Just finished reading Murambi, the Book of Bones by Senegalese journalist and novelist Boubacar Boris Diop. The novel seeped into my bones so much so I dreamt last night I was sleeping on top the bones of my own family members. The novel bears witness to the Rwanda genocide, distills the history and gives voice to the voiceless. One cannot help but be affected deeply by this novel as it brings us closer to our own humanity where ‘scapegoating and the murderous objectifying of ‘the other’ could happen here or anywhere,’ writes Eileen Julien in her Forward to the book. The hope, Julien expresses is that Diop’s novel will ‘lead us to reflect on the practice of evil and help us claim our own humanity amidst the routine banality of violence, the numbed indifference or silent acquiescence of which we are all apart. ‘
These are my reflections:
The novel is one that I imagine many of us would rather not dive into. I put it down once or twice wondering if now is a good time to immerse myself in such painful stories and then I think when is a good time. And why not now? And why not dive into the pain of humanity, as aren’t we all part of these hard stories. Aren’t we all part of extreme forms of violence whether physically, economically, politically, emotionally, psychologically or by our stark silence.
I reflect on the notion of dehumanization, the notion how humans, we humans can reach levels of torturing, killing, maiming. I think of myself as a kid tying up worms, watching others tear the wings off moths, stone frogs to death. Once watching Theo boil a pot of water to scald the rats running up and down behind our stove. I think of me the other day with a can of chemicals spraying the cockroach scurrying across dish rack and onto the floor. I think of the two turtles Maya witnessed at the fish market on their backs, bullet holes in their necks, their bellies still rising, their eyes slow blinking and a man stepping up on their exposed bellies proud they were still alive. Or the iguana with its arms tied behind its back as it was being thrown around like a beach ball before it went into the pot.
In Diop’s novel we see how loathing and disgust of ‘the other’ is passed down to a son, a high-ranking General in charge of the massacre. We learn the General’s childhood is one where ‘the other’ are cockroaches and the extermination of the roaches a necessity in order to cleanse their beloved home, their country. The General son told from a young age that even the children of cockroaches cannot be spared as they too will grow up to be murderous adult roaches. We learn the historical colonial teachings of hate and fear; divide and rule passed down from generation to generation. We learn how a boy turned man turned General is provoked by his dying father who chastises him for not being smart enough, skillful enough to carrying through the mass execution of ‘the other.’
And I reflect.
From an early age we learn. We learn ‘the other.’ We learn ‘the other’ as less than. We learn this consciously and unconsciously. Passed down generation after generation. We learn women are less, Jewish people are less, indigenous people less, Palestinian people less, African people less, Black people less, gay and trans people less, Muslim people less… How else do we explain slavery, the holocaust, global ethnic cleansing, violence against women world-wide? How else do we explain the atrocities against Palestinian people, the torture and mob killings of gay and trans folks; senseless torturing and killing of the non-human world.
Hate, violence, fear we learn.
I believe we humans are capable of doing magnificent glorious acts of kindness but we are also capable of moving to horrendous acts of violence. A fine line. And often that fine line involves the complexity of our stories, individually and collectively; the complexity of our stories seeped within a racial, cultural, class, gender (and other identity-based) historical contexts.
At the end of the novel the wise words of the elder Simeone Habineza stays with me: “You have suffered, but that doesn’t make you any better than those who made you suffer. They are people like you and me. Evil is within each of us…. You are not better than them.” I hear these words and reflect on our world, I reflect on the world as our infinite classroom and wonder how to continuously work to break the teachings of violence all around us. And I think of the words Theo shared in an ancestral healing circle the other night when asked about hope and he said hope lies in our educational systems and he felt change would come if our educational institutes changed, changed to incorporate the teachings of peace, non-violence, love, compassion, justice (as understanding), empathy….
I reflect often as a peace educator/violence intervention worker and wonder how we, as a world community continue to stick to our old traditional notions of teaching, hierarchal and academia based. How we value more what people know rather then who people are. How we still have not fought as a world community to formalize within our educational settings (formal and informal) the teaching of healthy relationships, of mindfulness, critical self-awareness and reflection, compassionate communication, conflict transformation. I often wonder how else are we going to be able to see ourselves and others critically and lovingly; how else are we going to unlearn generations and generations of hate, fear, violence, and silence; how else are we going to respect the non-human world and rather torturing Mother Earth respect, value and feel her; how else are we going to lay foundation for a more sustainable peaceful and just world; how else will our economics, politics, class, racial, religious, cultural systems become places of peace and not places of competition and justification.
Thank you Boubacar Boris Diop for writing and sharing Murambi, the Book of Bones, a quiet and stunning novel calling its readers inward, giving voice to the people of Rwanda and the complexities of this story. Thanks also for raising my consciousness around violence within ourselves, within the world and how (I believe) none of us exempt from that violence. Thank you for igniting this reflection as I continue to speak and act loud around the need for so much more to be done within our educational systems from our primary and secondary schools to our universities and colleges. May we find strength and courage to continue fighting the violence that lives within all of us and within the systems and structures we live.