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Jean Patrick dreams of running in the Olympics after a former Olympia visits his school. He practices by running barefoot up and down the hills of Rwanda with his brother, Roger, as they tend his uncle's cattle and finally manages to beat his older sibling. Things have not been easy for Jean Patrick's family since his teacher father was killed in a car accident and his family were forced to move from their home and live with their mother's brother who is a fisherman. Uncle built a metal roofed shack for them to sleep in and his mother cleans the houses of rich people to put food on the table.
Jean Patrick is a bright boy and sees a scholarship to America as his way to make his dreams come true. He wins a place first at high school and then university, despite the fact that Tutsi pupils are finding it harder and harder to gain entry of these institutions. He has always been aware that some of the Hutu majority dislike Tutsis but believes that the president will fix things. Soon he cannot ignore the growing tensions in his country as the hatred grows towards Tutsis fuelled by radio broadcasts where they are described as cockroaches and the cause of all of Rwanda's problems. He is somewhat shielded by what is going on around him by the fact that he is "Mr Olympics" and his coach demands even procures a Hutu identity card for him. Then the killing starts and Rwanda explodes into a mass of violence where Hutus seek to wipe out the Tutsi minority. What will become of Jean Patrick and those around him?
'Running the Rift' was the latest choice from my book club and I will admit I was not looking forward to it as I thought it was going to be a sports book. I expected a simple tale of a boy who beat the odds to reach his dream but this book is so much more than that. In telling the story of one boy and his family and friends it tells the human story of the genocide in Rwanda and is extremely moving.
The first section of the book concentrates on Jean Patrick's family life in rural Rwanda as part of a large and warm family and community. The book really gives a good feel of African daily life and I found myself falling in love with the country. It gives a good idea of the type of values that Jean Patrick grew up with from both is father who believed that the president would protect the Tutsis and his brother and uncle who had more radical views.
Moving on to university life and Jean Patrick comes into contact with a far wider range of people including the highly political family of his girlfriend Bea and a friendly American geology professor. Unrest simmers around them but they do not foresee the extent of the violence that is to come. I found that I learned a lot about the political and social situation at the time, including the unbelievable daily radio broadcasts where Tutsis were derided. The way Benaron writes gives you the same type of shock when things happen in the country as a resident of Rwanda would have experienced, a mix of daily atrocities and everyday life.
I found both the descriptions of the massacre and the aftermath vivid, gruesome and heartbreaking. I have honestly never been so moved by the contents of a book and I sobbed as Rwanda exploded into violence and Tutsi and Tutsi sympathisers were slaughtered with machetes by their fellow citizens as the international community did very little to help. When you hear of the vast numbers killed in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (up to a million people died in just 3 months) then the enormity of the situation makes it hard to take in the horror. Reading about the human story of one boy and his friends and family sheds a new light on the situation. It was a book that also made me furious. Why did I only have a very vague notion that something bad happed in Rwanda? We are rightly made aware of the horrors of the Holocaust in the media and survivors tell their stories. Why are the horrors that happened in Rwanda not taught in every school to let people know that we need to be vigilant against allowing groups to be marginalised and dehumanised lest similar happens again. Is it because the victims have brown skin?
There are only a couple of niggles about the book. I found that several African words or acronyms of political organisations were used in the text that I did not understand and so a glossary would have been nice. The print version has some notes giving some background to the events which were absent from the Kindle version, I ended up reading up about the genocide after I had finished the book which helped my understanding of some parts of the story.
'Running the Rift' by Naomi Benaron is a wonderful book, rich in description where the story of one boy is used to sensitively bring the story of a country into print. I highly recommend that people read this exceptional book.