintain the humanity and the power of the human will which is at the very centre of Jeanne’s experiences. Descriptions are both brutal and life affirming. The reader is treated with respect; sickening detail is necessary but the measured pace and lack of compromise characterising Jansen’s narrative makes this a truly honest attempt to do justice to Jeanne’s need to tell the whole of her story. Whether it will ‘put to rest’ her pain as Jansen hopes, only Jeanne can know, but it certainly gives the reader insight not only into one person’s experience of the genocide but also the hopes and joys of Jeanne’s new life in Germany.
The accessibility of the story is further aided by a useful chronology of Rwanda’s history, putting the events into Rwanda’s colonial and post-colonial context. This is supported by a glossary featuring French and Kinyarwanda words: a small feature of the text but one which helps to ensure a strong sense of place.
Jansen is successful in ‘building a bridge that will carry us over the unbearable’ with the reader and she hopes the experience of writing the story will do the same for Jeanne and herself. Over a thousand hills I walk with you is another strand of the growing literature attempting to inform and perhaps to make some sense of the terrible events of April – July 1994. Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi’s story is written by someone else: the next avenue to explore must be the words written by Rwandans themselves.
About the author
Hanna Jansen was born in 1946 in post-war Germany. After university she became a teacher, moving into teacher training in the 1980s and then school leadership. She and her husband have given a home to 12 children from war torn countries; since 2000 she has written a number of novels for children exploring themes of prejudice and racism. Over a thousand hills I walk with you was written in collaboration with her adopted daughter Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi (http://www.hannajansen.de/english/author.html accessed 21.05.16).
- Childhood in a middle-class Rwandan family
- The speed of the genocide
- The random nature of survival
- How society’s certainties can be turned upside down virtually overnight
- Fear and unexpected kindness in conflict
- Responses to survival
1. What is the effect of the book’s structure: specifically Hansen’s first person chapter openings followed by her third person narrative of Jeanne’s story?
2. Is Jeanne d’Arc Umubyeyi’s voice clearly heard in the novel?
3. How is the violence of the genocide communicated?
4. What are Hansen and Umubyeyi’s messages for the reader?
5. Should this book be on the school curriculum? What might be the issues for teachers if it is?
6. Is it necessary to know much about the Genocide in Rwanda before reading the book?
7. Which parts of Jeanne’s story did you find most interesting/ moving/ shocking?
8. What did you feel at the end of the narrative?
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