The Telegraph
Friday , March 11 , 2016

The written word has died here

A newspaper image depicting the President, his hand outstretched, with a reverential journalist. The picture has been reproduced from the book


Bad News begins with a grenade explosion in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. When Anjan Sundaram begins to investigate the source of the disturbance, a uniformed policeman insists that it had been a figment of his imagination. On reaching the spot, Sundaram does not notice anything suspicious: there are no signs of charred metal, neither is the air heavy with the odour of burning rubber. But then that is because in a Rwanda held in the vice-like grip of its dictatorial president, Paul Kagame, what one hears can often contradict what one sees. Sundaram's book exposes the tension between the real and the imagined in societies that have been systematically starved of freedom and information by a brutal regime.

Sundaram's descriptions of broken republics in Africa are made all the more effective because he occupies a vantage point. He had spent considerable time in Rwanda, teaching journalists in a programme that was funded by Britain and other European donors. In his earlier work, Stringer, he had written about the horrors perpetrated in Congo where he was a freelancer. Here, he remains as perceptive. Thus seemingly mundane rituals acquire a larger meaning in Sundaram's telling, but spare, descriptions of repression and subversion. For instance, Sundaram writes about Gibson, one of his gifted students, drinking beer furtively, but always with a straw. It is Gibson's way of paying homage to a tradition that had been banned by Kagame and his henchmen.

These minor triumphs have immense significance for scribes and citizens alike, given the scale of State repression in troubled Rwanda. "Every piece of the country was organized into administrative units benignly called "villages." Each village, or umudugudu, contained about one hundred families... Each village had its head, its security officer and its "journalist" or informer, all of whom had to approve of one's behaviour if one wanted something from the government." Private acts of resistance helped dissidents hold out against an adversary that had laid siege to spaces both outside and within.

The source of the President's power lies not only in such spatial reorganization that abets institutional surveillance. The roots of Kagame's dominance also lay in his intimidation of opponents with terror, and, when necessary, with enticement. Publications nailing Kagame's lies on Rwanda's progress, such as the Umuseso, were forced to shut down. Cato, one of Sundaram's students, joins the Intore, a coterie of presidential yes-men, in an attempt to protect himself. The price of protection was an uneasy compromise with one's conscience. The resultant guilt could immobilize sensitive citizens, saving the government the trouble of dipping its hands in blood.

Sundaram is especially interested in the mechanism that Kagame employs to colonize the collective intellect. He peels off the layers of this subjugation at a deliberately slow pace, revealing the wicked contours of the project. One of the passages describes Sundaram's trip to the countryside in the company of Moses, a senior and much-respected journalist, to witness the commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. The Tutsis, Kagame belongs to this ethnic community, had been the traditional elite in Rwanda. Kagame was exiled before Rwanda won independence from Belgium. He and his army advanced rapidly after his predecessor was killed in an air crash, igniting fears of the Tutsis renewing their subjugation of the Hutus. The reprisal against the Tutsis led to mass slaughter. The violence that had been perpetrated is commemorated ceremonially under presidential orders. (Satellite dishes broadcasted the proceedings.)

Sundaram's description of the memorial is a testimony to the economy and the precision of his prose: "We walked into a battery of wails. Several thousands of people huddled on a field, dressed in purple, the official color of the memorials, and hurling cries. Women rolled on the ground; others fell over the men beside them... At the top of the stairs was a white platform, on which stood a man screaming into a microphone: "Repent! Repent!" Music began alongside the wailing, repeating the words: "Jenoside , Jenoside." Sundaram bares the agenda of using the memorials as a mode of transmission of a discourse that the State wanted its citizens to remember in a bid to present its own version of the truth to the nation and the world. Genuflection to the President remained central to the fabrication. For the President shaped both the truth and the lie in Rwanda.

Some of the other haunting passages chronicle the consequences of this distortion. In the country's north, Sundaram discovers the regime's heroes - mothers who have betrayed their sons belonging to rebel groups to the regime. This systemic breakdown of trust, even one between intimate relations, is the key to Kagame's survival.

Conscience is not the only casualty in Kagame's Rwanda. Oppression has snuffed out the hope held out by the written word. In the beginning, Sundaram appears to be certain about the power of words. "The written word", he writes, " belongs to no one. It has no source, no root that can be annihilated." But towards the end of the book, the reader suspects that justice cannot be achieved by relying only on the resistance put up by the counter-narrative stitched together by heroic scribes opposed to the regime. This is because the President had succeeded in turning words hollow in a country by fragmenting the solidarity among his opponents.

Sundaram is critical of the international community that chose to remain blind to the atrocities committed in Rwanda. His criticism is justified, and reveals the hypocrisy of donor nations that are also self-professed sentinels of democracy.

The apathy has helped Kagame loom large, not just in Rwanda but also in the troubled minds of a handful of conscientious writers.

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