Rwandan diplomat-poet writes about loss, exile, war (Interview)

New Delhi, March 23 (IANS) Loss, exile, fear, war, longing for home, memories and redemption colour the soul of diplomat and poet Williams Nkurunziza’s sonnets that are chronicles of the journey of his native Rwanda from its difficult days of ethnic strife to a modern nation in quest of prosperity in the last century.

Nkurunziza, the outgoing Rwandan high commissioner to India, has compiled the emotional roller-coaster of his life into an anthology of poetry, “Pangs of Life: Collections of Poems on Life, Loss, Identity, Fear, War and Exile”.
His book, published by the Jain University Press, was launched in the capital Friday by Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor.
Nkurunziza, a student of literature, said he finds poetry the perfect tool to communicate the powerful experiences in life. He began to write poetry 20 years ago to keep the “memory of those experiences alive”.
“Everyone is engaged in a perpetual private conversation with the self with regard to our own experiences. Some like to share experiences by word of mouth and others by letters. I found my channel in poetry,” Nkurunziza, who has been posted as the Rwandan ambassador to Britain, told IANS in an interview.
The poet captures the heart-wrenching catastrophe of Rwandan genocide, violence and grief – along with flashes of joy, victories and the lush nature of Africa that breathes hope for the future.
Colonised by Germany in the 19th century, followed by Belgium in the 20th century, the country was rocked by a massacre between 1959 and 1962. The country witnessed another genocide in 1994 that killed an estimated million.
“This book is a mirror of my life. We grew up stateless in exile. We experienced tremendous deprivations in terms of identity and material comforts. Times were very difficult. What we experienced was loss of loved ones,” Nkurunziza said.
“I was a Rwandan, but I was forced into exile at the age of two. I grew up in Uganda, Kenya and Namibia and then returned to Rwanda at the age of 15. I started my life in a refugee camp. I didn’t get out of the refugee camp until I was 15. Most of my poems are about war and exile,” he reflected.
A poem, “I Itch to Open Your Grave” captures the memory of the horror of genocide with sensitivity: “I perceive your absence/I feel your presence/Your life yonder/I can only ponder/I itch to open your grave/To feel your animated breath/On my face or on the cattle as they graze…”
“When I am talking about a grave – I am talking about opening a grave. It could be my memory. A grave of a loved one is one of profound transformation in our lives as we find new homes, new spaces and build new communities… In the poem, I talk about my mother who died in exile. I’d like to share with her,” the poet explained.
The sharing that takes place through poetry moves from the personal to the greater angst of a besieged community that struggles to recoup from the ravages of civil conflicts, the poet said.
“It is a personal journey. I write poetry as a social commentary, not always to be published,” Nkurunziza said.
The diplomat looks to India to bring the poetry of Africa out to the mainstream.
“Africa is full of poets because the continent’s rich oral tradition. The traditional literary culture in Africa did not develop in prose, but in poetry and songs. Even today, you will find villagers reeling out songs and poems about their everyday lives which is what we do not hear often outside,” the diplomat-poet said.
The media in India has to reach out across the Indian Ocean and “find what is going on in Africa, forge partnerships with the African media to create new transmissions”, Nkurunziza said.
“The literary and media exchanges between India and Africa are not very strong,” the envoy said.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected]